LIFE HACKS AND LAUGHS:
A conversation with Innovation Nation’s Alie Ward.
Engineering can be exhilarating, endlessly creative, and, if you’re Emmy Award winner Alie Ward, it’s pretty entertaining. As the science correspondent for CBS’s “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca,” host of the smart and hilarious “Ologies” podcast, and part of the team working on two new science shows for Netflix, she’s all about celebrating everything STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Read our conversation about what she’s learned and who she says is the funniest engineer she ever met.
If you like your engineering and science with a dose of humor, Alie Ward’s got you covered. She’s the Emmy Award-winning science correspondent for CBS’s “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca,” and host of the smart and hilarious “Ologies” podcast. But her STEM exploration doesn’t stop there. She’s on the Science Channel’s “How to Build Everything,” and, along with Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, she co-hosts GE’s “In the Wild” and finds time to be on Cooking Channel’s ongoing show “Unique Sweets.” She’ll also be part of two new science shows for Netflix, and when she’s not doing all that, Alie answers Q&As for NEF.
Q. You studied biology before earning a degree in cinema at UC Santa Barbara. Did you think then that you’d end up where you are today, telling fresh and fun stories about the engineers and scientists who make cool things happen and improve lives?
You know, I think if I would have known I’d have this cool of a job, I would have relaxed a little while I was in school. I always loved the arts but also loved science and I always thought — if I couldn’t pick just one of them — then I had to be really driven in both in case I needed one as a plan B. And I’m so fortunate that my work involves both science and entertainment; it turns out I didn’t have to chose just one. The other aspect of my job that I love is how inspiring the scientists and engineers are; hearing how an idea was born and the resourcefulness and hard work it took to make it a reality are just excellent fuel to keep me motivated in my own life, whether it’s in pursuing new projects or getting through a long travel and shoot day.
Q. One of the things we like about Innovation Nation is how much information and knowledge gets conveyed in a brief amount of time. Does that make it challenging to convey technical information, or is it a good forcing function to help you break down complexity and get to the core of what the audience needs to know?
It definitely is a challenge to convey the technical details in a short window of time but viewers can also do more research on the product or invention after the show. What is most painful to exclude, in my mind, are the amazing details about what might inspire the inventors themselves. We always keep those thoughts in the story if we can, but the full interviews we shoot about perseverance are so inspiring and I wish sometimes we had an hour per segment to include all the details.
Q. Tell us about the most interesting inventor you’ve profiled.
I was so blown away by Atlanta-based inventor, Lonnie Johnson. The man has so many patents for various inventions, was a NASA engineer who worked on the Galileo spacecraft that orbited Jupiter and also invented the SuperSoaker water toy, which ended up earning him millions of dollars. He uses that revenue to help fund other engineering projects, like batteries with improved efficiency, and to help fund robotics teams and mentorship. He’s just incredibly brilliant and inspiring and it was such an honor to interview him. I fanned out pretty hard and then also lost my mind with glee getting to run around this factory squirting water at targets.
Q. How about the inventor with the best sense of humor…
I have to give that distinction to then 73-year-old Merle Freeman, who came up with the idea for bracelet called Paxie, which helps alert parents about their children’s health and safety. She was so dedicated to keeping kids safe — but also had the most hilarious sense of humor off camera that might make a sailor blush. I adored our conversations when the cameras weren’t rolling, but uuuhhh… I could not relay any specifics in this publication. Trust me.
…so many innovators stress that failure is PART of success. You will have plenty of microfailures — and maybe some big ones along the way — and it’s all part of the creation and evolution of an idea.
Q. While those in the STEM fields take their work and research seriously, humor plays a big part in your storytelling – both on Innovation Nation and your own podcast Ologies. When did you first test using humor in science? Was it a natural fit or did you have to work at finding the right way to weave in puns and laughs?
I think it’s all about balance. I think some people might be intimidated by science because there’s a perception that it lacks a human element; that science is all data and numbers and impersonal. But actually scientists are curious and warm and hilarious and have great stories so it’s been a passion of mine to show that side of science as a way of breaking down that intimidation. Also, science is so genuinely funny. Natural science is all about weird mating behaviors and fear responses and any experiment starts with a question and has countless failures and mishaps before it’s successful. It boggles me why more people don’t approach it with humor but I’m not mad that there’s less competition; I’LL BE HONEST.
Q. You’ve interviewed engineering pioneers – from the inventor of 3-D printing to emerging engineering entrepreneurs like the creator of a Welsh inland surf park. A lot has been written about the advice successful innovators have for people aspiring to do the same, but we’d like to know: in the course of interviewing so many engineers and scientists, did they share pitfalls they wish they’d avoided along the way, or caution signs they missed as they pursued their dreams?
Please know that I milk these geniuses for life advice ALL THE TIME. It’s like: if anyone knows how to life-hack, it’s folks on the verge of a Nobel Prize. One great piece of advice I’ve heard is not to hoard your ideas because they’re not perfect yet. Rather, get them out into the world and ask for some help and input in making them better. There’s so much worry about imperfection that a lot of people would rather sit on an idea than never try and fail — but so many innovators stress that failure is PART of success. You will have plenty of microfailures — and maybe some big ones along the way — and it’s all part of the creation and evolution of an idea. I definitely took that to heart when I was wanting to make Ologies but was worried it wasn’t good enough to release yet. Every time an innovator would suggest just jumping in and making an invention happen, my producer Stephanie would give me a knowing smirk and a side-eye … until I finally launched the podcast. Turned out — those innovators were right. Just do the thing and figure it out as you go.
All in all, it’s been great to not only deliver science info that has relevance but at the end of the day — and literally at the end of each show — imparts the advice, “Dream big, and don’t quit,” which is a great motto for anyone.
Q. What innovation haven’t you covered that you’d like to one day?
Recently, Innovation Nation was shooting a story on a jet-powered hoverboard invented by Franky Zapata and it was one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. I’m still reeling from wonder and I can’t wait for it to air. And one story I keep wanting to cover is an app for speed-reading, upping the words per minute to something like 500. As someone who loves reading but is on the go all the time, I just want to put more books into my brain faster.
Q. What feedback do you hear from viewers? Is there a difference in what you hear from STEM folks and non-STEM fans?
I hear a lot of great feedback about how inspiring it is to see rough, ugly prototypes of items that have become so familiar: I love showing viewers that an idea will evolve and get better as you make iterations and fix the things that don’t work. A lot of otherwise-non-STEM fans I think extrapolate those principals to other areas of their lives, which I love. And many STEM fans love hearing the history of inventions and seeing what’s on the forefront in terms of new technology. All in all, it’s been great to not only deliver science info that has relevance but at the end of the day — and literally at the end of each show — imparts the advice, “Dream big, and don’t quit,” which is a great motto for anyone.
EMMY AWARDS HONOR THE ENGINEERS WHO MAKE TV WORTH WATCHING
The magic of television takes a lot of engineering, and on Sunday, April 8 during the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) will honor winners at the 69th Annual Technical and Engineering Emmy Awards. “The Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards has always recognized the talented and innovative leaders and companies that have made the incredible world of television possible,” said Bob Mauro, president of NATAS.
Among the honorees is Lifetime Achievement Award winner Richard Friedel, executive vice president, Technology and Broadcast Strategy for Fox. We had the opportunity to talk to Friedel and Robert P. Seidel, CBS vice president of Engineering and Advanced Technology and chairman of the NATAS Technology & Engineering Committee, about why it’s important to recognize engineers and the role of technology in entertainment and what it’s like to win an Emmy.
On Sunday, April 8, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) will honor winners at the 69th Annual Technical and Engineering Emmy Awards. Among the honorees is Lifetime Achievement Award winner Richard Friedel, executive vice president, Technology and Broadcast Strategy for Fox. We talked to Friedel and Robert P. Seidel, CBS vice president of Engineering and Advanced Technology and chairman of the NATAS Technology & Engineering Committee, about why it’s important to recognize engineers and the role of technology in entertainment.
Q: For generations, television has been an intimate part of our lives – bringing families together to entertain and delivering important news and information to the public. The NATAS Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards are given to individuals or companies “that either represent so extensive an improvement on existing methods or are so innovative in nature that they materially have affected television.” When it comes to making TV more enjoyable and compelling for the audience, what has been the most impactful technological advancement?
Robert P. Seidel: During the early days of television, there were two ways to present entertainment and news information. Specifically, live or film. The advent of video tape allowed for programs to be recorded, edited and broadcast very quickly. Many older viewers will remember the phrase “film at 11” because the six o’clock news was unable to present footage of the actual news event. The need to provide live breaking news led to the development of electronic newsgathering and the incorporation of multiple technologies such as video tape and microwave transmissions. The next growth of this technology was satellite newsgathering, which enabled the events of the world to unfold in your living room. This technology created a “global village” of television viewers and, in many cases, brought about social changes, such as coverage of the civil rights movement, the student uprising in Tiananmen Square, China, or served as a milepost in our lives; where were you during the Kennedy assassination, the first lunar landing, or the terror attacks on 9/11? The addition of High Definition television with its crystal clear widescreen images, surround sound and improved color fidelity enhanced the viewing experience by providing a “like you are there” window to the world.
Q: Let’s go back a bit to the start of your careers. How did you get into television?
Richard Friedel: Since childhood, I’ve always been interested in electricity and electronics. I would mess around with my parents’ hi-fi system and other things around the house. I was fortunate that my high school offered an electronics program. I jumped at the chance to learn the fundamentals of electronics. The third year, there was no set curriculum; instead, we had to complete a project. The school had just received some defunct television equipment from the old Dumont TV Network. A friend and I were assigned to turn it into a simple TV station for homeroom announcements. That project is what got me started.
At Drexel University, there was no student television activity, but there was a radio station. When they learned I could actually repair equipment, I was immediately added to the engineering department. That was the beginning of my experience with broadcasting.
Drexel had a cooperative education program, so I returned home to Washington, D.C. to work. While there, I enrolled in broadcast and engineering courses at the University of Maryland and became involved with the school’s radio station too.
After I graduated, a friend asked me to help him run the university’s Radio-TV-Film Department’s technical facility. There I learned about professional television equipment and system design, which eventually led to a job with WRC/NBC.
RS: I started dabbling in television at my high school when I got involved with their local cable access program called “Knight Life.” At Lehigh University, I was the chief engineer of the two radio stations and built two black and white TV studios for their local cable channels. After graduating from Lehigh with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, I looked for a career in television broadcast engineering. I started as a design engineer with CBS in the mid-‘70s. Some of the projects I have worked on include designing studios for Walter Cronkite, mobile units for CBS Sports, a RApid Deployment Earth Terminal (RADET) (i.e. portable satellite uplink dish) that could be shipped to anywhere in the globe to cover a fast-breaking news event. In 1996, I headed up the team that made broadcasting history when WRAL-HD, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina became the first commercial high definition television station to sign on the air in the United States. On October 29, 1998 CBS launched their high definition network service with the coverage of John Glenn’s return to space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. The event was carried on eight early-adopter TV stations. In those days, we knew all our viewers on a first name basis. This was followed by the broadcast of four NFL games in HDTV. At that point in time, most prime time shows were photographed on 35mm film. In order to cover the cost of converting the film to HDTV, I had to go out and sell advertising to offset the cost. A graphic at the bottom third of the screen would inform the viewer “This program is in HDTV by Mitsubishi, or Samsung or Panasonic, or RCA.” If the viewer did not have an HDTV, then they knew they were missing something. For the 1999-2000 TV season, CBS converted most of their prime program schedule to the highest form of HDTV.
Why is it important to celebrate television’s achievements in engineering and technology? How does your training as an engineer factor into your role?
RF: Television is a technologically driven industry. Whether it’s how we create programming, produce it, transmit it or monetize it, it all requires technology. I was taught that engineering is the business of technology. So, my engineering training was what I needed to be effective and successful at applying technology to business solutions. A lot of experience and a little luck helped too.
RS: It is important to recognize the achievements of engineers and technologists for innovations like HDTV and digital television because you want to encourage continued thought on how to improve existing technologies. In February 2000, Neil Armstrong spoke to the National Press Club regarding the advancement of understanding of the critical importance of engineering. He said, “…Almost every part of our lives underwent profound changes during the past 100 years thanks to the efforts of engineers, changes impossible to imagine a century ago. People living in the early 1900s would be amazed at the advancements wrought by engineers.” He went on to say that “…as someone who has experienced firsthand one of engineering’s most incredible advancements – space exploration – I have no doubt that the next 100 years will be even more amazing.”
In February 1981, CBS demonstrated HDTV for the first time in the United States at the Winter Technical Conference at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. At that point in time, it was unthinkable that we would be asking to replace every television set in America, every television studio, every edit room and every transmitter for this new technology. Yet today, HDTV has become a global phenomenon that permits the viewers to experience the event as if they were there. Recognition of these achievements helps motivate engineers and technologists to keep asking themselves how they can create something new or make an existing product or technology better.
It is important to recognize the achievements of engineers and technologists for innovations like HDTV and digital television because you want to encourage continued thought on how to improve existing technologies.
– Robert Seidel
give us a glimpse into what it’s like for the Technology & Engineering Achievement Committee to select the Emmy honorees. What consistencies do you see in the award-winning innovations that set the industry standard for excellence?
RS: Every year, a committee of approximately 55–75 television industry engineering professionals and innovators volunteer their time for a three-meeting cycle to consider technology nominations. At our first two meetings, we review category nominations submitted to the committee for consideration. These nominations are broad categories of technology and are not product specific. For example, a video storage nomination could include film, videotape, digital video disc, and solid-state storage. At the end of the second meeting, the committee votes on the technology categories that will be investigated and assigned subcommittees who will conduct in depth research into the technology including patents, first public demonstration, and organizations and individuals who have materially affected television with this technology. At the third meeting, the subcommittees present their findings to the larger group and specific products or individuals that may be “Emmy worthy.” A vigorous discussion usually ensues prior to the full committee vote. At the end of these discussions, a vote is taken by secret ballot. If the technology receives affirmative votes from two-thirds of the committee, an Emmy is awarded to the organizations or individuals recommended by the subcommittee. These results are kept confidential until the winning organizations and individuals are notified by the Chairman and a press release is issued by the National Academy.
Technologies or living individuals are awarded Emmys because they represent so extensive an improvement on existing methods or are so innovative in nature that they have materially affected television.
Richard, what’s it like to find out you’re getting the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Technology?
RF: Surreal. I had no expectation for an Emmy. I guess that sentiment is true for most of the honorees who receive this award. I still can’t believe that my peers recommended me for this honor.
Where will you keep this Emmy?
RF: I haven’t given that any thought. I’d like to place it publicly outside my office so my team can be inspired by it. They are the reason I’m being honored. Without their efforts and energy this could never have happened.
Richard, you’re responsible for overseeing FOX Networks Engineering & Operations including the network’s long-term technology strategy and day-to-day operations for the Fox Network Center in Los Angeles and the Fox Houston Technical Operations Center, home of Fox Sports’ regional networks, and providing technical support for 14 regional production centers… how important is it to stay on the cutting edge of technology in television?
RF: Staying current with technology, not just television technology, is essential. The media and entertainment business is being heavily impacted by consumer adoption of broadband connected electronic devices and new distribution methods utilizing the Internet. To succeed in the future, broadcasters and media studios must adopt internet technologies and computer science techniques to successfully compete. For example, to better understand what consumers like or want, we are now using big data technologies, analytics and AI (artificial intelligence) to better understand our audiences. We are investigating block chain techniques for use in tracking information about content creation and for our advertising sales and rights. We are also currently developing applications that leverage machine learning and AI to help discover and monetize content that we own.
To succeed in the future, broadcasters and media studios must adopt internet technologies and computer science techniques to successfully compete.
– Richard Friedel
Richard, What’s the most exciting part of your job at Fox?
RF: This may sound like a cliché, but, it is trying to understand what the future of television and broadcasting is as our business is being disrupted by both societal and technological changes. What could be more exciting than to help figure out how our society will all be educated, informed and entertained in the future? And how Fox will be a major part of that.
Robert, What’s the most exciting part of your job at CBS?
RS: As a toolmaker for the entertainment industry, I get to design and evaluate new technologies that enhance the story telling process for the creative community. We work with all divisions including CBS News, Sports, and Entertainment, helping to design, build, test and rollout new technologies into the production and distribution process. An example of a recent project is our Over-the-Top (OTT) Internet service, CBS ALL ACCESS, which provides access to the live-linear local station’s over-the-air signal, as well as thousands of episodes of CBS programming, on mobile phones, tablets, PCs, other streaming devices.
What advice can you share for the next generation of network engineering executives?
RS: In addition to your engineering major, I would take a variety of economics and accounting courses. Join industry professional groups as a student member, such as Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) or IEEE. These will provide great networking opportunities.
RF: I think this advice applies to much of life. First, find a field that truly interests you. Second, be and stay curious about technology, the business and how society reacts to changes in both. Third, always strive to be the best. And, always help others along the way. These traits will help you throughout your career.
Finally, I would add that I have always believed that luck comes to those who are prepared. I’d suggest being active in at least one or two professional societies or trade associations that create standards and support industry endeavors. The fellow engineers you meet will help you stay on top of technology, develop networking skills and challenge you to work with them to invent the future of your business.
Q: Why is important to have an annual Engineers Week?
It’s important to bring visibility to engineers and the work they do. Engineering has been referred to as the “stealth profession.” The results of engineering are certainly visible and used daily. But engineers? They’re not recognized. If we are going to encourage future generations of STEM – emphasis on the E – professionals, they must have contact with engineers and the chance to try engineering, even in small, hands-on ways.
Q: What are you hoping young people will get from this year’s theme: Engineers: Inspiring Wonder?
I hope they will understand that engineers create today’s awe-inspiring wonders, from deep sea exploration to cloud-busting skyscrapers. I hope they are inspired to wonder what the next great innovations might be and how they can play a role in creating them.
Q: How can engineers, educators and parents help keep the inspiration going all year?
Continue to introduce students to role models. Be sure kids are getting the right messages to reinforce that engineering is creative, team-based, and helps people. Find ways for kids to explore engineering. There are simple hands-on activities at discovere.org along with tips on how to talk to kids at a variety of ages about what engineers do. Engineering activities help kids understand how they can use the science, math, and technology they study.
Q: Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is part of Engineers Week. Why is it so important to have a day dedicated specifically to showing girls the wonders of engineering?
We know that girls are under-represented in STEM education and in many STEM careers. Here at DiscoverE, we know that girls are interested in and more than capable of success in engineering. Look at the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day event at the University of Texas – Austin where they host 6,000 girls. We’ve met current college students whose first engineering experiences were through a Girl Day event.
Q: How can people take the first step to participate in Engineers Week?
There are lots of ways to take an initial step or to take a big leap. First, whether a skilled volunteer, educator or parent, visit discovere.org. Our mission is to support volunteers and everything we provide online is free and adaptable, whether you want to work with one youngster, a Scout troop, or in a more formal class setting. And join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using #Eweek2018.
For 67 years, Engineers Week has been a time to bring engineering to life for kids, educators and parents. This year, Engineers Week is February 18-24 and its theme, Engineers: Inspiring Wonder, speaks to the critical need to introduce the next generation to the amazing possibilities of engineering. Click to read our conversation with DiscoverE Executive Director Leslie Collins and find out how you can make a difference…
Engineers solve problems, improve our lives, positively impact national security and the prosperity of our nation… and sometimes they just make cool stuff. This year, we’ve talked to some inspirational engineers who are doing everything from making cars safer, to building bridges around the world and inspiring children with awesome toys. All of them are leading the way to a better world. Here are the highlights from some of those conversations…