MODERATOR: Baba Brinkman
PARTICIPANTS: Beth Shapiro, Heather Knight, Mark Moffett, Nate Ball
PROGRAM DATE: Saturday, June 4, 2011

Imagine hanging out with some of the world’s kookiest critters in the jungle’s tallest trees, building a robot that does stand-up comedy, inventing a device that propels you into the air like Batman, or traveling back in a DNA time machine to study ancient animals! We met the scientists who make it possible. They included ecologist and explorer Mark Moffett, aka “Dr. Bugs,” roboticist Heather Knight, mechanical engineer and daredevil Nathan Ball, and evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro. We found out what they do, how they do it, and how they got the coolest and weirdest jobs on the planet.


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Rap Artist, Writer

Canadian rap artist, writer, and former tree-planter, Baba Brinkman has personally planted more than one million trees in the Rocky Mountains. After graduating with an M.A. in comparative literature in 2003, he began his career as a rap troubadour. To date, Brinkman has released seven solo albums and written or co-written four hip-hop theatre shows—winning three awards and entertaining thousands of people during his six seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

His lyrical masterpiece, The Rap Guide to Evolution, won the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First Award in Edinburgh in 2009, and was nominated for a 2012 Drama Desk Award. The show has been performed off-Broadway and on tour in the USA, Australia, and the UK, in addition to several TEDx conferences and on The Rachel Maddow Show on U.S. national television. Brinkman is a recent winner of the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin Award” for his efforts to increase the public appreciation of evolutionary biology.


Evolutionary Paleogeneticist

Beth Shapiro is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in the genetics of ice age animals and plants. A pioneer in the young field called “ancient DNA,” Beth travels extensively in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Siberia and Canada collecting bones and other remains of long-dead creatures including mammoths, giant bears, and extinct camels and horses. Using DNA sequences extracted from these remains, she hopes to better understand how the distribution and abundance of species changed in response to major climate changes in the past, and why some species go extinct while others persist. The results could be used to help develop strategies for the conservation of species that are under threat from climate change today.

Professor of Biology at Penn State University and a research associate of the Denver Museum of Natural History, Shapiro has been widely honored for her research. She was recently named a Searle Scholar, Packard Fellow, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. In 2009, she received a MacArthur “genius” award.

Photo credit – Mathias Stiller


Heather Knight is an electrical engineer and social roboticist who runs Marilyn Monrobot in New York, where she and her cohort create “charismatic machine performances,” as well as founding the world’s first Robot Film Festival.

Knight is currently conducting her doctoral research at the intersection of robotics and entertainment at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Her previous work includes: robotics and instrumentation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, interactive installations with Syyn Labs (including an award-winning Rube Goldberg Machine music video with OK GO), electrical engineering at Aldebaran Robotics, and she is an alumnus from the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Her installations have been featured at the Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, TED, Pop!Tech, LACMA, SIGGRAPH and the Fortezza da Basso in Florence, Italy. She is also the Assistant Director of Robotics at Humanity+ and a fellow at the Hybrid Realities Institute and a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellow.

Ecologist, Explorer

Mark Moffett is recognized for his discovery of new species and behavior in remote parts of the world. His latest book, Adventures with the Ants, examines the parallels between human and ant societies based on his travels to the Amazon, Congo, Australia, Iran, Borneo, and elsewhere. He provides details on how ants live and dominate their ecosystems through strikingly human behaviors like hunting, fighting, building, recycling, enslaving, and even voting and creating marketplaces.

In addition to being one of a select few to receive a Ph.D. from conservationist Edward O. Wilson at Harvard, Moffett has received awards for tree-climbing research from the Explorers Club, for exploration from the Roy Chapman Andrews Society, for writing from Harvard, and for photography from Pictures of the Year International.

Photo credit – Brandon Harrison

Mechanical Engineer

Inventor, entrepreneur, athlete, musician, and TV host Nate Ball draws on his many different pursuits to inspire budding engineers on PBS, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel.

Ball’s fascination with engineering started early. His childhood projects included building kayaks, hovercrafts, potato guns, a Tesla coil, and even burning the family kitchen in a rocket fuel experiment gone awry. Eventually, his inventive spirit led him to MIT, where he earned two degrees in mechanical engineering and helped develop content for WGBH’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning show, Design Squad, which he hosted from 2007-2010.

At 24, Ball became the youngest winner of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. The award recognized his work on a revolutionary needle-free vaccine delivery device, and lauded his co-invention of a powered rope ascender—a real-life version of Batman’s grappling setup that his lifesaving equipment company, Atlas Devices, now supplies to rescue groups in the U.S. Military.

Photo credit – Jeff Lieberman