Sarah Newman knows how lucky she is to spend her workdays talking to experts in pandemics, nuclear security, and other topics. As the Research Manager at Participant Media she works to develop companion campaigns to films with important topics, such as Contagion and infectious disease. We caught up with Newman recently to ask her a few questions about her role at Participant, how films can get people engaged in science, and what science topic she wants to see more of in film and television.

Tell us your background. How did you get started in the entertainment industry? How did you become a Research Manager at Participant Media?

Before I worked at Participant Media, I had no background in Hollywood. I majored in history in college and also received a master’s in public health. Most of my work after college was in the nonprofit sector as a community organizer, researcher, and outreach director. I first learned about Participant Media after reading about the company in a newspaper during the release of An Inconvenient Truth. I was struck by the impact of this film on public awareness and dialogue about climate change. I thought, wow, this would be an interesting place to work. At the time, I knew only one person who worked in Hollywood who fortunately introduced me to someone at Participant for an informational interview. Fast forward four-and-a-half years later and I’ve been working in the Social Action Department as a researcher ever since. 

What is your role at Participant Media? Give us an example of the work you do.

I’m in charge of research in the Social Action Department. For every film, we develop companion campaigns to further engage audiences in issues and themes in the film. I feel pretty lucky that I get to spend my days reading about and talking with experts on a range of issues, from water to pandemics to nuclear security. I work closely with my colleagues in social action, marketing, and digital departments to use the research to develop our campaigns. I also work with our documentary and narrative departments on films in development by providing them topic research whenever necessary. 

How can films and documentaries get people engaged in science? 

I worked on a global warming campaign for several years before An Inconvenient Truth was released. In my opinion, that film was one of the greatest tools to generate consciousness and mobilize people around climate change. Though the film would not have been successful without decades of amazing work by scientists, activists, and politicians, I think the film helped to elevate the message and conversation around this critical issue to a level that no one had been able to do before. I also think that films are one of the best public relations tools for science. Whether it is a good role model, great storyline, or bringing an important science fact to mass audiences, nothing like Hollywood can sell science in such a positive way.

Is there a science concept or topic that you wish you saw more in television and film?

Climate change. It is the greatest threat to humanity and should be the Friday night horror film that no one stops talking about. Instead, most people are unaware, do not care, or ignore the reality that climate change is already happening and will only worsen.

Imagine you are a scientist. What field would you want to study?

I am a water freak and I love mammals. So, spending my days studying them would be pure bliss.

Who are your greatest heroes in real-world science, past or present?

I am especially fond of female scientists because it is still such a male-dominated field. So, at the top of my list, I would put Jane Goodall, Margaret Mead, Wangari Maathai, and my high school biology and chemistry teachers who made subjects that I thought would be boring and scary actually fascinating and fun. Also, James Hansen and the late Stephen Schneider, climate change experts, are also at the top of my list.

What qualities do you think scientists and filmmakers share? What qualities could they learn from each other?

They are both delving deeply into issues to share with the world. Whether it is a new theory or discovery, there is an amazing story behind every development in science. And, filmmakers are all about storytelling. They are illuminating the world and exhilarating audiences with inspiring stories. I would love to have more positive science stories and facts incorporated in films. There is no benefit when a script is scientifically inaccurate: audiences believe what they see on screen. Filmmakers have an amazing opportunity to help to move science forward by offering accurate and inspiring films grounded in facts. 

Anything you can share about your next project? 

We have an upcoming documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, about water in the United States. It is a real wake-up call, especially for Americans. But, it is also inspiring, because humanity depends on water for survival. I love working on issues that are inter-dependent because it reminds me that although our actions might have caused the problems, we are also the source of our solutions.

 

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