Senior Executive Producer, NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW, and Director, WGBH Science Unit
WGBH Boston | Boston, Massachusetts
Paula S. Apsell got her start in broadcasting at WGBH Boston, where she was hired fresh out of Brandeis University to type the public broadcaster’s daily television program logs—a job that Apsell notes is now, mercifully, automated. Within a year, she found her way to WGBH Radio, where she developed the award-winning children’s drama series, The Spider’s Web, and later became a radio news producer. In 1975, she joined WGBH’s NOVA, a science documentary series that has set the standard for science programming on television, producing documentaries on subjects as varied as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and aviation safety. Her NOVA Death of a Disease was the first long form documentary on the worldwide eradication of smallpox.
After leaving NOVA in 1981, Apsell went to WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston, known for quality content, as senior producer for medical programming working with Dr. Timothy Johnson. During that time, she produced Someone I Once Knew, an award-winning documentary that essentially broke the story on Alzheimer’s disease, showing that dementia is a pathology, not an inevitable product of old age. Apsell then spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. In 1985, she was asked to take over the reins at NOVA where she is now Senior Executive Producer and Director of the WGBH Science Unit. As well as overseeing the production of NOVA documentaries and miniseries for television, she has directed the series’ diversification into other media—most notably online, where NOVA is the most visited site on PBS.org. NOVA can also be found in classrooms nationwide, where it is the most widely used video resource among high school science teachers.
In January 2005, Apsell introduced a NOVA spinoff in NOVA scienceNOW, a critically acclaimed science newsmagazine hosted formerly by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and now by New York Times technology columnist David Pogue. Other recent signature NOVA and Science Unit productions include The Elegant Universe, Origins, Einstein’s Big Idea, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, Making Stuff, andthe large format feature Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure.
Today, NOVA is the most popular science series on American television and online. Under Apsell’s leadership, NOVA has won every major broadcasting award, some many times over, including the Emmy; the Peabody; the AAAS Science Journalism award; the Gold Baton duPont-Columbia; and an Academy Award® nomination for Special Effects. In 1998, the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation awarded NOVA its first-ever Public Service Award.
Apsell has been recognized with numerous individual awards for her work, including the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science, Boston; the Carl Sagan Award given by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents; the American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award; the Planetary Society’s Cosmos Award; the International Documentary Association’s Pioneer Award; the National Space Club of Huntsville Media Award; and the New York Hall of Science Distinguished Service Award for Public Understanding of Science. She has served on the board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; the Brandeis University Sciences Advisory Committee; and the International Documentary Association. Apsell holds honorary doctorates from Southern Methodist University and Dickinson College.She lives in Newton, MA with her husband Sheldon, an inventor. The Apsell’s have two grown daughters, one a physician, the other a television producer.
I don’t recall seeing it in Einstein’s paper on special relativity, but I do believe it’s a basic law of the universe that time passes quickly when you’re having fun. And that was certainly the case for me. My three months at KITP positively flew by. And now that I’m back in Boston, I’m having a great time, sharing with my colleagues at NOVA the many insights I gleaned from being part of a very special community of scholars.
I gave four talks while I was in Santa Barbara. The first was an introduction to NOVA, the science documentary series that’s been on PBS for almost 40 years. In my talk, I tried to explain the process behind our selection of topics and the creation of programs. I laid out the all-important formula of story, character and visuals that guides us every step of the way. And I showed clips from our programs to illustrate each of these elements. A favorite among the audience was the segment from our program The Proof which profiled mathematician Andrew Wiles who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. I was surprised and delighted by the terrific attendance at my talk and the interest shown in the NOVA system of telling stories for television about science. So I decided to open the process of how we do what we do even more in my next two talks.
To do this, I decided I would share a film that we are planning to broadcast on NOVA in January. Called Earth from Space, this is a two hour special looking at how satellite data reveals how all of earth’s systems – the atmosphere, ocean currents, land masses, even life – are interconnected. What I showed was a rough cut, the first stage in evaluating a film after it’s been shot and a very early version has been laid out in the cutting room. I played the film in segments and gave the audience free rein to be as critical as they felt was warranted. And sharpen their knives they did! The result was a collection of comments, ranging from disappointment that there was not more material on satellite technology to confusion between the graphics we had created and scientific simulations that come from actual data. There were aesthetic issues raised as well. People hated the music and complained about the absence of scientist explainers in this version of the show. Many suggested I show the film to experts in UCSB’s excellent geography department, which I did. All of this was extremely helpful to my team and myself as we proceeded to evaluate the cut and to work with the producers to create a program that will be beautiful, engaging, and give our viewers new insight into how our planet works.
In my third talk, I asked the attendees to pitch me topics that they would like to see on NOVA. I emphasized that topic choice was just the beginning, that topics need to be packaged in a way that tells a story with strong characters and good visual potential. There were some differences of opinion about what would make a good story, but in the end, the strongest candidates were the Higgs boson, the discovery of graphene, and an exploration of quantum gravity through the study of black holes. As it turns out, we are now working on a Higgs program and the other two ideas are prominently posted on our white board of potential topics. (We did cover graphene in our miniseries on materials science Making Stuff, but it was a once-over lightly and advocates of the topic convinced me there is much more to the story.) Our researchers will be looking into them as we consider our program line-up for future years.
My last talk focused on controversy in science. Using clips from NOVA and other programs, I chose three different areas of science – evolution, climate change, and the multiverse – to illustrate how we handle contentious issues where there is disagreement, legitimate or not, within the science community. There are obvious and important differences among these issues; however, it is my contention that when scientists disagree, valid or not, the public is confused. This has a huge impact on public perception of science and may be one reason why the number of Americans who, polls indicate, question evolution –around 46% -- has remained unchanged for the past 30 years. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the reasons why climate change has failed to gain as much traction with the public as its importance warrants. The last topic – the multiverse – brought the issue home and we had a lively discussion, to put it politely, over the way NOVA had covered this in the final program of our series The Fabric of the Cosmos.
Beyond my talks, I tried to make as much time as possible to speak with the scientists at KITP on an individual level. Many of you were extremely generous with your time, giving me greater insight not only into your own research but also into how a community of scholars works to attack the thorny problems of modern physics. I was fortunate to be at KITP during the conference on physics and cancer, which opened a whole new area of inquiry to me. And I also took time to explore other labs and departments at UCSB, including engineering, materials science, computer science, physics, astronomy, and biology. Andy Howell gave me a tour of the LCOGT, which I found fascinating. And, thanks to Lars, I went several times to see and learn about the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and speak with its director Amir Abo-Shaeer. Finally, one of my most valuable activities during my time away from NOVA was teaching an undergraduate senior seminar entitled The Art of Science Television in the UCSB Film and Media Studies department. The opportunity to teach motivated me to spend several months before my arrival developing the course – something I’m sure I would not have done otherwise. It also gave me a whole new respect for what it takes to teach a college level course – from the creation of the syllabus and course materials to preparing lectures – wow! It is a lot of hard work! But I completely enjoyed my teaching experience, and I am grateful to KITP for allowing me to use part of my time as a journalist in residence to pursue this activity.
Now that I’m back in Boston managing a busy production unit and churning out programs to meet our looming fall and winter deadlines, I am still feeling the glow of my unique experience at KITP. More than 25 years ago, I was fortunate to spend an academic year at MIT as a fellow in public understanding of science. What I gained that year continues to influence me. I have no doubt that the time I spent at KITP will have at least that much value and its influence will show up on the air, in my interactions with my team and other science journalists, and in ways I can’t even begin to predict.
I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to thank the staff at KITP for much needed help and support; Sarah Vaughan who made so many difficult things so easy; Lars Bildsten, Joe Polchinski, Jean-Pierre Hebert, Kevin Barron, Dan Hone, Marty Einhorn, Tony Zee, David Awschalom, Andy Howell, Steve Giddings, and David Auston and many others for friendship and stimulating conversations, and, of course, to David Gross who made it all possible.