By Dr. John. Anyone can be a scientist, and not surprisingly, scientists are just like everyone else. That’s what NOVA ScienceNOW hopes to convey with their new show, The Secret Life of Scientists, a web video series that provides a personal and thought-provoking look at the lives of 16 scientists and engineers. Through a mixture of whimsical interview questions, each show will demonstrate how scientists and engineers can be athletes, musicians, artists, chefs, and, most importantly, incredibly human.
Although, SUPER-human might be more accurate for tonight’s episode featuring Nate Ball, a mechanical engineer, entrepreneur, pole-vaulting coach, jazz pianist, and TV star. In his day job, Nate is chief technical officer and co-founder of a technology and innovation company, Atlas Devices. His business develops a tool that he helped invent, the Powered Rope Ascender, which enables military personnel and rescue workers to reverse-rappel up buildings at high speeds. Check out these awesome videos of Nate’s invention in action.
And, Nate isn’t camera-shy. He is currently a cast member on PBS’ Design Squad, a show that features two teams of contestants charged with brainstorming, designing, building, and testing products before putting them to the test.
I had a chance to ask Nate a few questions about how he balances all of these endeavors, what inspires him to innovate, and his strategies for creating more interest in science and engineering. You’ll find, just as I did, that Nate has transformed a childhood passion into a career and drawn from a variety of perspectives to keep himself grounded. To learn more about Nate’s drive to succeed, check out tonight’s episode of The Secret Life of Scientsts.
Dr. John: How do we demistify science and bridge the gap between scientists and society?
Nate: Bridging the gap between scientists & engineers and society has always been an extremely important endeavor, and certainly is now more than ever. The way I like to make my career of mechanical engineering more accessible is to point out that I get to do now what I loved to do as a kid–build stuff and solve problems! Did you like to make forts out of couch cushions when you were 6? It’s a great lead-up to civil or mechanical engineering. Love to make your own recipes in the kitchen? Chemistry or biology may be for you. What usually gives people that “aha!” sort of understanding about engineering is when they realize that engineering is responsible for everything around them, and what engineers do is no different from any of the creative experimentation and problem solving everybody did as a kid. It’s just at a higher level with some extra training.
Dr. John: You clearly balance your interests in science and technology with other interests in your personal life — why is this balance important?
Nate: I pursue quite a few activities outside my office, which I find really important. For one, it gives my brain a chance to rest after exercising the analytical one for 14 hours a day at work (I love my job!). Play music and spending time doing really active things is my chance to change up what I’m working on and recharge the engineering part. I actually find that I’m never as focused as right after a hard workout. My brain just feels like it works differently–nothing seems distracting, I have much better clarity on whatever I was trying to solve before, and I’m even relieved to be sitting down again. But the whole “giving the analytical side a rest” isn’t the only part of it; I find that the things I balance my work with are really complementary to the engineering I do. Exercising the creative part of the brain with playing music or figuring out how to coach one of my pole vaulters keeps the colorful brain half flexible and ready to attack engineering challenges in a new way. So it’s a very important two-way street.
Dr. John: What is your most cherished accomplishment?
Nate: Having heard through a parent that their kid was inspired to pursue engineering after reading about some of my work. That was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever heard!
Dr. John: Who inspired you to pursue career in mechanical engineering?
Nate: I credit my parents and grandparents with nurturing my interests in engineering-related activities that launched me toward where I am now. When I was about 3 years old around Christmas, my granddad gave me a block of wood, a hammer, and a bunch of roofing nails. After a lot of hammered fingers, I was off to the races and never stopped! My parents’ continued support of all the projects I made growing up, from kayaks to land sailers to potato guns and a Tesla coil, was really responsible for me getting hooked on technical problem solving. They supported my decision to go to MIT and are still cheering me on today.
Dr. John: How big of role can citizens play in the scientific process?
Nate: A huge one! You don’t have to have formal training in science or engineering to be perceptive about how the world works, and the observations of countless laymen have always made tremendous impacts in technical development. Take anything you’re familiar with and think about how it could be improved. How about that bad intersection you always avoid when driving to work because the lights aren’t timed well? Do you always slip on your front walk with the coated pavement? That old car you drove in high school that needed some special operator training (jiggle the key just like this to get it to start…). Every person on earth has some amount of intuition and more than enough capability to observe how things work. We execute careful problem solving processes many times each day whether we realize it or not. And sometimes, average Joe or Jane Citizen makes an observation that’s particularly insightful, and the scientific process helps make another leap forward for everyone’s benefit.
Dr. John: How do you encourage people to become more interested in science?
Nate: I engage many people in a lot of different venues to familiarize them with science and engineering. Some outreach I do directly, some through the engineering reality TV show I host (Design Squad on PBS), and some is done with the help of the very-real engineered products I have helped create, which closely resemble some of the equipment on Batman’s tool belt. Nothing captures the imagination like zipping up a rope at 10 feet per second, and when I’m able to close the loop between what people are seeing me demonstrate and the engineering that made it possible, you can practically see the light bulb go on in their head. And that’s a great feeling.

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