Erin Macdonald makes a Vulcan salute (a hand sign of greeting from Star Trek) at a bar while wearing a Star Trek badge.
Astrophysicist Erin Macdonald is the science adviser for Star Trek and runs her own production company, Spacetime Productions. Credit: Erin Macdonald
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“A lot of people would literally assassinate me for what’s on my laptop,” said Erin Macdonald, only mostly joking.

Macdonald is an astrophysicist, screenwriter, producer, and, thanks to her work as Star Trek’s science adviser, guardian of a laptop full of Star Trek secrets fans would, figuratively, kill to know. It’s her job to handle all things science for the beloved sci-fi franchise, from writing on-screen equations fit for inspection by science-savvy fans to maintaining the internal consistency of “Star Trek science,” or how fictional technologies like transporters and warp drives work in the Star Trek universe.

Macdonald earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Glasgow in 2012, working on gravitational waves with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration and continued this work as a postdoc at Cardiff University. But she ultimately decided that academia wasn’t for her and left in 2014, though it wasn’t an easy choice.

“I wish someone had told me…outside of academia, you can still inspire people.”

“Feeling that I was letting down women probably put my decision to leave academia off by at least a year,” she said. Representation matters to Macdonald, who credits her astrophysical aspirations to characters like Dr. Dana Scully of The X-Files and Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek : Voyager. “I wish someone had told me…outside of academia, you can still inspire people,” she said.

While working as an engineer, Macdonald found an outlet for her drive to educate and inspire by giving science talks at sci-fi conventions. And when life brought her to Los Angeles in 2017, word of mouth eventually landed her onstage giving physics talks at official Star Trek events. Those talks opened the path to her current position as Star Trek’s science adviser.

“I realized I’m not meant to become Captain Janeway, I’m meant to write Captain Janeway—to inspire,” said Macdonald. Going forward, she wants to transition into screenwriting.

Macdonald recently founded a production company, Spacetime Productions, that aims to lift up marginalized people both on screen and behind the camera.

“Being able to integrate science into science fiction, I think, makes science more accessible to a lot of people,” she said. “That’s really a big mission of mine.”

—Elise Cutts (@elisecutts), Science Writer

This profile is part of a special series in our August 2023 issue on science careers.

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Citation: Cutts, E. (2023), Erin Macdonald: Putting the science in science fiction, Eos, 104, Published on 25 July 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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