Multi-Faceted Kloor Tries To Break Mold of Traditional Scientist
Such a packed schedule is nothing new for Kloor. Last year he became the first person in history to earn two Ph.D.s simultaneously, in physics and chemistry, after six years of graduate study at Purdue University. For the last four of those years, he concurrently served as director of corporate affairs and director of the university's National Physics Outreach program. He holds several black belts in modern martial arts, which he has used to demonstrate basic physics principles, and to teach courses in self-defense. And his outreach activities have led to several successful opportunities to promote science and education through the television industry.
Kloor was first lured into outreach in 1988 while working for his professor, Ephraim Fischbach, one of the founders of Purdue's outreach program. When the program's director retired two years later, Kloor took over as interim director of the state program, and the following year founded and headed the national program until May 1995. While there are many efforts in the scientific community these days to bridge the gap between academia, industry and government, his basic approach to outreach emphasizes building partnerships with the entertainment industry to support and promote education, particularly science education.
"The entertainment and technology industries have a specialty in capturing everyone's imagination, as well as expertise in creating new types of educational materials, and we need that," he said. Kloor figures that even if the material only has 15 percent educational content, it's better than nothing, and is more likely to capture the imagination than a pure science program or textbook.
"Why did we all go into science in the first place? It wasn't because of a physics textbook," he said. "It was something that excited us in nature, for instance, and our search for more information eventually led us to the real hardcore thing."
Kloor's inspiration to study science came largely from science fiction and his 20,000-plus collection of comic books, and he has used both to facilitate educational outreach projects. "We need to be able to motivate students. Once they're curious, they'll look for more information," he said. "Instead of complaining that kids watch too much TV, or play Nintendo for 10 hours straight, or read too many comic books, why don't we use those media to influence our kids?"
In addition to collaborating with Marvel Comics on a Spiderman poster in promotion of science, last year Kloor worked with Paramount and National Engineering Week to produce the first Star Trek public service announcement to promote science and education. Actor James Doohin, who played Scotty in the series, agreed to appear in the spot, Paramount donated video footage, and about $85,000 in post-production work and special effects was donated from an Indiana-based company called Mikas. The spot aired on several cable channels, reaching nearly 11 million viewers as of last May. Kloor is currently negotiating with Paramount to establish a national science literacy essay or something similar to encourage science education.
The contacts he's made in the entertainment industry have given Kloor the opportunity to develop what he calls his "creative side". He just completed a story for an episode for the Star Trek: Voyager series, and is pitching more ideas for future episodes. Recently he teamed up with a well-known executive producer on a series development project combining entertainment and "real science." But while he has story lines in place for three science fiction novels, he hasn't yet found the time to seriously devote to writing any of them. "It's less time-consuming, and also a lot more profitable, to make television," he admits.
Also in the works is a full-length book on the physics of the fight, drawing on his martial arts background and based on an article Kloor wrote earlier this year for the Washington Post. He started training in modern martial arts at the age of 13, earning two black belts in four years. "Modern martial arts doesn't try to force you into a set model," he said. "Each person has different mechanics. It trains you and allows you to use your own expertise, and your own strengths and weaknesses, to develop new techniques from that model, as well as a better understanding of the concepts behind the techniques, which is a very scientific approach."
Kloor admits he would probably be bored following a more traditional career path in physics, although he is still working on a couple of theoretical papers with two former professors. But his deviation from the traditional career path also stems from his conviction that a different approach is necessary for the scientific community to continue to flourish in the future. "Everyone wants to do things the way it's always been done, and it just can't be done that way anymore," he said. "We're losing a lot of science funding and a lot of interest, whereas the rest of the world is increasing their emphasis on science and science literacy and technology."
For all his dedication and hard work, Kloor isn't above a few personal indulgences; he recently bought himself a Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo sports car. Yet even that has proven useful to his outreach efforts. "I travel to schools to give talks, and kids are impressed by the fact that a scientist can still drive a cool car," he said, adding that this frequently leads to discussions of the physics of the car, and one more educational opportunity.
"I do a lot of things to break the traditional mold of a scientist," Kloor concluded. "It's important that students realize that most of as aren't nerdy guys in lab coats with glasses and slide rules. If scientists have this image that nobody likes, why would anybody want to study science? You have to make kids want to be like you."
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