Sharing a passion

The World Science Festival, founded by the journalist Tracy Day, this year runs from May 29 through June 3.
Co-founder of the World Science Festival on educating and entertaining the city

Journalist Tracy Day earned four Emmy Awards for her reporting on subjects of politics and war. However, she once worked on a documentary series for ABC News, which, unlikely enough, led to her foray into science. Through that project, she met scientist Brian Greene, a physics and mathematics professor at Columbia, and the two eventually married. “I discovered, when Brian and I got together, that there is a passionate audience of people who wanted science content,” she explained. “People were scalping tickets to go to Brian’s talks.”

The couple’s idea for the World Science Festival came when Brian was invited to a science festival in Italy. “Brian and I at the same time started thinking, “Is there anything like this in America?””

The rest goes down in the scientific history of our city as the World Science Festival was born. Launched in 2008, it creates programming for the top scientists and thinkers in the world. This year, it runs from May 29 through June 3. Programing will range from the study of black holes to editing DBA, and there is something for all ages, from children to post docs.

Tell us about your background in journalism.

I come from ABC News and broadcast journalism in general. So my career was largely focused on politics and war. I was a longtime producer at “Nightline,” and covered things like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War and Mandela’s release in South Africa and drug wars in Colombia. It was kind of amazing and an exciting time in broadcast journalism. My career was largely based on nonfiction, informational programming about current affairs and policy and wars and such.

What was your vision for the festival and what is its programming like?

Number one, to do it in New York, which we were advised against by many people. they said, “Go do something like this in a small town where you could own the town.” And we didn’t want to do that. We thought, “New York is where we live and it’s an intellectual and cultural playground and let’s use this place and all of the energy.” We wanted to bring science to the general public. Initially people said, “Who’s your audience?” And we said, “Well everyone. But we’re not naive. But we do want to reposition science into kind of the middle of popular culture So we’re going to think about these various audiences and program to them.” So many of the programs are in big theaters and meant for a general audience, largely an adult audience. But some kids are interested; it’s incredible. You see these 10 and 12-year-olds at these very in-depth programs. And then we have salons that are meant for a more informed audience, post-doc graduate students, that sort of things.

As CEO what does your job entail? What’s a typical day like for you?

Well my heart and soul and the way I view the world is really content. So for me, unlike maybe other CEOs who are more involved in the business aspects- I do that too-but I really focus on what the content is that we’re creating and distributing. But of course, running an organization, I always say I’ve learned so much about things I knew nothing about.

You are hosting a gala honoring trailblazing women. Tell us about those being recognized.

We really wanted this year to take almost a “Hidden Figures” approach to women scientists who have so changed the world. And even if people know their names- people know Marie Curie’s name, but don’t really know her story. And so to be able to tell that story in a way that incorporates narration and music and visuals, so that’s it a very emotional and informational experience for the audience, I hope will have a huge impact. So Marie Curie is one of them, Rosalind Franklin. Alice Ball, who was a chemist in Hawaii and she discovered treatment for leprosy and she died very young. When the research was published, it was published under the name of the president of the university, who took the research and claimed it. It was only when a female researcher discovered this, that they made it right and gave her her due posthumously. And Vera Rubin, one of these groundbreaking women in physics who passed away recently. Not enough people know her name, particularly young women. The other woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, is an Iranian mathematician who won a fields medal, which is a very prestigious honor in mathematics.

I see you also offer events for kids.

We have many lab visits, with a focus on girls and women. So there are lab visits to women-run labs. A small group experience for girls. And these women scientists are just spectacular and in their bones they understand how important it is for them to be mentors and to expose these girls to what they do. One program that we’ve done since we’ve launched is something called Cool Jobs. We wanted kids to know that the way they think about scientists and what they do may not be really what they do at all. There are scientists who build roller coasters. So these scientists, one is a forensic scientist, one is a herbatologist, one is a mechanical engineer, one is a sports tech engineer and then another engineer. Their job is to get up on the stage and sell their job to those kids. Kids rush the stage; it’s really a beautiful sight. We have a lot of outdoor, free events for families and kids. We have a City of Science program down at Washington Square Park. That’s the Manhattan version of City of Science, a year-round set of events we do at each of the boroughs. And then we have a Star Party at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Saturday night. You can learn all about the universe and look through telescopes and listen to people talk about space. That’s a hugely popular program.

I know it’s hard to choose, but what’s an event you’re looking forward to attending?

There are a couple of really interesting heavy content programs that I love. One of them is a program that Brian is actually doing on black holes. The other one is a program that is looking at the evolutionary underpinnings of why we believe. It’s called “The Believing Brain.” It’s about evolution, neuroscience and spiritual instinct.