#04: The Space Gal: Engineer, TV host & your science best friend

Nov 15, 2023


About The Episode

Ever wonder what it’s like filming a TV series just weeks before having your first child? 

What about what it’s like to turn an astronautics degree into a career that inspires kids of all ages to explore different career paths, like engineering and science? 

These are just two of the huge accomplishments of Emily Calandrelli, who you may know as The Space Gal via TIkTok, Instagram or X

Emily is an MIT-engineer turned Emmy-nominated science TV host of Netflix’s Emily’s Wonder Lab and FOX’s Xploration Outer Space. She has also authored multiple children’s books about space and science.

Not only is Emily a successful solopreneur and digital creator - she is also a mom-of-two who started her career in the aerospace industry…an industry notorious for very limited paid parental leave.

In this episode, we talk about how her advocacy for extending paid parental leave in the aerospace industry resulted in 12 major players changing their policies with the help of Parentaly’s template to make the business case for increased paid parental leave.

We also talk about her experience with motherhood as a digital creator, which aspects about this career path she loves the most and what she has in store in 2024. 

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Allison: Hi, Emily. I'm so excited to have you here today. Yay, I'm so excited to be here. We know each other a little bit personally from our husbands, friends, sisters. Well, you and I have spoken before and a big reason why I wanted to have you on today is I find your career, your story and your journey through motherhood really fascinating. 

And so I wanted to start by talking about going backwards to the Netflix show, Emily's Wonder. I find this story completely fascinating, especially when you and I spoke about this and you taught me more about what the lead up to the show looked like and your decision about when to film. So I'm wondering if you can share a little bit more about how that worked. Give us a peek behind the scenes. 

Emily: So to give some background, I am an aerospace engineer that went into television and for many years I was pitching science shows for kids. And I had this one show that I was really excited about that was going to be a science experiment show and Netflix was interested. And when I got the call that they were interested in moving forward with it, I happened to be like five or six months pregnant. 

They didn't know at the time, because when I went to pitch, I was very early in my pregnancy and I could wear baggy clothes and was able to hide it because I didn't know how long this would take. Oftentimes, if you're pitching a show, it could be up to a year or longer before you actually film and when they pick it up, depending on everybody's schedules. And so I had no idea. I was like, well, let's just keep this under wraps for now. It's not involved in any of the decision-making.

But they were very quick to be excited about it and pick it up. And I got the call and they now knew that I was pregnant because it was past the point of hiding it. And they were like, would you like to film Emily's Wonder Lab before or after the baby comes? And this was my first child. And so I did not know what it was like to have a kid, but I heard that it was hard. And I was like, let's do this before the baby comes if possible. 

And so I filmed Emily's Wonder Lab at 35 and 36 weeks pregnant. So I was nine months pregnant when you were watching the show. If it looks like I'm very pregnant, it's because I am. I needed a doctor's note to get on the plane back to my home when I left the show, because I filmed in LA and I wasn't living in LA at the time. So yeah, it was quite the adventure.

Allison: And didn't you have your husband there as well? And he worked remote just in case the baby came early?

Emily: Yes, exactly. So funny because I think everybody involved was a little bit on edge with filming with somebody that pregnant. And every day was a toss up of like, hopefully the baby doesn't come today so that we can finish this episode. And every single day, I was like, please don't let the baby come today. Please don't let the baby come today. Because these are like grueling days. They're 12 hour filming days, often in the heat of LA in the summer. And we'd be filming outside and I'd be so animated and jumping all over the place and screaming about science. And then I'd sit down in my trailer like, we're gonna need to take a little bit of a break because the baby is kicking around and they're screaming like, what are you doing out there? 

Allison: Right? And did they accelerate the schedule or is that a standard filming schedule?

Emily: Well, so I haven't filmed too many Netflix shows, but it is a pretty standard schedule because the faster that you can get these things done, the cheaper it is overall. And so for efficiency's sake, I would say standard schedule. We filmed, I wanna say 11 or 12 episodes over the course of six days and then ended up only putting out 10 of them. So yeah, it kind of reminds me, there's an episode or two in the vault that they never released and that we should be advocating to see!

Allison: What I think about, when I first heard your story, I thought…this is so interesting in the context of what I do because we work with thousands and thousands of people who are preparing to go on leave and almost all of them struggle with, do I accelerate into my leave or do I pull back into my leave? And of course there is no right answer. And I think your story is such a perfect example of not being afraid to do that. And I wonder, did you at all think like, gosh, this is my first child. Should I just wait? Or was that not even a consideration? 

Emily: More than anything, I was like, this is my first Netflix show, I can't wait. It's one of those dream-creating events that you just cannot miss out on. Like I would move heaven and earth to be able to have done this show because Netflix is just the dream come true.

And so for me, I was very lucky in that my first pregnancy was very relatively easy. And so I had the physical ability and the energy to be able to do a show like this. And I have now learned, because my second pregnancy was not so easy, that I just happened to be extremely lucky in that first go around. And so knowing yourself, knowing your body, knowing the energy that you have at the time, like all of that for me was a privilege in that first go around to be able to make that decision. And so I was just very in tune with my body at the time and understanding what I felt that I was capable of.

Allison: And also knowing that it was a huge career milestone. So why should you have to give that up? Yeah. I think there's also a little bit of this narrative of like when you're pregnant, everyone feels like your role is to just focus on this baby. And it's like, no, also I'm a person and I have these other parts of me. So I just think your story is so cool. 

What then, you went on parental leave and I put that in quotes because you are, for lack of a better term, a solopreneur, a contractor. You didn't get paid parental leave. How did you handle that? You finished filming, you went back home, had the baby, and then what? 

Emily: Yeah, I mean, I was very lucky that my husband did have standard parental leave and a good amount of it because he worked at Google at the time. And so I had a lot of help in the early days, or I should say we helped each other in the early days because it's our kid. 

But for me, I had always had a plan for, okay, I'm not gonna get paid for the next six weeks, and then at week six or week eight, I'm gonna start taking my first job again. And so I just had to be very thoughtful about the financial planning of it all, knowing for certain that I'm just not going to be making any active money or bringing in any active sponsorships or clients or speeches or TV shows or whatever it is over the course of six to eight weeks, and then just have a plan moving forward. 

So I would very proactively push speeches and sponsored posts and all of that later on in my career. And then I was doing some passive work in those first six weeks. Like I was reviewing episodes for my TV show, Xploration Outer Space, and doing some work that didn't take a lot of mental energy. It was very flexible as to when I did that work. So there was work that was being done, but I was, I set some boundaries because I didn’t know what my mental state would be in those early days. 

Yeah. I just, I don't wanna put anything on my plate that I wouldn't be able to deliver if I was having a rough few weeks. 

Allison: Yeah. You do a lot of travel, from what I can tell. How do you structure your support systems and home life, to support that? And do you have certain rules or boundaries that you have found to be most helpful?

Emily: It's the most important question right now, and I will say it is a target that is constantly moving, and I don't feel like I have it down yet. So what we do right now is… my husband single parents when I go away. But if I'm gone for more than two or three days, and similarly if he's gone for more two or three days, we try to hire a babysitter to come in one or two of the evenings to help with bedtimes and cleaning and all of that. 

What I hope to do eventually is hire more help to work in that ecosystem because leaving every other week and sometimes every week for two to three days at a time is not a super sustainable thing to do when we don't have family in the area and we don't have any other help other than full-time daycare. 

Right, I should say. We have full-time daycare, which is wonderful. It just takes so much, so many people, so many cooks in the kitchen to be able to very consistently take care of kids from, 24/7 days a week. 

Allison: I travel a lot for my job as well. And it's like the amount of planning that has to go into this, I'm always worried about childcare falling through. If childcare stays, then my husband is great. He can handle it, like it's fine, but I'm always worried because we have one kid in school, we have another kid in pre-K, we have another kid with a nanny. We have a complicated puzzle. And if one of them falls apart, then now he's on his own to figure it out. 

And so we have my parents who are in town who do back up childcare if they are in town because they're retired. And so they're not here all the time. And I try to schedule my work trips if possible around literally my parents availability. 

Emily: Yes, of course. 

Allison: Which is just wild. You know. 

Emily: Yes. And I only ever travel for work during the weekdays because being gone over the weekend is just so mentally taxing. We need to amp ourselves up for a single parenting weekend. What are we gonna do? Are we gonna take them to a museum? Are we gonna take them to the library? How are we going to get through this weekend? But yeah, we're the same way. We have to think of when is the right time to leave. And I say no to certain jobs if they're over the weekend because I'm like, this isn't really worth all the hassle that it takes. 

Allison: Yeah. Have you ever thought about bringing a kid or both kids with you? 

Emily: Oh, I have. And I don't know that that's the better solution.

Allison: That's horrible to me. 

Emily: I know. It can be. So I took my daughter to West Virginia for a speech. And my parents met me because I'm from West Virginia. So my parents met me at the location. And it worked OK. But I live in California. And so taking a 4-year-old cross-country on a flight is its own mental hurdle. 

And on the way back, our flight was delayed like five hours. And so what should have been an eight or nine hour day ended up being a 14, 15 hour day. And she had an accident and all these tantrums. And I was just like, this is not something I would choose to do again. 

Allison: You mentioned something to me before that really stuck with me, which is, once you became a mother, it changed your career in the sense that it opened up a lot of new angles and opportunities for you. Say more about that because you've always done science space related work. What is the shift that happened once you became a mother? 

Emily: Right. So especially once I started doing TV shows, I started interacting online with a bunch of the families who watched it and I came across a bunch of mothers especially who were working to get their kids excited about all sorts of things, but oftentimes science. And these are people who didn't have a science background themselves, and they're trying to find their own confidence in that world to be able to instill confidence in science and their kids. Because the world of STEM can be so intimidating to people who didn't have a degree in it, and it feels inaccessible, and it feels unwelcoming, and it just feels so intimidating. 

I found that I can play a role in being like their science best friend that can help them introduce science to their kids. And I just realized the value in that to be able to find easy ways to get kids excited about science. And some kids learn best through TV. Some kids learn best through hands-on science experiments. Some kids learn best through YouTube or books. And so I just started learning all of these different mediums that I could be useful in, that I could try to find fun, exciting, accessible ways to introduce kids to all of these different topics.

And so I have my Ada Lace Adventures, which is a book series that I just released the newest book in, the sixth book in the series, that features a young girl who loves science and technology and solves problems with gadgets that she builds herself. And it's kind of like a nerdy version of Nancy Drew that she's solving mysteries with science and all of her best friends. And kids love that series. And it's a fun way to very passively learn about science. 

I have a science experiment book based off of Emily's Wonder Lab called Stay Curious and Keep Exploring. And oh my God, in this book, the goal was to make it as accessible and friendly as possible, like the total opposite of a science textbook that you would see in school. And so it looks very Lisa Frank. It is colorful, it is shiny. All of the illustrations, they're not like very specific science illustrations. They're pop art, just looks like fun and welcoming and bright. And it's not a lecture of me explaining the science to you and throwing all the science at you. It's a conversation between me and a curious kid, like a little cartoon kid in the book, asking questions.

And so the kid is asking me questions that I'm answering. And some of the questions are silly, some of them are fun, and some of them are just really astute and very relevant. And so anyways, the goal is to get kids comfortable asking questions and to make it feel more welcoming. And I don't know that I would understand the value of that if I didn't have kids myself. And understanding like my role and as a parent to try to be like, how do I make this feel fun for you?

Allison: We have that book and my son who's six loves the experiments in it. It's funny because, no offense, it’s kind of surprising how much little kids like experiments. It's like this magical world to them. Did you try these out on your daughter? 

Emily: Oh yeah, so many of them, some of them are too old for her, but a lot of the younger ones, I would throw at her and be like, how are you gonna play with this? And what safety precautions do I need to put in this? Are you gonna try to eat it? Are you gonna try to put it in your eyeballs? Like what do you do with this experiment? So yeah, she's definitely my guinea pig. 

Allison: You have two children, so we talked about your first parent to leave. What happened during your second? Was there a similar situation where you're trying to figure out work as you're expecting? Did you think…I got this, I've done this before, I'm a pro. And then of course, like everything in parenthood, it reminds you that you don't have it.

Emily: Oh, absolutely. It was the total opposite. It was funny, I filmed this TikTok at the beginning of my second pregnancy, where I was making this statement that was like, oh, you think I'm gonna step back from work? And then I do a move that transitions into me on Emily's Wonder Lab. Basically making the statement like, see what I did last time, I made a whole TV show last time, watch what I do this time. 

And then that time I did nothing. I felt awful. I totally stepped back from work. I was not as productive. I did not make as many videos. I just, I did not feel great. And I gave myself the space to do that. Like I, I tried to give myself grace in that period being like, this pregnancy is hitting different and I am allowed to take a step back because of that. And so I just, I kept trying to tell myself, I can always get back in the race and I can always step up right now, it's okay to step back. 

And so there was a whole period of time, not just while I was in the later stages of pregnancy, but also in the few months after I had him, where I just did not feel like myself. And I was like, you know what? It's gonna be okay, I will survive this period of my life and then I'll get back to being myself when I, mostly when I stop breastfeeding, which was awful for me, but also I can just get back into it when I have the energy. 

Allison: So funny, because I would say more commonly I hear the flip, which is you enter motherhood and it's just like, what has happened and throws you for a loop and then the second time you are able to sort of figure things out.

But I think what you're saying is exactly right, which is like every baby is different. Every kid is, every pregnancy is different and you just don't know. And also your career fluctuates. Yeah. And so you're in a moment in time where you don't have a Netflix show dangled right there. Then like, I don't know, your bar should be higher when you're struggling with what work you've been on. So I think that's really fascinating. How long was your second parental leave again? I

Emily: Oh, I would say the same, like 6-8 weeks, something along those lines. Yeah, I think I did a work event at six weeks, which I would not do again. Yeah, that felt too soon. I was not an enjoyable experience, but I think I did something at six weeks in the last pregnancy and it was fine. And I just thought it would be the same this time. So I set it up and then once I set it up, it was too late to be like, actually, I'm not gonna go and give this speech that you guys have been waiting on. Until I just did it and I was like, ugh. I don't want to do that again. 

Allison: Have you found over the past few years that – and I'm not gonna force you to choose which one of your babies, and by babies I mean revenue streams – is most enjoyable, but have you found that there’s one you like or gives you the most energy shifts?

And just as context, you have done shows, so let's count shows. You have different books. I mean, you came up with a book, which we haven't even talked about, after you had your daughter, then you have Ada Lace. What am I missing here? You have all the stuff online, like the creative work that you do, you have speeches. 

Emily: Yep, the Stay Curious science experiment book, yeah. 

Allison: Do you notice your energy flowing between them? 

Emily: Yeah, I love the performance aspect of my work. So the stuff that I get the most energy from is when I'm on stage doing a presentation, maybe sometimes it involves science experiments. If I could go back to high school, I would try theater. I feel like I would be a good theater kid. But I love the performance nature of it and then I love being on camera. So talking about science on a stage, talking about science on camera, that is where I feel like I thrive. That is my favorite aspect of my work. 

And then the second favorite is when I have a book come out and I get to do a book signing and then meet the kids who read the book. Because so much of the work that I do, whether it's on TV or writing books, like...I do it somewhere, which is separate from where the people watch it. And then people watch it, and I never really get to interact with them. And Emily's Wonder Lab came out during the pandemic. And so nobody was going out. So when I went out, I was never recognized. Like people were just not out at all. We were all wearing masks. And I didn't get the feeling of like, oh, do people enjoy the show? I'm sure somebody is watching it!

And now we go to Disneyland all the time because we live 10 minutes from there. And every single time I go to Disneyland, I get approached like 5-10 times from people who watch the show. 

Allison: Oh, that's so cute. 

Emily: It is the best feeling. It is like my favorite, favorite thing because it's always so friendly and it's always so inspirational. And it's always a family who's like, thank you for getting my kid excited about science. I found a passion that they're really excited about. And so that part of my work where I get to meet the people who watch and read.

Allison: And see the impact. 

Emily: Yeah, and see the impact. It’s so good. It’s the best.

Allison:  Yeah. Well, speaking of impact, you and I also spoke, I don't know, was that six months ago, a few months ago, about parental leave in the aerospace industry. So how did you even stumble onto that? I don't remember if you reached out to me or I saw something you posted on Twitter and I was like, oh, we should talk about this because this is right up my alley. What happened to get you alerted and maybe explain the problem that you discovered? 

Emily: Right, so I helped run this nonprofit called the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which is a fellowship for women and gender minorities who want to work in the aerospace industry. And the goal of the fellowship is to help diversify the aerospace industry and help get more women and gender minorities to work there. Because if you go to an aerospace conference today, it is like, what is it called? White male and stale … or pale male and stale. It's just very old white men who have been in the industry for a very long time. So it looks very homogeneous. And we're trying to, as a fellowship, address some of the systematic factors that lead to this. 

And in conversations with the leaders at the fellowship, one of the topics was parental leave. And I was like, oh, I wonder what the parental leave is at these aerospace companies, because as you know, it is often very complicated and not publicly shown what a company's parental leave policy is. And so it wasn't an easy thing to just Google and find out. And to find out, I suspected that it wasn't good because we have friends who work in the industry and they're like, mine wasn't very good. 

I tweeted out, if you work in the aerospace industry, let me know what your parental leave policy is. And the numbers started coming in and it was like four weeks, two weeks, zero, 100% paid weeks off. And of course, legally, you are allowed to take 12 weeks off without getting fired, but not everybody can afford to take partially paid or unpaid time off from their work. And so the 100% paid off aspect of parental leave was something that I cared a lot about. 

And once these numbers started rolling in, I got a message from a leader in the aerospace company. And he was like, Emily, love what you're doing. I understand the value of it, but you have to understand. The business models of aerospace companies are different from those of tech companies, like the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. We can't afford to offer three months paid off. Our business model is slightly different. And I'm like, I hear you, but we're looking at two weeks and four weeks. 

Allison: And by the way, I also don't agree. It's not just the tech companies that are doing that, but yeah.

Emily: Exactly. And I was like, I hear what you're saying, but it looks like you guys aren't even trying. And I want to go back to your argument because we're just talking about the cost of offering parental leave. What about the cost of not offering it? Because in the aerospace industry in particular, you have highly educated professionals with PhDs, highly sought after professionals in a highly competitive field. What is the cost of losing those professionals and having to rehire and retrain and replace them and all of the time miss in terms of innovation for that. What is the cost of that? 

Because there was that study that came out that showed something like 43% of women in science leave their full-time STEM career after having their first child. 43%! Which is ridiculous, it's a huge number. They either move to part-time STEM work or they move to a non-STEM career or they stop working altogether. And by the way like 23% of men in STEM do the same. And so we're not talking about the cost of that in one of the most highly innovative and competitive fields there are. 

And so anyways, I say all that and then I start getting messages from HR leaders at these aerospace companies that I have said like, oh, like so and so, what is your parental leave policy? And they're like, funny, you should mention it. We have been reevaluating our parental leave policy as we speak and we will get back to you. And they did with improved policy. And so everybody started talking about this. 

And in one particular case, there was this woman who said, I was at a conference where the CEO was doing an open Q&A for all of the employees. And she was like, I was scared to step up to the mic and ask about this, but your tweet inspired me to do it because it was such a positive response of everybody being like, yeah, we should have this. And then she said, I stepped up to the mic and I asked our CEO, why do we only offer three paid weeks off at our company when our sister companies under the same umbrella offer 12 paid weeks off? And the CEO said, I wasn't aware of that. I'll look into it. And a few weeks later, they changed it. They changed it from three to 12 100% paid weeks off for the birthing parent. 

And then JPL, one of NASA's leading space companies, hired their first female director in history. And she told me, because I had a conversation with her recently at an event, she said that she saw my tweet and that lit a fire under them to go and work out their own parental leave policy, because they offered zero weeks historically. She was able to get eight fully paid weeks off for all parents. 

And so these are just very extreme examples, but I have, I wanna say about a dozen companies now that after that tweet, within six months, improved their parental leave policy and many of them significantly. 

Allison: And I think what's really fascinating about all of this is if they are struggling to attract talent, particularly women…you would not believe how often we hear people who tell us, and this is outside of the aerospace industry, I turned down this job because of their policy. That didn't used to happen. That is happening now. And I do think that even like five years ago, you wouldn't ask what the policy was. You wouldn't know because theSkimm’s resource and what you have done didn't exist. And you'd be too scared. So you would take the job, you'd find out, well, now you're not in a position of power. It's really hard to advocate for better paid parental leave when you are dependent on your salary from that company. And I just love to see how literally just publicizing what policies are creates this pressure to look around and to see what other companies are doing. And while it may be true that the industry is below, all it takes is a few of them going up for everyone else to then go up. That's what I think is so cool about what you've done is once you create that within an industry, it can rapidly improve the situation for everyone. So I just thought that was so cool. 

And then we worked on the proposal together to make sure that people had the power. We'll say, this is a plug for us, but we have a free policy template if anyone wants to ask their company to increase their policy. We've helped so many people advocate for that. The thing that works the best though, is getting the comps from other companies in your industry. We even tell them, do not mention the word Google, because nobody cares what Google is doing. You've got to find out what your competitors are doing. And if you're below, that is the fastest way to convince your company to increase their policy. 

Emily: Yes, that is the most crucial piece because I worked with you all on that. The most powerful resource, which is what I think allowed all of these people to advocate for better policies at their company. It wasn't that they showed their HR leader the tweet that I made. No, they showed them the document you helped create for us, which is this well researched document that shows that study that I mentioned and shows all of the research that goes into how better, more competitive parental leave policies help improve employee retention and reduce employee attrition. 

And you're so right. We have the table in that document that you made showing all the competitors in the aerospace industry. And we do not list Google. We do not list the Facebooks of the world, because you're right. That doesn't matter, that nobody cares about that. They care about what Blue Origin is doing, what's SpaceX doing, what's Lockheed Martin doing, like all of the major aerospace companies that are competing for the same pool of talent. And in the aerospace industry, we have too many people aging out, too many people retiring and not enough people filling those spots. So we're having a huge recruitment problem in the aerospace industry in general. And so this is one of the ways where I really feel like we can start getting more people to be interested in working at these companies. 

Allison: Yeah. Well, I love it. And it was so fun to work on that with you. We're at time,so last question: What is the thing that you're most excited for in 2024? 

Emily: Oh my goodness. I'm pitching another TV show with the same people who made Emily's Wonderland and I'm really excited about it. We have interest from some major players at the moment. So it's still very much in the early stages but it's made it to a more progressive point than any of the other shows that I've pitched since Emily's Wonder Lab. So very excited about it. I love the people I worked with on Emily's Wonder Lab. It was an all women run show and we're gonna do the same thing again. So I'm excited about it. Fingers crossed. 

Allison: Thank you so much for being here today. And we will link out to all of the different places that people can find you to buy your books. I highly recommend them for anyone who has children of any age. You've written books that really just span the whole age range. So thank you so much.

Emily: Yeah, thank you for having me!