Kari Byron: Don’t Call Her a Tomboy

DAME MAGAZINE – When it comes to inspiring young women to enter science and engineering, few have done as much as Kari Byron, the host of MythBusters on the Discovery Channel.

She’s not only a fine artist and mother of a 3-year old, but also a seasoned special effects engineer. In past seasons, a typical work day might include arc welding and firing automatic weapons … in a paisley-print sun dress. She has even hosted her own series – Head Rush, on the Science Channel – specifically to get middle school kids jazzed about science. And on Sunday, October 28 Byron returns as host of Large Dangerous Rocket Ships on the Science Channel.

“It’s taken a lot of persistence and hard work to get here,” she says, “but it’s so worth it to do the crazy things that I do for a living while also inspiring young women to follow their dreams.”

Byron jumped into special effects after graduating from San Francisco State University. As a sculpture major she knew how to use tools and wasn’t afraid of a few sparks.

She got her first job in special effects at M5 industries, a visual effects shop run by original MythBuster Jamie Hyneman. At the time, she was one of a small minority of women in the field. She worked her way up in the mostly male shop by building models and prototyping toys. She eventually made it onto the MythBusters “build team” where she continues to blow things up with the boys.

But don’t call her a tomboy … as we discovered, when we caught up with her for a chat.  

Your background is in fine arts. How did that lead to special effects?

I was really into sculpture and wanted to figure out a way to apply that to a career. Special effects seemed like a great marriage. I got an internship with Jamie to try and get into that field but didn’t realize that it was on the decline for practical effects.The special effects field must have been pretty male-dominated when you started, right?

There were not many women when I got into it, that’s true. I can think of one other at the time. But I never went in with the idea that I’m different. I just went into it knowing what I wanted to do.That field has always been pretty competitive. How did you break in?

I started by working for free. I didn’t feel the need to necessarily prove myself. I just worked as hard as I could. I just showed up every day until they decided to start to pay me.What did that first paid gig “entail?”

Yeah, seriously [laughs]. They paid me $100 to 3D scan my butt. It was to create a giant butt for the famous exploding toilet episode. At the time, I didn’t think the show would grow to what it is today. I definitely had no idea that that would be the first thing that comes up when you Google my name.Did being a tomboy help you assimilate?

I’ve never thought of myself that way. People tend to think of welding and fabrication as being tomboyish but I’m actually a girly-girl that loves high heels. I love getting my hands dirty and getting dressed up. It’s super fun to get dressed up for the Emmys and still be able to go to the bomb range.Have Discovery execs ever asked you to glam it up for the show?

No, but why not? It would be nice to show every side. But we do a lot of dangerous work on the show that requires safety equipment like helmets, goggles, steel-toe boots. You can’t really show skin when the sparks are flying.Alexa Havins from Torchwood mentioned that she practiced running in heels while shooting. Have you mastered that yet?

I haven’t, but I agree that running in heels is very difficult.Maybe work that into your next season somehow: the peril of running in heels.

It would be much more fun to put Tory and Grant into high heels. [laughs]Was science and technology always your thing?

To be quite honest, I was that 12-year-old girl that lost interest in science. I didn’t regain my interest until years later.Did the rote learning turn you off?

I did think of science as memorizing the components of a cell. But I always did like the more applied projects where you’d drop an egg from the roof and try to make it land softly, things like that. I didn’t make the connection between art and science until I came to MythBusters. But I discovered that it’s exactly how I approach art with a process and getting your hands dirty.What deters women from entering hard science fields?

Somewhere around the age of twelve, girls tend to lose interest in science. Maybe because they’re more interested in community-based careers rather than “alone” projects. Most science careers involve research or a lot of solo work versus like group process. Also, a lot of role models at that age are generally beauty or rock music or actresses. There’s not a lot of faces you see on TV where there’s a woman in a role as a scientist.Is that changing?

Of course, I’d really like that to change and it has been. In the last decade or so, you see more actresses on CSI or as scientists and it’s cool.Do you feel that you’re breaking stereotypes?

It’s an intimidating idea but, at this point, it’s something that I strive to do. I feel that Mythbusters has been a great opportunity for me to show enthusiasm towards science as a regular girl and not the typical white-coated lab guy with glasses. I started doing something on the Science channel called Head Rush which is aimed at the 12-year-old girl I used to be who needed to see science role models and get into little experiments. A lot of kids really responded to it and teachers brought it into the classroom.You’re also a mother now. Are the demands of motherhood different in entertainment than in other industries?

The funny thing is that nobody on set has children. Not the producers or anybody else. And it’s a weird environment to be pregnant. There are horrific smells and there’s a lot of running around. It was definitely very hard. I had to make a place to nap under my desk. But I was very careful and we talked about the safety.How long into term did you work?

I worked until I was like 10 months pregnant. Right up to my due date and I was huge. It was insane. I asked my doctor how far I had to be away from an explosion and keep the baby safe. Or at what point did I have to stop firing guns. She said that it wasn’t a question that she’s ever been asked and she had no idea. She said she’d do some research.For reference, what did the doctor find out?

At five months, the baby develops little ears. So that’s when I have to step away from the guns and stay behind safety glass. So if there are any mothers in this field, whatever that would be, I have the answers now.

You can read the full story here: https://www.damemagazine.com/2012/10/24/kari-byron-interview-tomboy/