Science, Weird and Rough

Kirkwood High grad puts her science background to work on PBS program

Jan 1, 2003 at 4:00 am
You may have found high-school chemistry a dry subject, but under the right circumstances, you couldn't deny its coolness. Maybe you made a colloid of green slime or mixed up something that smelled like rotten eggs. Maybe a small explosion brought a smile to your face.

You can find the magic of science in those Dexter's Laboratory cartoons, too, and in every Sherlock Holmes story. You can also find it in Rough Science, a program airing on PBS that features St. Louis' own Ellen McCallie.

McCallie, a botanist/educator employed by the Missouri Botanical Garden, works with a chemist, a biologist and a pair of physicists to solve science challenges on the remote Caribbean island of Carriacou, a dependency of Grenada, on the show. The team might be asked to build a microscope or make paper or tune musical instruments. Unlike Survivor, says McCallie, the point is to show them not fighting with one another but using their deep scientific knowledge to turn primitive materials into much more.

Called on to make an antibacterial ointment that visibly kills bacteria, McCallie heads off to a cove and dives into the sea, looking for a certain type of red seaweed. By cooking it down in a pot, she manages to turn it into an agar jelly to be used as a medium for growing bacteria. At the end of the three-day challenge, she rubs the finished ointment, made from coconut and garlic, onto each of her fellow scientists' wrists. They all grimace -- it smells awful, but it works.

McCallie says she recalls the antibacterial-cream challenge as the most frustrating of the entire season. "I'm a botanist, not a miracle worker," she jokes.

The scientists demonstrate the power of their fields dramatically. Called on to build a device that can record the cries of the island's birds, a physicist knocks 'em dead with a machine stolen directly from Edison. He uses a rotating wax cylinder, a needle and a hollow cone to build a working replica of the world's first sound-recording device. You get the feeling that if these five eggheads were asked to use nothing but straw and twigs to build a robot that could play chess, it would be no problem.

Yet the episodes are unpredictable, insists the botanist. In one set of challenges, McCallie says, "The kite doesn't fly, the radio only transmits 50 feet and the clock doesn't bong on its own," she says. Even with the benefit of each other's knowledge, the scientists returned to their hotel after each day of filming often "exhausted, frustrated and stumped," she adds.

The Kirkwood High grad (and daughter of beloved retired principal Franklin McCallie), known to her British castmates as the "Lanky Yankee," spent a total of six weeks on the steamy tropical isle filming the six half-hour episodes in the summer of 2001. She's already completing filming of the next season, which was taped in New Zealand, and reports that PBS is in negotiations for the rights to air it.