Perhaps you’ve seen her performing or hosting magic on the SyFy Channel or scrolled through her Instagram posts that range from disability awareness to shots of her conducting research at a lab. If you’ve had the chance to watch or read about our guest’s work, you know how diverse and charismatic she is. What is the intersection of science, magic, advocacy, and entertainment? Today, Global Spotlight Magazine talks to Christen Gerhart to find out.
Tell us where you started and how you got to where you are today?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Being around the entertainment industry most of my life influenced much of my early career in magic and television. It felt like a natural progression for me to go into entertainment, even though I was studying astronomy in college and working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an observational astronomer and scientist. After several amazing years, I came to the realization that while I absolutely loved astronomy, I felt that it wasn’t quite the right fit for me career-wise, so I switched gears and began performing magic and acting/hosting full-time. I had several amazing years working on numerous films, TV shows, and performing spectacular events all over the country, but again, I felt that, while I loved performing, I missed science. So, I went back to school to study physiology and biomedical research at UCLA. I currently conduct electrophysiology research at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA and plan to continue my studies of vision science through my graduate career. Our visual system is fascinating and just one way we interact with the world. As a physically disabled person, I became increasingly interested in how people access the world and passionate about helping people with various disabilities improve their access and equity.
How do the different areas you work in influence each other?
I find that magic and science overlap quite a bit. They’re both very creative fields and require you to work a lot with your hands whether that’s building things for experiments or actually conducting experiments. Yes, much of science is computer-based these days and programming/data analysis is a large component of your work, but, at least for me in electrophysiology, there’s a lot of hands-on work and I find it really enjoyable. As for acting/hosting, presenting your research is a big part of science. Presenting your work can be super nerve-racking so having some experience with public speaking and confidence talking to a crowd helps a ton. For me, having diversity in my activities and interests has been super positive.
Let’s talk about a Harmless Project. What is it all about, and how did veganism and sustainability become a part of your story?
I got interested in vegan and ethical fashion after I went vegan in 2012 to recover from severe illness. A Harmless Project came about in a time when the mainstream vegan and ethical fashion movements were starting to take off but hadn’t quite hit their stride just yet. I wanted to create a space where brands could show off their ethical products in ways that would reach a wider audience, not just an audience already interested in vegan and ethical practices. I wanted to show the world how trendy and awesome veganism and ethical fashions could be, and especially how easy it was to make the switch away from non-sustainable practices and animal-based products.
How do you suggest readers practice veganism and sustainability in their daily lives?
Changing your lifestyle and/or diet can be daunting, but I think the best way to start is to start small, so you don’t get overwhelmed. When I first went vegan what helped me was to try to veganize the meals I already liked to eat. I also followed lots of vegan blogs for inspiration. As far as ethics/sustainability in lifestyle and fashion, just taking a few minutes to look at the companies you buy from to see what their stance on ethics and sustainability are can really inform your decisions. Most of the time there are really good eco-friendly alternatives to products you already buy so I encourage people to try making those swaps first.
Another thing that really helped me was to look at how much plastic I bought/used. That really prompted me to be more aware, so I was able to reduce how much plastic I bought as well as reuse the current plastic I had as much as possible to avoid just tossing out tons of plastic. For example, if I have an old plastic jar or bottle, I’ll use it as much as possible, and then when it’s on its last legs, I’ll use it to store my cats used insulin needles (which get taken to a special facility for disposal) instead of buying a special container just for those.
Switching over to your work in activism. On your social media, you are a leader advocating for the topics of #invisibleillnesswarrior and #chronicillnesswarrior. Why is awareness important, and what prompted you to take to social media?
Awareness, visibility, and representation are vitally important for so many reasons. It helps bring stigmatized topics into public discussion. It shows people, especially children, that differences aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) limiting and that diverse people can do diverse things. It encourages diversity, increases awareness, breaks preconceived notions about groups of people, facilitates education, helps diverse people connect/build meaningful relationships, and sets the foundation for more diverse people to enter all sorts of areas.
Talk to us about the idea of Spoon Theory.
Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino was such an eye (and heart) opening experience for me. When I was first diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome I felt a bit overwhelmed as I dug into the research and support community for EDS warriors. Chronic illness can seem so intangible sometimes, especially to those that don’t experience it personally. Spoon Theory helps quantify it by comparing energy to spoons and helping chronic illness warriors describe their experience with dynamic energy and health levels. I found that it was helpful when trying to explain my feelings to friends and family and it seemed to be an easy way for them to understand my experiences. I highly encourage everyone to check it out! You can use the hashtag #spoonie to explore it on social media.
Finally, these fields that you thrive in are often male-dominated. How do you hope to inspire the next generation of scientists, magicians, and advocates?
Through visibility/representation! When I was little and first getting interested in magic and science, there were very few female role models. It can be really challenging to envision yourself doing something that you’ve never seen anyone like you do before. Nowadays people of all sorts of diverse genders, cultures, and identities are pushing the boundaries of their fields and paving the way for even more diversity. My hope is that I can inspire even one person to explore their inner selves to find out what they want to do/what truly makes them happy and pursue it with all the passion and determination they can muster. Being in male-dominated fields, having chronic illness limitations, etc., are all part of my experience and through sharing my journey, I hope to add a new definition/facet to what is “normal” so that others facing their own struggles can feel the confidence to share their experiences, so we build a strong community that redefines “normal” to be more inclusive and intersectional.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT. WE LOOK FORWARD TO BRINGING YOU THE VOICE OF MORE INSPIRING ARTISTS AND CHANGEMAKERS IN 2021.
Interview conducted and written by Naomi Segal