Spitzer Profile: Jim Keller
Spitzer Media Producer
Posted April 20, 2006
What do you do with a degree in theatre? Well, work for NASA, of course!
It may surprise people that it takes people with all sorts of backgrounds to make a space mission run, but I'm living proof.
Actually, I've always been interested in science. I fell in love with the stars as a kid watching science fiction movies and television shows. I always got good grades in science and math. My teachers in grade school all assumed I was going to end up being a scientist or engineer.
But then, I started needing to do lab work in my science classes. I vividly remember one experience in Chemistry class in high school. I was following the instructions, when my beaker suddenly started producing a thick cloud of black smoke. My chemistry teacher swooped in, grabbed the beaker, and ran to the fume hood with it. To this day I don't know what I did wrong. After the smoke cleared, my teacher looked at me, shook her head, and said, "The students who are the best at the book work are always the most hopeless in the lab."
I had always struggled with my lab sections. I realized then that the reason was that while I can understand the research that other people do, I'm really not suited to being the one who does the research. I think it's a personality thing. I'm really an artist at heart.
By that time I'd already discovered that I loved drama and literature, so even though my grades in those subjects had never been as good as my math and science grades, I realized I should follow my love more than my aptitude. It was the best decision I ever made.
I went to the University of Southern California, where I majored in theatre and classics (that's Latin and Greek language and culture), but I took a lot of Geology classes (and nearly finished a minor in it) just for fun. But while I was at USC I worked in one of the libraries on campus. In my senior year, they started experimenting with writing web pages for this new thing called Mosaic -- the first graphical web browser (which later evolved into Netscape), and told me to learn to write web pages. I did so, never imagining the impact the World Wide Web would later have on the me and on the whole planet.
After I graduated my career as an actor didn't take off, not surprisingly (I was on Days of our Lives a few times, and can be seen briefly in one episode of Melrose Place, but they never even let me talk). So I went to work in a video production company, using my acting skills in the marketing department. The company produced patient education videos for hospitals. I learned how to use videos to teach by watching what the director-producer there did. After a year there, I took a job back at USC managing a computer lab for the School of Fine Arts, where I also learned to edit video and sat in on a lot of graphic design classes. I left there to work as a producer for an online news magazine, and thought I'd made it -- until the dot-com crash!
I started working on Spitzer (back then called SIRTF) in 2001, on the recommendation of a friend who works here. I came in as the website developer, but my bosses quickly realized that I also know video production and graphic design, so today I get to do all three. I direct and co-produce our popular Ask an Astronomer videos, design and maintain websites (including this one), and create several of our print publications. It's a fun and very varied job.
So, even though I got here by a roundabout method, I've finally found a job that merges my love of the arts with my love of science. And I don't have to worry about creating any toxic fumes in the lab.
I'm still active in the performing arts. I'm a member of all three professional acting unions, but I work mostly on stage in smaller theatres around Los Angeles (they're the ones who are most understanding about the fact that I have a real job, too). I've now learned that I don't need to make a living in theatre, because I can use what I know from my performing arts background here at the Spitzer Science Center.
So when your parents ask you what you're going to do with that liberal arts degree, make sure to tell them that you could always work for NASA.