UW News

July 20, 2015

The Next MacGyver will be a woman — and a UW engineering student may invent her

Nao Murakami

Nao Murakami

Nao Murakami wants to invent the heir to Angus MacGyver — the 1980s television hero who inspired a generation of engineers by foiling criminals with household items like cooking oil, a shop vac or a tube sock.

Only this time the engineering heroine will be a woman.

Murakami, a doctoral candidate in the UW aeronautics and astronautics department, was selected from more than 2,000 worldwide entries to be one of 12 finalists in “The Next MacGyver” competition — an incubator for television shows that aim to excite and recruit female engineers.

The finalists were asked to imagine a television show in which a female protagonist uses engineering skills to solve problems. They’ve written “show bibles” that detail the story concept, build character backstories, outline a season arc and describe the universe in which they operate.

The 12 finalists travel to Hollywood at the end of the month to pitch their concepts to producers and contest sponsors, which include the National Academy of Engineering, the University of Southern California School of Engineering and the MacGyver Foundation.

Five winners will receive $5,000 and be paired with television and engineering mentors to develop their ideas further, with the goal of landing a network deal.

“I never really watched MacGyver because I grew up in Japan until I was 14,” said Murakami, who in her day job conducts research on high-power helicon thrusters aimed at sending humans to Mars and beyond.

“But part of me wasn’t quite drawn to it because the main character was a guy. So that was one thing that attracted me to this competition — making a TV show that would inspire women to be interested in engineering.”

Concept art for "The Mind" television proposal

In “The Mind” an artificial intelligence expert named Lucy and her female android ALE-X “download” the minds of great scientists to solve crimes.Image credit: Eric Tortora Pato

Murakami’s television show concept — called “The Mind” — is built around an artificial intelligence expert named Lucy, who is the head engineer for the “Artificial Life Experiment” project, and a female android ALE-X who was inspired by Lucy’s lonely childhood. They live in a world where the minds of great scientists and innovators are stored within a supercomputer.

In this sci-fi/fantasy/crime drama, her android has the ability to “download” the skills and personalities of different scientists, which then help the pair solve crimes and mysteries.

Murakami will include the stories of little-known women scientists whose accomplishments were overshadowed by male colleagues. The first episode features Rosalind Franklin, who played a critical role in discovering the structure of DNA but didn’t receive the same worldwide fame as James Watson and Francis Crick.

Murakami understands how powerful media can be in shaping what a young girl wants to be when she grows up. The movie “Apollo 13” — which she saw at age six — inspired her to re-think her desire to be a detective and drew her to astronautics.

“I was used to watching all these action heroes being the guy who saved the day,” said Murakami. “In this movie it was the engineers who saved those astronauts, and I thought that was really cool.”

Still, they were all guys.

“The fact that there aren’t that many women in certain engineering fields becomes a weeding out process for women who just don’t see themselves represented,” said Murakami. “Having role models — even if they’re just on TV — can help people imagine themselves doing those jobs.”

For more information, contact Murakami at naom@uw.edu.