Late one night in 2015, Natalie Newell ’05 was feeding her young son while casually reading a post on a parenting blog. The post, an open letter written by five women who worked in various fields of science, offered a rebuttal to the growing misinformation campaign against genetically modified foods (GMOs) and vaccines that was sweeping the country.
For Newell, who majored in psychology and human development at Conn and has a master’s degree in education, the letter held particular resonance. The authors—all mothers—were as relatable as they were knowledgeable about the nuances of bioengineering.
“During my time in early childhood education, and as a new parent, I saw and heard a lot of what seemed to be fear-based marketing and misinformation directed toward parents,” Newell said. “After reading that letter, I felt like I needed to do my small part in pushing back against that misinformation.”
This type of science-based parenting information, Newell felt, simply wasn’t being presented with the same zeal and ubiquity that the anti-vaccine, anti-GMO movement was generating. So she reached out to the letter’s authors to pitch the idea of making a documentary.
All five agreed, and the next thing she knew, Newell was producing and directing her first documentary, Science Moms, which was released last year. The film addresses common myths about vaccines and their debunked link to autism, describes the benefits that can be reaped by genetically modifying food, and takes on celebrity-endorsed fads that have prompted some parents to refuse vaccinations for their kids, leading to the resurgence of diseases like whooping cough and measles.
The experts in the film argue that by virtually any measure, there are few inventions throughout the history of civilization that have achieved the astonishing success of vaccines. Millions of lives have been saved over the last few decades alone. And as access to immunization continues to expand to underdeveloped regions of the world, the sharp declines in devastating illnesses such as measles and polio leave no doubt of their effectiveness. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, vaccines reduced the number of measles deaths by a whopping 92 percent between 2000 and 2008.
Another contributing factor to the anti-science conflagration that spreads through parenting circles and social media, according to Newell, is the increasingly common practice of viewing issues through political and ideological lenses, instead of evaluating them on the basis of credible evidence.
“Biotechnology isn’t a silver bullet solution to all food-related problems, but it’s certainly a tool that can be used for good,” said Newell. “Too many people conflate their personal feelings about biotech with their feelings about corporations like Monsanto, and that clouds their view of positive GMO developments like vitamin-enriched rice for undernourished populations.”
Newell enjoyed making the documentary so much, she’s confident she’ll produce another one in the future. In the meantime, she cohosts a weekly podcast called The Science Enthusiast, which examines these issues and related topics.
“The podcast will continue until we run out of things to talk about,” she said. “So, it looks like we’ll be podcasting into old age. As for films, I think there’s a lot of potential, because I feel like Science Moms is just scratching the surface of issues that need to be talked about.”
To learn more and watch the film, visit sciencemomsdoc.com.