When many people hear the words “science, engineering and technology,” their eyes fog over.
Debra Vogler is working to change that.
“I’m so frustrated with the lay people who don’t want information on science and technology,” Vogler says. “We have to do a better job of communicating about what those fields are doing and the impact it will have. I’m doing what I can within my own little sphere of influence.”
Vogler, 66, has been a Palm Desert resident since 2012. Her husband, John, is the maintenance manager at The Living Desert.
“We moved in on Thanksgiving Day,” she says with a laugh. “Believe it or not, we both love the heat. We would come here for vacations and really loved it. We always said that someday, when we were ready, we’d move here. Then the right opportunity presented itself, and we said, ‘This is the time.’”
Vogler was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wis., along with her younger sister, now a lawyer. She attended Catholic schools.
“My mom, a bookkeeper and secretary, was a big influence, teaching me about perseverance and being the best you can be,” she says. “It was expected that I would always do the best I could. My father, a truck mechanic, was stricter than my mom, but I got the same message from him. It was the time of the rise of the women’s movement, and although he couldn’t quite fathom it, he was clear that he didn’t want his daughters to be under anyone’s thumb. He’d say, ‘When you start something, you master it. You’ll be able to write your own ticket. You’re not here to be a decoration or an ornament.’
“My father had me take piano lessons, and I actually thought I might become a concert pianist. But at about 9 or 10, I thought that if someone hadn’t discovered me by then, I wasn’t destined for Carnegie Hall.”
Instead, she began to develop an interest in science.
“My grandmother had a tiny TV set,” Vogler says. “I always watched Mr. Wizard, and thought that I wanted to be on TV. I remember reading about Einstein and learning about the universe. I also remember when John F. Kennedy announced we were going to the moon—I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to investigate and do as many things as I could. I always thought I would do it all. I loved science, and I felt you could help mankind by unlocking the secrets of the universe.”
After completing college and earning a master’s degree at Marquette University, Vogler left Wisconsin in 1977 and headed to Sunnyvale, Calif., for a career in Silicon Valley.
“I had majored in physics and minored in math,” she says. “I started working as an engineer in the defense industry. It wasn’t physics, but it turned out that I was very good at project management. I could assemble a team to get things done. I became one of the youngest project engineers in my field at that company. I also met my first husband there.
“After my husband died (in 1984), I took a break from engineering. I had always loved jewelry, and although I’m not the arts-and-crafts type, I had design ideas and could handle the marketing aspect. I took off for a couple of years and went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco. I had fun, but I couldn’t really see myself doing that for too long, so I went back to engineering as a consultant. I moved into the semiconductor equipment-manufacturing industry.
“Around the mid ’90s, I realized that video was coming to computers, and I wanted to see how I could do that in a thoughtful manner, so I started volunteering to do training videos. I got experience with story boards, doing voice-over—and realized I really loved it.”
By 1998, Vogler had become disillusioned, upset that her engineering career wasn’t moving as fast as she had hoped.
“Promotions for women seemed to take forever,” she says. “I wasn’t that happy. I wanted to do other things. So many people don’t understand science, and the media doesn’t do a good job of explaining it. I had been interviewed for a report we were doing and found I was a natural in front of the camera. I decided I wanted to explore that pathway for myself.”
Vogler started her own media production company, Instant Insight Inc.
“I had come up with the idea of a children’s science show, Curious Duck, and executive-produced a pilot episode. The day we shot the pilot, I was really in my element. I thought it would be possible eventually, but rather than trying to build my own company at that time, I joined PennWell publications in 2001 as a senior technical editor. I’ve written hundreds of tech-news stories and produced and hosted several hundred video and audio interviews with semiconductor and photovoltaics industry executives and technologists.
“Unfortunately, my mother had suffered a stroke in 1998, and I had to manage her health care until she died in 2007. Finally, in 2011, I started working on my own company again, and I’ve also been a senior technical editor for one client and assisted with the planning and organization of technical sessions for another. Getting into journalism eventually led me to doing video production and on-camera work. It was melding what I had done professionally with what I had wanted to do as a little girl—to be on TV. I’m now re-editing the original pilot of Curious Duck, hoping to break it into several mini-episodes, bringing a different dimension to what people think they already know.”
Vogler and I had a fascinating discussion about the difference between pure research and applied research—and a lot of it went way over my head, I must admit.
“Research affects the knowledge to produce something useful,” she says. “Real things happen out of theories. We’re at a point in history where we can’t just say, ‘I’m not a scientist.’ We need to figure out how science and technology apply to real life. I like to think of myself as being a bridge, because we’re getting to the point where what we used to do to make a living is vanishing. We’re not prepared for that. More and more people will start to feel that what they can contribute is no longer needed. It affects everything we do, including decisions we make as voters and how we prepare for the future.
“Scientists and engineers are advancing our knowledge about the universe and how it works. They’re finding ways to solve the problems of humanity. We owe the world more than just being here.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.