Brandeis University: A People's History -- 1968-1969

Minds that Matter
Paula Apsell '69

Paula Apsell has been the executive producer of NOVA, the outstanding public television science series, since 1984. She began her broadcasting career after graduation from Brandeis with honors in psychology in 1969, joining WGBH as a scheduling assistant. Working first in WGBH's radio division, she created The Spider's Web, an award-winning radio drama program for children, and then became a radio news producer.

She joined NOVA in 1975, and over the next five years produced eight NOVA films: The Gene Engineers, The New Healers, Death of a Disease, The Mind Machines, Race for Gold, All part of the Game, Alaska: The Closing Frontier, and The Safety Factor. Between 1980 and 1983 she was senior producer for medical programming at WCRB-TV (Channel 5) in Boston, where she worked with Dr. Timothy Johnson and produced Faces of Medicine, a series on medical research, and Someone I Once Knew, a film on Alzheimer's disease.

After a year at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology as one of eight science journalists chosen for the Vannever Bush Fellowship in the Public Understanding of Science, Apsell returned to NOVA as executive producer and became the director of the WGBH Science Unit. Under her guidance, NOVA has strenghtened its reputation as the best science series in broadcasting, and has successfully broadened its reach into a variety of other media. Her projects have won numerous major awards, including the Emmy, the Peabody, the AAAS/Westinghouse Science Journalism award, and an Acadamy Award nomination for Special Effects, a film produced by NOVAMAX for presentation in Imax theaters. In 1994 she won the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science, Boston, and in 1996 the Council of Scientific Society Presidents gave its Carl Sagan award to NOVA and to Ms. Apsell for incresing the public understanding of science.

Remembering Brandeis

    I arrived at Brandeis in September, l965, a very naive and timid freshman. Coming from a small and very traditional high school, I was overawed and intimidated by the high level intellectual community of which I had become, nominally at least, a part. But gradually, I was drawn into it, almost despite myself. The first class that really excited me was a physical science course taught by Dr. Pendelton. I was fascinated by his lectures on the Copernican Revolution and the power of scientific thinking to change society. Many years later, when I had already begun a career in broadcasting, the memory of this and other science courses at Brandeis had a role in nudging me toward making science documentaries.

    Similarly, my work-study job in the high energy physics lab of Sandy Wolf and later Larry Kirsch had an impact on me that I could never have predicted at the time. My job was to scan bubble chamber photos, and I knew virtually nothing about what I was seeing or the physics behind it. But I did know enough to sense that this field that was casting an important light on some very fundamental and previously hidden aspects of nature. Again, years later in my work for NOVA, it would be of great benefit to have been an observer of those early and exciting days of high energy physics. I also met my future husband, Sheldon Apsell (PhD. '70), in the lab, and despite his terrible cooking, we have been married for 27 years.

    Another part of my Brandeis experience that touched me in a profound way was the time I spent in Israel as part of the Jacob Hiatt program. It was an exciting experience, especially since it was my first real opportunity to travel. But it also reconnected me with my Jewish roots in a way that has lasted all these years. My older daughter has just returned from a summer in Israel with USY, and it is great to be able to see and (secretly) identify with her joy of discovery, remembering my own from so many years ago.