Smith College geosciences professor Sara Pruss featured on National Geographic Channel ‘Big Cat Week’

Last modified: Monday, December 01, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — When producers from the National Geographic Channel told Smith College professor Sara Pruss that they needed her expertise for a special on “big cats,” she wondered if they had the right person.

Pruss, an associate professor in the department of geosciences studies, is an invertebrate paleontologist and a carbonate sedimentologist — meaning she studies fossils of invertebrate animals and ancient environments.

“I said, ‘Do you have the right phone number?’” Pruss recalled with a laugh.

The producers of the show were preparing for the Nat Geo Wild channel’s annual “Big Cat Week,” a week of programming dedicated to large felines. They told her that one of the shows would focus on how large cats could survive if the Earth were to freeze over, and needed her expertise on what environmental factors could lead to another glacial period.

So, on Sunday at 9 p.m., Pruss will be featured on an episode of Big Cat Week called “Big Cat Ice World,” where she will be among a team of on-camera experts discussing what could lead to the next ice age, and how the world’s biggest felines would fare.

She acknowledges that another glacial period looks unlikely, due to the way humans are altering the climate. It would be more plausible, she said, if humans were to become extinct.

Pruss, 38, of Florence, is no stranger to being on television. She said the National Geographic producers had her name because in July 2010, she was featured in a special on the “End of Man.” She had flown to Western Australia for the filming in December 2009 — at the time 26 weeks pregnant with her now 4-year-old son, Ethan — and stood near some ancient rocks to talk about what conditions could lead to mass extinction 250 million years in the future.

This June, after months of research and helping the producers develop a script, Pruss flew to Hollywood, where she stood in front of a blue screen for her interview that will be featured in Sunday’s special on big cats.

She said she believes the science community is divided on the idea of appearing on television.

“Some people feel like doing this kind of stuff is below them,” she said. “Other people want to do TV work so badly that they don’t care about appearing as sellouts.”

Pruss said talking to a television audience is not her preferred way of teaching, and she feels embarrassed standing in front of a camera.

“We as scientists never do this kind of work,” she said in her office earlier this week. “We talk in front of our classrooms. We talk at conferences. We don’t get in front of cameras and talk about science.”

She does it, she said, because she imagines “some 7- or 8-year-old kid watching this special, getting excited about how we think about evolution.”

“This kind of work does really good outreach,” she said.

Her teaching experience, she said, has taught her a lot about how to explain concepts to people with a broad range of backgrounds and interests.

“I think sometimes people talk to you like you’re dumb — like, because you’re not a scientist you don’t understand things,” she said. “Most people do understand things. I think you just have to be thoughtful in how you explain things.”

Pruss’ paleontology students come from a variety of majors, but say she is able to effectively explain concepts to everyone.

“She does a great job of respecting everyone’s interests,” said Claudia Deeg, 19, a sophomore biology major and geology minor, after a recent class.

Standing with Deeg were senior biology major Kyle Boyd, 21, and junior geology major Helena Tatgenhorst, 20. All three laughed as they recalled the day in class that Pruss told them about the special. They were surprised to hear that their professor, an expert on invertebrates, would be on a special about big cats.

Though not her area of expertise, Pruss’ appreciation of large felines is evident. On her computer are many photographs of a cheetah and leopard she saw while on a research trip in southern Africa in 2009.

“Look at that face,” she said, pointing to a close-up shot of a leopard. “Isn’t that amazing?”

She said that although the animals were roaming freely, they mostly do not go out of their way to bother humans.

“I have been fascinated by these kinds of creatures forever,” she said. “Seeing them walk around in their landscape is mind-blowing.”

Pruss lives with her husband, David DeSwert, who is associate vice president for financial planning at Smith College, their son and 22-month-old daughter, Annabel.

She said she would not be telling the truth if she said Ethan did not play a “trivial” role in her decision to take part in this special.

“He’s super-excited to see mommy and big cats,” she said with a laugh.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


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