The Interview: People-person geek Gerri Trooskin, spark of the Science Festival

When the job calls for a geeky people-person, Gerri Trooskin’s your woman.

IF SHE COULD slip back in time and talk to her 16-year-old self, Philadelphia Science Festival Director Gerri Trooskin, 35, knows what she would say: "You have no idea how cool it's going to be to be a geek. Hang tight for a while . . . Come 2012, you're going to be pumped about it. Promise."

Come 2012 Trooskin had helped launch the Philadelphia Science Festival and was one of three finalists for the title of "Geek of the Year," an honor bestowed on "the passionate individuals that have made an impact here which the city wouldn't be the same without."

The young mover-and-shaker, now a young mother, has two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania - a Bachelor's in Engineering and Applied Math and a Master's in Social Work. She calls her work with the Franklin Institute, where she's Director of Strategic Partnerships along with leading the fest, "my ideal job."

"I'm a weirdo," she said. "I like numbers and people."

This year's festival - held at locations citywide April 22-30 and wrapping up with a Science Carnival at Penn's Landing - will showcase those things and more.

Trooskin, who lives in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood with her husband and 8-month-old son, talked with Natalie Pompilio.

Q Tell me some of the new and exciting things happening at this year's festival.

It's like your favorite child: How can you pick one? We're doing an event around the science of fear. The main speaker, Margee Kerr, from the University of Pittsburgh, is awesome. She actually works with Eastern State Penitentiary designing Terror Behind the Walls.

She's going to talk about fear and what goes on in the brain and in the body when you're scared. After the talk, guests will have the chance to confront their own fears. For example, the Academy of Natural Sciences will be here with a tarantula.

Q What if my fear is something different, like sky diving? Can I confront that fear?

Not on site at the Franklin Institute that day. But I'm sure we can make some recommendations.

Q Last year's adults-only "Gross Anatomy" cabaret, which focused on bodily excretions, was a popular event. Will it be back this year?

Last year, "Gross Anatomy" explored things like snot, sweat and poop. This year, we're changing it up a bit and looking at the human microbiome - basically the micro-environments of our skin, guts and mouths. It's going to be super interesting and a ton of fun.

Q How can this event possibly be "cabaret-style?"

The speakers will give 10-minute talks and then performers will riff on each topic. It's silly and fun. A lot of what the festival strives to do is to take topics that may have not been historically super accessible and approach them in fun, engaging ways.

Q You grew up in a science family. (Trooskin's father is Dr. Stanley Trooskin, chief of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and her sister is Dr. Stacey Trooskin, an MD-PhD infectious disease specialist at Drexel Medicine.) Was there any gross anatomy at home?

Not really, but if we're trying to align my father's parenting to a 2016 festival event, it would have to be fear. My dad was a trauma surgeon when I was in high school, and he'd use his experiences at the hospital to make us afraid to do things we shouldn't do anyway.

Seriously! I remember him talking about a 16-year-old girl who got into a bad accident while drunk driving. "And now she's paralyzed."

And we'd be like, "Oh my goodness!

We're never going to do that!"

Q Hmmm. Did he ever tell you the name of this girl?

No, that would be a total HIIPA violation.

Q I just find this story very suspicious and I question whether this girl actually existed. Was the next day, "Let me tell you about the man with lung cancer I saw today from his years of smoking?"

It worked, though. I was totally scared to do anything I shouldn't! It was good parenting. I need to start thinking about how I can incorporate some of his approach.

Q I noticed the festival was using the #GetNerdyPHL hashtag on Twitter. Tell me about getting nerdy.

There's a great, growing local geek/nerd community. Over the past five years, it's been incredible to see it blossom into what it is now.

In 2010 and 2011, a lot of new things came onto the scene. The Science Festival, Philly Tech Week, the Geek Awards and Nerd Nite all started around the same time. The energy around the fact that Philly is an awesome science/tech town is palpable. We use that hashtag to get people to showcase their Philly nerd pride.

Q What's the difference between a geek and a nerd?

Honestly, there are a lot of different schools of thought on that. Is it a cop-out if we skip that one?

Q You are a certified master Lithe instructor. When will you and Lithe become part of the Science Festival?

I'm not sure my colleagues here at the Franklin Institute are ready to see me with the Madonna mic on yet. It might be a bit much.

I was never a cheerleader, far from it, so it's funny that I teach classes inspired by cheerleading. But at the same time I like to think that I bring a similar amount of energy to this work that I have in the studio.

It's exciting that in the same day, I can be screaming cheerleading moves at the front of a Lithe class, and then hours later I scream about the wonders of science to anyone who will listen.