Amy Elliott, a Cleveland resident is one of the stars on Discovery’s “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. The eight-week series premiered May 1 on Discovery Channel, presenting seemingly impossible engineering challenges to 10 contestants to see who will become America’s next great innovator.
Elliott, who has an IQ of 128, is currently pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech with a focus in 3D printing. After serving as an apprentice machinist for six months, she used her metalworking skills to build robots, spending several years with First Robotics and NASA Robotics Academy. She also worked for the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center for three years, where she designed and machined an experimental setup to test bearings, giving her a wealth of experience to rely on while competing on The Big Brain Theory.
Explaining how she ended up on the show, Elliott said, “My husband, Sam Elliott, was born and raised in Cleveland and currently resides there. I live in Cleveland part time while I’m finishing my dissertation at Virginia Tech. Pilgrim Studios sent out a casting call to my school via email. I replied to the email with a description of myself and they encouraged me to make a video. I made a video and they flew me out to Los Angeles for an audition. Apparently I did very well!! The whole interview process was super exciting.”
“The series features some of the greatest young minds in America,” said Kal Penn, the show’s host who previously starred in the hit film franchise “Harold & Kumar.”
Penn, who worked on outreach to young Americans in the White House, added, “There is a lot at stake within the show itself, and in terms of what it signifies. It’s awesome to be part of such an exciting new series for Discovery Channel that celebrates all the amazing things our generation can do through creative thinking, the arts and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.”
While each contestant has a different level of experience, they all have one thing in common — the desire to win. The winner of the competition will earn $50,000 and a one-year contract to work at WET, the industry leader behind some of the world’s most innovative water-based designed environments and experiences, including the nine-acre choreographed lake of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
“What you’ll see in this competition is true innovation under hyper-real world conditions: extremely demanding challenges, limited resources and limited time,” said Mark Fuller, series judge and CEO of WET. “The pressure that the contestants face plays out on camera with some who skyrocket with ideas, leadership and invention — and others who do a full phase meltdown under the intense pressure.”
Elliott, 26, said, “Filming the show was just an amazingly fun experience. There were times where I was just sick with stress but had to push onward, and there were times where I was just totally excited and grateful to be there. One of my favorite things about being a cast on a show like this was that we had our every little need taken care of. They brought us all our meals, bought any items that we needed, drove us around and had everything planned out for us. We were really spoiled! But of course the best part of the whole thing was meeting such awesome engineers — the cast — and getting to work on such ridiculous engineering challeges — it was like the engineering Olympics!”
The cameras also capture the intense pressure in the design workshop, as well as in the living quarters where all the competitors must deal with each other’s egos and personalities.
In the first episode, Elliott and the other contestants had to develop a solution to stop a set of explosives from detonating. But the catch was that the explosives were strapped to the back of two pick-up trucks heading toward a high-speed, head-on collision! With 30 minutes on the clock, the competitors had to come up with a solution to complete the challenge.
Other challenges include creating a machine that can cook and arrange a meal for a group of starving tourists near the Santa Monica Pier; building a portable bunker that can be deployed in five minutes and is able to withstand fire, pressurized water and winds from a jet engine; and constructing a robot capable of competing in three different athletic events.
A panel of expert judges determine the two strongest engineering concepts based on logic and design. The two competitors with the best plans become captains and select a team to execute their visions in just three days. The team that successfully completes the challenge remains safe, but the losers must face the judges, who determine which contestant will be eliminated.
“We are incredibly excited about this series and how it combines the drama of a competition show with the world of science, technology and engineering,” said Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development for the Discovery Channel. “We hope that it not only entertains our viewers, but inspires young people to get more involved.”
According to Elliot, filming of the series went on last October to December, “but I’ve been keeping this thing a secret for a year now!” she said. “I’m so glad all my family a friends can finally see the experience I had! I will be moving to Cleveland full time, hopefully at the end of this summer. My soon-to-be hometown of Cleveland should watch the show and get excited about science and engineering!”
Craig Piligian, the series executive producer, said, “Creating a competition series that brings together both an educational opportunity and remarkable inventions by ‘regular’ people was something we’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Now that the show is a hit, Elliott and her husband are ready to created their own concept for success. Elliott, who calls herself the ‘Martha Stewart’ of engineering because she can do it all, say, “My husband and I would love to start a makerspace in Cleveland. It’s basically like a gym but instead of exercise equipment, there are tools like laser cutters, 3D printers, tables saws, mill, lathe, etc. They are starting one in Chattanooga so we’re excited about bringing that to the Cleveland area some time soon.”
You can follow Amy Elliott on twitter: @amytheengineer for live updates during the show and visit her website at www.amytheengineer.com for her take on each episode.