Macomb County native Janellyn Woo has her own segment on TV. With it, the teenage student’s goal is to get more young girls into STEM.
EAST LANSING, Mich.—High schooler Janellyn Woo is used to interviews, so when she speaks, she carries herself with a pacing and intentionality beyond her years.
But this one’s different. She is a little bit out of her element. Woo isn’t used to answering questions about herself; she’s used to asking them of others—particularly, to some of the state’s highest achieving women.
“I’ve asked so many questions in my career and throughout my career interviewing people, it’s nice to know people might be interested in interviewing me,” said Woo, a junior in Macomb County.
Woo hosts a mid-Michigan TV segment called “Curious About Careers,” which is part of the larger Emmy-winning show “Curious Crew” produced in East Lansing by WKAR. For her segment, which won an Emmy as well, she travels around the state as an interviewer who bakes pizza, boards planes, and explores the universe of scientific breakthroughs. She’s been doing it for the better part of five years now.
At 16, she’s charismatic and poised, probing questions from a perspective that kids around the state can relate to.
Though Woo descends from a family in the medicine field, Woo isn’t just spellbound by science.
Much like other kids her age, Woo grew up on a healthy diet of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, and by eight years old, she began working on commercials and TV shows. A crowning moment of her career came when she was on set with famous pop singer Mariah Carey; Woo still regrets the one time she spoke with her asking about shoes.
A year later, she received a request slightly different from the musical theater and amusement park productions she had previously specialized in—to star in an upstart TV show made with kids for kids.
“As a fourth grader, we didn’t do many exciting experiments since we were still so young,” Woo said “But on the show, we had the opportunity to do really cool things and use objects I had never seen before… It helped spark my passion for STEM after that, and I became more hands-on with it.”
Curious Crew began in 2014, the brainchild of when an award-winning teacher and the TV executives at mid-Michigan’s local PBS station met up.
Rob Stephenson, who was named the 2010 Michigan Teacher of the Year, brainstormed hands-on, eye-catching scientific experiments that normal students didn’t have, and decided to sign on as the effervescent, fun-loving host. Before the pilot, the concept of the show—where kids could conduct interactive, engaging experiences with their own hands, under the direction of a science teacher—drew hundreds of children from across the state to audition.
“It just so happens that Janellyn was interviewed in the hallway, along with the other kids, but I just so vividly remember that clip, because even as a little girl, she was so articulate and so inquisitive and so energetic and so positive,” Stephenson said.
When the two met, that connection grew all the more. On the very first episode of the show, Woo unabashedly fielded Stephenson’s first question. “It’s gonna bubble,” she replied, predicting the chemical reaction of milk’s introduction to a bottle of Coca-Cola.
The connection between Woo and the Curious Crew staff has bubbled with due time, as well. In Season 3, Stephenson and the show’s executive directors checked the numbers to make sure they were hitting the target audience of inquisitive kids equally, boys and girls.
They were, but they wanted to double down. After all, though women make up half of the workforce, they’re responsible for only 27% of fields in science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM.
“As a male being a primary figure in the show, I wanted to make sure that I was highlighting all people, but I really wanted to make sure that we were highlighting women in STEM,” Stephenson said.
The show decided to launch a new segment, “Curious About Careers,” which would have a cast member interview women with careers in STEM across the state. From there, it was an easy decision: “Janellyn, of course, was the very first kid that came to mind,” Stephenson said.
MICHIGAN LIVING: 8 Michigan Pumpkin Patches We Love for Fall 2021
Woo has been around the state to interview professionals from pilots to pizza makers, and the latter has been one of her favorites yet. At Little Caesars headquarters in Detroit, she watched how the quality control director for the company broke down the pie into a science, taking measurables and standardizing the experience. Woo helped, distributing the pepperoni evenly and putting together the pie.
“I’ve just never seen so many pizza references,” Woo said.
While COVID-19 forced the show to adjust, Woo kept her segment up. Even though she missed in-person interviews, she adjusted her aperture from the state to across the country with no geographic constraints on who she could interview. Last year, she spoke to a NASA astronaut.
Woo and Curious Crew are entering Season 8 of the show, but as the show goes on, Woo will soon bow offstage, as she enters college.
“It’s been quite the joy ride and it’s not something that everyone has the opportunity to experience, so I’m very grateful,” Woo said.
She’ll miss it, she admits. And after all, the aptly named segment truly does apply—she’s honestly curious about careers, and isn’t sure just what she wants to do yet. She likes acting. She likes science. She likes communications. She’ll see.
“From the time that I started working with her when she was nine, she’s just as genuine and positive today as she was then,” Stephenson said. “I know that’s going to carry her forward in whatever she chooses to do.”
In Michigan, Woo has built her own legacy along the way, as many kids haven’t just grown up with Stephenson’s lessons, but her enthusiastic interviews and inquisitive spirit as well.
Back in high school, Woo and her best friend were the first students from her district to be in both gifted performing arts and STEM tracks, and one of her goals is to be an inspiration for others—especially, her little sister. Sometimes, 11-year-old Jacquelyn Woo follows her sister to shoots, and career curiosity must run in the family, because on set, she asks questions too.
“I’m paving the way between the two of us,” Woo said with a chuckle.