Kawalek Group

Paula S. Apsell

  • STAGE Advisory Board Member

Paula S. Apsell is Senior Executive Producer Emerita of PBS’ NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW, an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, and CEO of Leading Edge Productions. She is the first science journalist to receive the Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award from the National Association of Television Arts and Sciences.  

As an undergraduate majoring in psychology at Brandeis University, Apsell worked in the high-energy physics labs of Sandy Wolf and Lawrence Kirsch. Her work study job was to scan bubble chamber photographs of the short-lived, charged particles that emerge from high energy accelerator experiments as trails of bubbles through unstable liquid. Upon graduation, she began her multimedia journalism and producing career.

At WGBH Radio she developed the award-winning children’s drama series, The Spider’s Web and became a radio news producer before joining WBGH-TV’s NOVA during its second season as a production assistant. One of her first NOVA productions “Death of a Disease” was the first long form documentary on the worldwide eradication of smallpox. In the late 1970s she produced documentaries for the series on artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

At Boston’s ABC affiliate WCVB, she served as senior producer for medical programming working with Dr. Timothy Johnson. She produced “Someone I Once Knew,” the award-winning documentary on Alzheimer’s disease that revealed dementia as a pathology, not an inevitable product of old age. She returned to WGBH in 1984 and served as NOVA’s Executive Producer and Director of the Science Unit for 35 years.

Under her leadership, NOVA became the most popular science series on American television and online. In 2004, Apsell brought Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to television in Origins, and in 2005, Apsell introduced a NOVA spinoff in NOVA scienceNOW, a critically acclaimed science newsmagazine hosted by Tyson. Other signature NOVA productions produced under Apsell’s leadership include The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos with Brian Greene, Einstein’s Big Idea, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, Making Stuff, the large format feature Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, Black Hole Apocalypse with Janna Levin, and Making North America with Kirk Johnson of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; and Holocaust Escape Tunnel with archeologist Richard Freund. 

In addition to the regular television schedule, she produced WGBH Science Unit specials and mini-series as well as large format films, winning every major broadcasting award including the Emmy, the Peabody, the AAAS Science Journalism award, the Gold Baton duPont-Columbia, and an Academy Award nomination for the IMAX film Special Effects. In 1998, the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation awarded NOVA its first-ever Public Service Award.

Her numerous individual awards include the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science, Boston; the Carl Sagan Award given by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents; the American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award; the Planetary Society’s Cosmos Award; the International Documentary Association’s Pioneer Award; the National Space Club of Huntsville Media Award; and the New York Hall of Science Distinguished Service Award for Public Understanding of Science. She received MIT’s Vannevar Bush Fellowship in the Public Understanding of Science, now named the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, and was Science Journalist in Residence at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, UC Santa Barbara.

She has served on the board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; the Brandeis University Sciences Advisory Committee; and the International Documentary Association. Apsell holds honorary doctorates from Southern Methodist University and Dickinson College. 

Apsell retired from NOVA in 2019 and is now an independent producer and CEO of Leading Edge Productions, working on a feature documentary on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. She lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts with her husband Sheldon, an inventor. The Apsells have two daughters, one a physician, the other a television news producer.