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Patrick Breitenbach

Scientists ride the podcasting wave

Communicating science can be a tricky task. Explaining complex ideas can get clunky in writing, and readers may jump ship halfway through. Giving community presentations can be effective, but you only reach a small audience. Video is dynamic, but difficult to produce.

Enter podcasts.

For one thing, they have accessibility on their side. “You can listen to them anywhere,” says Lisa Cantrell, a postdoctoral researcher studying infant cognition at the University of California (UC), Davis, and creator of An InExact Science, a podcast about psychology. On a deeper level, “there’s something, personally, that I love about sound,” Cantrell says. “I’ve always been interested in radio; half of what’s in my brain is from the radio! So I was super interested in figuring out how to get info into other people’s heads. There’s an artistic part of it that’s really fun and challenging.”

The perks of podcasting

For working scientists, the combination of podcasting and research can be synergistic. Many aspects of academic work—writing papers, submitting grant applications, and giving talks—require storytelling skills. And podcasting is “a masterclass in effective communication,” says Lauren Kreeger, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Texas (UT), Austin, who is the executive producer of Brain Matters, a weekly interview-based neuroscience podcast produced by UT Austin grad students. 

Kate Woronowicz, a graduate student at UC San Francisco who is studying the developmental biology of the skeleton, says her podcasting experience helps her create more compelling academic presentations. In 2015, she and three friends co-founded Bone Lab Radio, a collection of stories and investigations about bones, as told by scientists who study them. Its cast recognizes that few listeners will have an extant interest in bones, so they need strong storytelling to draw in listeners and explain why their stories matter. Woronowicz says the same is likely true of any audience who attends her academic talks. “[Podcasting] has helped me contextualize my projects,” she says. “It’s made me think more about storytelling.”

Trisha Stan (right) and the Goggles Optional team interviewed scientist and entrepreneur Elizabeth Iorns (far left) in 2014.

Trisha Stan (right) and the Goggles Optional team interviewed scientist and entrepreneur Elizabeth Iorns (far left) in 2014.

Trisha Stan

Podcasting also provides an opportunity for scientists to take a step back from research and think about the big picture. This can be particularly important for staying engaged and avoiding burnout. “You can become so focused on your individual project and work and sometimes you lose sight of what it all means and why it matters,” says Trisha Stan, who received her Ph.D. in immunology from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She is a founding host of Goggles Optional, a weekly half-hour spot during which Stanford scientists weigh in on the latest science news, often through unconventional mediums like skits and songs. “[Podcasting] really helps put things in perspective,” she says.

One way of gaining that perspective is through delving into topics outside one’s specific expertise. This can help scientists better understand how their research fits into the greater scientific enterprise, and it can provide an opportunity to strengthen general research skills. When Cantrell, a developmental psychologist by training, became interested in producing an episode about Alzheimer’s disease, for example, she admits she was initially nervous about covering a topic she hadn’t spent years studying. But she was confident that her research background prepared her to cover it well. “You tackle it the same way you do as a scientist: ‘I don’t know this, but I’m going to learn it.’” In the end, she says, it was a valuable exercise in pushing her academic and creative boundaries. “In science, you get used to being an expert,” she says. Podcasting, on the other hand, pushes scientists to explore new concepts and ideas.

Shows that involve talking to more senior scientists also provide a way for trainees to see these researchers’ human sides, which can be valuable as they’re thinking about their own careers. “In talking to late-stage scientists, we discover they are not just researchers—they’re multidimensional people,” says Matt Davis, a UT Austin neuroscience grad student and Brain Matters host. “They have the same struggles we have,” Kreeger adds. “It’s nice to see they’re not robots; they’re real people.”

For scientists considering nonacademic careers, podcasting can also be a great opportunity for self-guided career exploration, offering hands-on experience in science communication without committing to a career change. And for some, podcasting revealed their true career calling. When Cantrell began her postdoctoral position in December 2013, she was “still very much considering” tenure-track positions, she says. But as she’s gained more podcasting experience, her interests have evolved. These days, “if you ask me what I’m thinking about all the time, it’s communicating science. … It’s become more clear that I love big-picture stories.” Cantrell plans to complete her postdoc but is also currently seeking jobs in science radio.

Stan, too, discovered that her real passion was in science communication rather than research. “The podcast was an amazing career exploration tool,” she says. “It helped me realize there were other ways to be involved with science, without actually doing the science myself, that were also really fulfilling and used my skill set.” These days Stan, now an assistant professor at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, uses that skill set in teaching her students—and in her secondary career as a musician in a band that writes original songs about science.

What will my adviser think?

Even though they believe their podcasts are worthy endeavors, some scientists—especially students—worry that they will be perceived as less serious about their research if they are open about their podcasting efforts. This fear is not unfounded. At Woronowicz’s most recent Ph.D. committee meeting, for example, she presented not only her research progress, but also her science communication work. She believes that work has played a crucial role in improving her skills as a researcher, including crafting better talks and manuscripts, and she hoped that her committee would agree and see it as an asset. “But [the committee was] like, ‘Well, if you want to stay in academia, like you say you do, maybe you should focus on research,’” Woronowicz recounts. “It was hard to get that kind of feedback because I just think I’m being well-rounded, but they’re like, ‘Maybe you’re spending too much energy on this other stuff.’”

Despite that feedback, Woronowicz continues to work on that “other stuff.” Her adviser has been supportive, allowing her the time and space to work on these projects alongside her research and even offering tips when Bone Lab Radio was just an idea. But as she moves forward in her academic career, Woronowicz recognizes it’s possible that she’ll join a lab where podcasting might be frowned upon. “It’s hard—I’m not autonomous yet, so I still need the approval of the people I’m working for,” she says. Some of her Bone Lab Radio collaborators haven’t told their advisers or even their labmates about their podcasting work because they are concerned about how it may be received.

But the experience of Scott Kravitz, a physics graduate student at Stanford and a Goggles Optional writer and host, highlights the potential benefits that can come from broaching these types of conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable. Kravitz initially avoided telling his adviser about his podcast work, fearing that he would be less than thrilled about his side project. “He’s definitely very research-oriented,” Kravitz says of his adviser. “I thought it might be the kind of thing that would go into the back of his mind like, ‘Hmm, does he have time for that?’” But when Kravitz did eventually tell his adviser—because the adviser was friends with a scientist Kravitz wanted to interview for Goggles Optional—he was relieved to find that his adviser was supportive, and even willing to connect him with said scientist.

Among the dozen or so Goggles Optional team members, advisers are “generally really positive,” Stan says. For advisers who aren’t as supportive, she adds, students can highlight the boost a podcast could provide in the “broader impacts” section of grant applications, now required by granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

And it’s true that juggling academic duties and podcasts can be a challenge. So how do researchers have time to do it all? “I don’t,” Cantrell says, laughing. She often works on nights and weekends, she explains. But, she adds, “you find time for the stuff that you really love.”

A podcast is born

By most accounts, the hardest part about starting a podcast is taking the first step. Anthony Lacagnina, host and producer of Brain Matters, recalls an early conversation about the idea, when the team felt overwhelmed by questions. “‘How are we going to do this? Do we get funding first?’ But Lauren was like, ‘Let’s just do it.’” They discussed it over beers, and the next day Kreeger created a Twitter handle for the group and they got to work creating their first episode. Sometimes, jumping in with both feet is the best way to ensure commitment.

Another crucial early task is figuring out your podcasting goals. Woronowicz suggests having a mission statement, keeping in mind your audience: “Who do you imagine is listening to your show, and how do you make it interesting to that person?”

Lisa Cantrell

Lisa Cantrell

Courtesy of Sue Cockrell and The Davis Enterprise

Another question to ask yourself is what your podcast brings to the table that’s new or different from what’s already out there. Cantrell, for example, wanted to tell novel stories that fly under the radar of most radio producers, who tend to look for the big, sexy stories. If you imagine science media as a physical landscape, “they’re looking for these huge mountains that are popping out, and they’re going to cover that,” she says. “As a scientist, you can look at that huge mountain and see that there’s something interesting going on underneath it.” Cover that instead.

Brain Matters was also created to fill a missing niche. The team members say they felt like none of the podcasts they knew of dug into the day-to-day lives and personalities of scientists. “We couldn’t find it, so we made it,” Lacagnina says. In each episode, they interview scientists who are invited to speak at UT Austin. The conversations focus on research topics, but scientists inevitably discuss their personal lives and career paths, too.

Another detail to think about is what format your podcast will take and how you’ll develop the content for each show. For instance, scripted and highly produced shows such as Goggles Optional require writing episodes in advance and serious editing, so having a larger team can help diffuse that workload. For formats that involve interviewing guests, conversational skills can make or break an episode. Developing strong interviewing skills takes practice, but the Brain Matters team has found that the most important quality is intimacy. “When you can form a little bit of a temporary connection, that’s when you get the most openness and honesty,” Davis says. To that end, Lacagnina says he sometimes tells personal stories in hopes that it will help guests feel more willing to share their own stories. He’s also found what doesn’t work. “I used to start off asking the person, ‘Can you please tell me in one summary sentence what your research is?’ And I realized that would make the professor get stiff in the chair.” Davis and Lacagnina now ease professors into conversation with small talk instead.

For new podcasters, their lack of experience or knowledge can make them feel apprehensive about getting started, but experienced podcasters say the only way to learn is through doing. “I didn’t know anything about recording; I didn’t know how to edit,” Cantrell recalls. “I made some total crap in the beginning. But don’t get hung up on the right equipment or making it perfect technically; focus on content.” And, just like with research, persistence is important. “You’re going to try to get interviews with people who will blow you off; you’re going to record 2 hours of interview and realize it’s crappy and that the audio is bad, but don’t get discouraged,” Cantrell says.

“Anyone who’s thinking about it should give it a try,” Woronowicz says. “It would be fun to have more science podcasts out there.”

The bottom line

Podcasting is a labor of love, not only in terms of time commitment, but also finances. The good news is that you don’t need to invest a lot of money to get started. Many make do with free or existing resources: Audacity and GarageBand for sound editing, Soundcloud for posting and archiving episodes, Tumblr and Wordpress for building websites, and Google Drive and Slack to stay organized. “If you have a Mac and an iPhone, you have what you need to start,” Cantrell says.

When you are ready to scale up to fancier tools, you may find that they’re less expensive than you might think. Services such as Libsyn that upload your podcast files to hubs cost only a few dollars a month. Editing software recommended by podcasters include Reaper ($60 for a noncommercial license) and Hindenburg ($95 for use on up to three computers), which won’t break the bank. The most expensive investment may be a quality microphone. Both the Bone Lab Radio and Brain Matters teams use Blue Yeti microphones ($130), which plug directly into computers.

Your university may have funding opportunities that you can tap into. Goggles Optional, for example, is sponsored by a Stanford Student Projects for Intellectual Community Enhancement (SPICE) grant. Professional organizations may also have funds available for science communication work. Bone Lab Radio landed an Education Outreach Grant from the American Association of Anatomists, and An InExact Science received support from the Association for Psychological Science’s Fund for Teaching and Public Understanding of Psychological Science. Cantrell raised further funds for An InExact Science through a Kickstarter campaign.

If you attract advertisers or sponsors, carefully consider their offers and whether they align with your values. Brain Matters team members, who fund their project out of their own pockets, say they have turned down funding because they want to keep creative control over their work.

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