In my hunt for great women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) who make science accessible to the masses without dumbing it down, I was delighted to find the ScienceVs podcast, now produced by Gimlet Media.
After developing her skill as someone who could talk about science passionately (and have a little fun doing so), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) asked Wendy Zuckerman to pitch an idea for the rising media of podcasting. After Zuckerman heard about Gwenyth Paltrow’s suggestion that women should steam clean their vaginas, Zuckerman pitched the show as Science Vs Gwenyth Paltrow. It was a hit, and of course expanded far beyond its original storyline and namesake.
“The idea was to use humor and the joy of science to really tackle things we care about,” Zuckerman explained.
Zuckerman’s delightful, breezy lilt of the Australian dialect draws you into the joy of whatever the subject matter may be, and the show was a hit! Gimlet Media picked it up five years in.
This once biomedical science and law (double major) student found her sweet spot in science journalism. As many of you may have experienced, science journalism is often quite dry and littered with inaccessible jargon. Not so with Zuckerman. She strongly credits her six-person editorial and production team for their contribution to the show’s content and output via their research and excellence.
With the additional resources from Gimlet, the ScienceVs team has been able to dive into topics with first-hand interviews. They conducted live, in-person interviews to understand the impact of immigration policies on a farmer in Alabama who relies on immigrant workforce to harvest. They visited a nuclear power plant to research nuclear power.
Digging deep to get the answers is both scientific and journalistic. Zuckerman’s lighthearted approach to deliver both is much appreciated.
Since moving to New York, ScienceVs has covered topics ranging from the obvious to obscure—COVID-19 vaccines and climate change to tear-drinking butterflies. The latter was one of my favorite recent episodes. In fact, listening to it ended in a personal driveway moment (yes, I sat in my car until it was done) about these butterflies that drink turtle tears. I am a systems geek, and found it truly amazing how they dug deep into the research to look at natural science and the systems of mutual dependency. Where else would I have learned that the turtle tears actually improves the male butterflies’ ability to procreate?
When I asked Zuckerman about her favorite episodes, her voice lit up with a bit of giddiness. The first she shared was titled “The Hunt for an Invisible Killer.” It was about finding the actual strain of the 1918 flu virus. Her storyteller hat was immediately donned as she summarized her sleuthing adventure to find the original 90+ year-old scientist who identified the virus, and as she refers to it, “the craziness that science can bring.”
Another of her favorites is the episode dedicated to the science behind orgasms. This is just perfect for pandemic times and for the podcasting medium, as one might be curious but prefer to listen with earbuds. I warn you, here, that they do get into the science of it, and sexual health scientists are very passionate about their work. It is not all giggles, but with Zuckerman at the helm, there is always a little bit of cheeky humor. Besides, as podcasters, it is a delight to bring the blush to your listeners and guests when covering taboo topics (in this case, it shouldn’t be taboo, because it’s really about health).
All cheekiness aside, Zuckerman and her team are dedicated to encouraging listeners to be curious… to question things in the name of science. She says, “The best compliment anyone can ever give me about the show is to say, ‘I didn’t think I liked science, but then I listened to ScienceVS, and I love it.’”
Now launching their 10th season, ScienceVs has some exciting episodes in the works. When I spoke with Zuckerman, she was in lockdown in New York City and researching snake bites and venom. It is truly amazing what one can explore from the comfort of the laptop and phone!
That said, I am so happy that we have ScienceVs to share stories and perspectives with flair and fun as they educate.
(As featured in Podcast Magazine March 2021)
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