Podcasts by Scientists: Unravelling Science

Podcasts by Scientists: Unravelling Science
2 years ago

Podcasts by Scientists: Unravelling Science

In the next in our Podcasts by Scientists series, we’re shining the spotlight on Unravelling Science! Created by Dr Megan Hanlon, a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity College Dublin, the podcast delves into scientific research and unravels the stories that shaped the science.  

We spoke to Megan about the creation of the podcast, the challenges of producing an episode, and just what it is that makes Unravelling Science different from other science podcasts…


Hi Megan! Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a scientist?

I always had a keen interest in science and graduated from Biomedical Health and Life Sciences in University College Dublin in 2016, having done a summer research project at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, San Diego. This really cemented my love for research and I then began a PhD with Prof Ursula Fearon in the Molecular Rheumatology research group in Trinity College Dublin, having received an Irish Research Council PhD Scholarship. My PhD was focused on myeloid cells such as macrophages and monocytes which are critically involved in directing the immune response in Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), a chronic progressive autoimmune disease. I am currently continuing my translational rheumatology work with Prof Ursula Fearon and have just been awarded a two-year Irish Research Council Enterprise Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue my work on synovial tissue macrophages in RA, part of which will be spent at Harvard Medical School in Boston.


How did the podcast come about?

In June 2020, the first episode of Unravelling Science went live. The pandemic had hit in March, and I was back home on my family farm in the countryside because everything had shut down. I had just finished my PhD and had been thinking about starting a podcast for a few months, and thought, well… what better time? I can 100% say this wouldn’t have come about if not for the pandemic, and I remember my dad saying to us all that we should try something new, a ‘lockdown project’. I took him up on the challenge and bought a podcast kit online for €100 and I just started to play around with it. Honestly it kept me sane during those first few months of lockdown. I had the time to learn how to edit audio, to figure out my format and which questions I wanted to ask, pick a logo (designed by my cousin who lived in my 5km radius, we would meet on the road between our houses and brainstorm podcast names and logos) and decide which guests I wanted to approach. 

My first guest was Dr Mary Canavan, a fellow Rheumatology researcher and good friend of mine, and the interview was extremely conversational and casual which set the tone for the rest of the series. And it just went from there. Initially I was planning to put episodes out every fortnight but having interviewed my second guest Dr Annie Curtis (RCSI) I couldn’t wait and just released it the following Tuesday, meaning I was now running a weekly podcast. I didn’t really anticipate I would still be doing this a year and a half later or that people would have even listened, but it has been the most enjoyable experience and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!

I’ve just finished Season 4 with 48 episodes to date and I am extremely lucky to be sponsored by the Irish company Biosciences Ltd, now part of ThermoFisher. The podcast has surpassed any of my original expectations. It has become a top science podcast with listeners in over 40 countries worldwide, charting consistently in the Apple podcast charts, reaching No 6 and No 7 in Ireland and Luxembourg respectively.


Is this the first podcast you have been involved with?

Yes! This was my first venture into the world of podcasting and it was such a steep learning curve! However, I had been very involved with science communication in other formats, such as the Pint of Science Festival and outreach programmes such as Scholars Ireland Tutoring.


Who is the podcast aimed at?

Unravelling Science is aimed at both a scientific and lay audience. For the scientific community, it is a chance to hear a different side from their peers, as the podcast delves into the guest’s personality as well as their scientific reputation. For budding scientists or those in college looking at their lecturers and thinking ‘how do I get there?’ (which is how I felt back in my undergrad), it is a wonderful way of hearing about the various different career paths and progressions people take to get to where they are today. I think those personal journeys and the experiences that shape people into becoming the top researchers we see today are fascinating. Beginning with a personal story draws people into the podcast, so that by the time we hit them with some science in the middle, people are already invested and want to know more. I’ve had people message me saying ‘I didn’t even realise I was learning something’ which is amazing. That is the beauty of a podcast, it's just a conversation between two ‘friends’. It’s casual and colloquial and through that medium communication is simplified. I make sure to remind my guests to break things down once we get into the science, for my listeners sake but also for my own! I have interviewed people from many different research backgrounds from astrophysics to mechanical engineering; I am a biologist and often the language used in other disciplines is foreign to me, so if I can’t understand it, how can I expect my listeners to follow along? So, in that sense it is a perfect podcast for anyone to pick up and listen to.


What makes this podcast different from other science-based podcasts out there?

I think the unique hook for Unravelling Science is getting that mix between the scientific research and the personal journey. I ask my guests to share the stories that shaped not only the science but also the scientist. It is, at its heart, a storytelling podcast. Talking to researchers from various career stages from PhD and early career researchers right up to professor level has been invaluable to get an honest insight into academia: the trials and tribulations, the highs and lows. I also challenge my guests in the latter half of the conversation to discuss ways to improve academia and the scientific landscape for future generations of scientists. I think it's so important to have these conversations and discuss how difficult academia can be, especially for women in STEM. Hopefully facilitating these conversations can bring about change in the future.


Which has been your favourite episode of the podcast so far?

Oh, that is such a tough question. I have favourite episodes for different reasons, listening to Prof Emma Teeling describe her bat research or Prof Maria McNamara discussing palaeontology had me in total awe. This is part of the reason I love doing this podcast, I get the opportunity to hear experts in fields I would never usually encounter, passionately describe their work. My favourite ‘stories that shaped the scientist’ episodes would have to be my interviews with Dr Katriona O’Sullivan about her journey from being homeless and pregnant at 15 to becoming a lecturer at Maynooth University, or Dr Brian Pennie who overcame years of addiction to pursue a PhD in Neuropsychology.  One episode that is particularly close to my heart is the chat I had with Dr Ciaran Fairman, an Irish researcher in exercise oncology who shared his struggles with eating disorders during college and how finding exercise science changed his life. I was so honoured that he felt comfortable enough to share such a personal and heart-breaking story with me. This was also one of my first podcasts to do so I remember coming away from the interview thinking I need to keep this up.


What topics do you have planned for future episodes?

My latest season featured Irish Researchers Abroad (a nod to one of my own favourite podcasts, Jarleth O’Regans ‘An Irishman Abroad’). While researching guests for that season I put out a call on Twitter to find more Irish women scientists abroad as I needed to fill one or two more spots in the season. The reaction was huge, I couldn’t believe the amount of people who got in touch and offered to get involved. Off the back of this I have decided to feature solely Irish women in STEM abroad for Season 5. It will be tough to narrow it down to 12 guests as I have a spreadsheet from this Twitter thread with over 100 suggestions, but I am very excited to get started during the summer.


If you could interview absolutely anybody, who would be your dream podcast guest?

I would love to interview Dr Marie Cassidy, the former Irish State Pathologist. She would have some fascinating stories to tell, and it would be amazing to get an insight into forensic science.


The podcast has done very well in the Apple Podcast charts. How do you see it growing and what are your plans long-term?

As this podcast was born in a pandemic, one of my main goals for the next few seasons is to do face-to-face interviews. The first three seasons were all Zoom-based and so last season, thanks to support from Biosciences Ltd, I was delighted to be able to bring guests into a nearby podcast studio and chat over a cup of tea. The buzz I got from those in person chats was amazing. It’s just a whole different experience compared to talking through a screen. Long-term I would really love to do some live recordings with an audience.


What advice would you give to other scientists who are keen to get into podcasting?

The main advice I would give is to just go for it and not to worry about what ‘people will think’. Practically, I would say picking a schedule and sticking to it is the most important aspect of running a successful podcast. It is so easy for life to get in the way and to think ‘oh sure I’ll upload it next week’. I can guarantee that if I didn’t set myself that strict schedule of uploading every Tuesday, I would never have done as many episodes as I have and I never would have stuck with it.


What do you enjoy most about making this podcast?

I just love chatting to people. I am naturally a very chatty person and so this is the perfect hobby for me to have! I can’t describe the feeling I get when I can sense my guest relaxing and forgetting we are even recording, that’s when I know it will be a good episode. I also love hearing from people who have listened to and enjoyed episodes. I remember a couple of episodes in I received a message on LinkedIn from a final year science student who said he didn’t know what he wanted to do after college but after listening to advice people had given on Unravelling Science, he had decided to pursue a PhD. Hearing something like that really motivates me to keep the podcast going.


What’s been the most challenging aspect of starting a podcast?

I found all the technical side of things really challenging, I had no background in sound editing or audio mixing, so I watched a lot of YouTube videos in the beginning. The most challenging aspect of maintaining the podcast now is time management. So many hours of work go into each episode as I spend a couple of hours researching each guest and editing the audio once the recording is done. This was easy in the beginning as we were in lockdown so I had plenty of time on my hands, but I did struggle in recent months to keep on top of it as ‘normal life’ resumed.


Aside from Unravelling Science, which other science-themed podcasts would you recommend?

I really enjoy the ‘Ologies’ podcast by Alie Ward and ‘Futureproof’ with Jonathan McCrea. My friend Andrew McGovern also has a great podcast calling ‘Living Room Logic’.


How can our readers listen to your podcast?

If anyone is interested in checking it out just search Unravelling Science on Spotify/Apple Podcasts/Google Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts! https://unravellingscience.podbean.com/


Thank you for speaking to us Megan! Connect with Megan and the Unravelling Science podcast:


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