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“The coolest part of doing this podcast is humanizing scientists and the work,” said Carly Hill, research associate in the Stigma and Health Inequities Lab. “It’s easy to forget that scientists are real people, with real interests and real problems, and a personal story about how they became interested in their work.” Clockwise starting from top left: Saray Lopez, Kristina Holsapple, Mollie Marine and Carly Hill.

Humanizing research

Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

New podcast produced by the UD Stigma and Health Inequities Lab interviews scientists about their research

It’s more important than ever for scientists to clearly yet casually communicate their research to the general public, suggests Valerie Earnshaw, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Delaware. Which is why she and her team of research assistants in the Stigma and Health Inequities Lab decided to start a podcast called Sex, Drugs & Science.

The idea first came to Earnshaw following an invited talk for the National Institutes of Health Office of Disease Prevention’s Mind the Gap webinar series in 2019. Speaking at the NIH is often considered a pinnacle achievement for scientists, so Earnshaw did not take the invitation lightly. She carefully planned what she would say and even practiced sections of the talk a few weeks earlier at an academic conference so she could receive feedback from her peers.

Earnshaw’s talk set a record for registrants for the webinar series, and Earnshaw thought the talk went really well. After the webinar, however, she received an email critiquing her manner of speaking. According to the letter writer, she didn’t sound enough like a scientist.

The letter writer offered unsolicited advice on her public speaking skills, which sounded a lot like advice on how to sound more like a man. At first Earnshaw felt embarrassed and upset, and later angry. Eventually, the letter got her thinking more generally about how scientists communicate with the public.

“How do you know what a scientist sounds like?” asks Earnshaw. “You might read our publications or see our research on the news, but most people don’t hear from scientists personally and don’t know who we are. So I became really interested in disseminating science in a way that was free,” so not a peer reviewed journal article behind a paywall, “and in a way that was conversational so anyone can understand.”

This is the story of how a podcast was born.

Following the NIH webinar, Earnshaw returned to the lab and asked the team of research assistants about starting a podcast where scientists would speak to the public about their research in such a way that even the most complex topics could be readily understood by an audience of non-experts. The lab team enthusiastically supported the idea, and Earnshaw was eager for their input.

“We really encouraged her to start a podcast because we had never seen that process before,” said Saray Lopez, a human relations administration major and research assistant in Earnshaw’s lab. “We all decided to pitch in wherever we were needed.”

After initial discussions about the podcast, lab assistant Alissa Leung, a public policy major with minors in public health and anthropology, quickly drafted a four-point manifesto outlining the goals of the project:

  • Shift the public’s perception toward social science, debunking “hard” versus “soft” science.

  • Disrupt idea that “hard” science is objective and social science is subjective.

  • Humanize stories of marginalized people.

  • Spotlight professionals and community members working in the realm of social sciences.

Earnshaw wanted the perspective from her students to help shape the podcast, so she let them guide the project in various ways. Leung helped connect with an artist to develop the cover art and found the theme music. UD sophomore Kristina Holsapple taught herself how to use audio editing software and became the podcast’s sound engineer. “Kristina really came to the rescue on this one,” said Earnshaw.

“I was really excited about the podcast because I’m interested in the intersection of humans and science, and there’s so much that I never would have known had I not taken the time to work on this podcast, which makes me hopeful that the people who are listening are also taking away a lot of scientific discovery in a more accessible way,” said Holsapple, who is majoring in computer science with minors in human services and disability studies.

Holsapple and Lopez also helped to research podcast guests, along with Mollie Marine, who is pursuing a dual major in human services and women and gender Studies. Mackenzie Sarnak, a health behavior science major, transcribed the episodes. 

Last but not least, there’s co-host Carly Hill, who recently graduated from UD with a major in health sciences and works as a research associate in the lab and at the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy. Hill likes to say that she keeps things casual on the podcast by checking Earnshaw or their guests when the terminology becomes too specialized or obscure.

“The coolest part of doing this podcast is humanizing scientists and the work,” said Hill, pointing to the episode with research scientist Jasmine Abrams, who spoke about her work on the Strong Black Women Schema, sexual health research, and supporting Black academics. “It’s easy to forget that scientists are real people, with real interests and real problems, and a personal story about how they became interested in their work. Humanizing their experience into the world of science is what I enjoy most about working on this podcast.”

“All science is through the lens of the scientist,” Earnshaw said, paraphrasing a comment by Samuel Friedman, research professor at the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy in the Department of Population Health at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Friedman came on the podcast to discuss the intersection between activism and scientific research, including his own role in drug user activism during the HIV epidemic in the 1990s.

Because humanizing the scientific community has become a central focus of the podcast, Earnshaw and Hill do not script the episodes beforehand. 

“We think it’s important for people to hear how scientists talk to each other,” Earnshaw said. “It’s casual.”

Not everything went according to plan during the first season. Earnshaw had wanted to start the podcast with episodes spotlighting research by faculty at UD. After purchasing microphones and other audio equipment, hoping to conduct interviews in person at the lab, the global coronavirus pandemic made that aspiration untenable.

Nevertheless, they completed ten episodes over Zoom in the summer, three for a bonus winter session, and hope to start recording the second season in the summer of 2021. Until then, you listen to past episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Also follow the podcast on Instagram @sexdrugsscience or email questions to sexdrugsnscience@gmail.com.


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