September 24, 2021

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Science Podcast Cohosted by BU Neuroscientist Brings Research to Listeners around the World | The Brink

Shen Ning and Mehdi Jorfi are on a mission to make cutting-edge medical research and impactful scientific discoveries accessible to everyone. After a year of hosting Science Rehashed, a podcast dedicated to the life sciences, they have become experts at dissecting, translating, and communicating meaningful science to students and young professionals across the globe who can’t afford pay-for-access top-tier journals and peer-reviewed papers. 

“Many students outside of first-world countries have limited resources when it comes to accessing the most current scientific research and journals,” says Ning, Science Rehashed cohost and a Boston University MD/PhD candidate studying neuroscience. Ning met Jorfi while collaborating on research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in 2019, when Jorfi approached her with the idea to start a science podcast. 

While growing up and attending university in Iran, Jorfi had noticed the dearth of up-to-date research and resources in his local library, a big problem for an aspiring scientist. Ning, who grew up in China and moved to the United States at eight years old, also understood the challenges of being in a less resource-rich country, she says. Jorfi, now a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and MGH, believed creating a freely available podcast for young aspiring scientists abroad was a perfect way to fill this need. 

Others quickly saw the value such a podcast would deliver, too. Within the first month of joining forces, Ning and Jorfi received funding from [email protected]’s Innovation Pathway program, providing them with financial and creative support, as well as resources to communications mentors and trainers. 

In 25- to 40-minute episodes, Ning and Jorfi have informal conversations with lead authors on high-impact papers published in peer-reviewed journals, releasing new episodes every three weeks. They have interviewed dozens of life scientists, ranging from biomedical engineers to physicians to biologists, and have even interviewed COVID-19 patients about their firsthand experiences. Episodes have garnered over 5,000 downloads, with listeners tuning in from over 75 countries. This year, their growing team of volunteer audio engineers and social media gurus won the 2020 Life Sciences & Healthcare Nonprofit Pitch Challenge, scoring them $2,500 to continue building and expanding their reach. 

“I’m really happy that I’ve been involved and have met amazing, incredible, inspiring people along my journey,” says Ning. “We have a wonderful team. Working on this on the side, in addition to your normal job or schooling, can be a lot. But with a really great, effective, complementary team, it doesn’t feel like work at all.” 

The Brink caught up with Ning and Jorfi to hear how the podcast is going, what it takes to pull off a podcast, and how they communicate complex science effectively for a broad audience.

Q&A

With Shen Ning and Mehdi Jorfi

The Brink: How did the podcast get started?

Jorfi: I sincerely believe that science and education is a right and not a privilege. But the reality is that many brilliant students and scientists worldwide, particularly those who live in emerging countries, start their journey at a disadvantage. I faced this reality while growing up in Iran attending university, where resources to top journals were scarce. The only resources available were outdated papers buried in the back of the stacks in the library from over 10 years ago. Years later, and many gray hairs later, I pursued my graduate degree in Switzerland and postdoctoral training at MIT and Harvard, where I was able to freely explore the latest science breakthroughs without any limitations. Because of this, I wanted to give back by helping future young scientists worldwide overcome the hurdles I experienced. One day I had an epiphany while listening to podcasts and reflecting back on my life, and Science Rehashed was born. 

Ning: Mehdi approached me the next day and asked, what do you think about starting a science podcast? He explained his experience in Iran, and how it’ll be really helpful for people in those countries to have a resource that presents the most up-to-date science of the time around the world. And I was like, well, that’s a really great point and a really great need we definitely need to address. 

We started talking about our experience and strengths—I have a medicine background, with biology, neuroscience, and a little bit of bioengineering, and he has a background in biomedical engineering, chemistry, and also neuroscience—and we realized we can cover quite a few topics, but with a focus on life sciences and a touch of medicine. We wanted to choose papers that have a very high impact or have the potential to have a clinical or scientific impact in the upcoming 10 years. So, we started looking at top-notch journals, and we started inviting people. We recorded three episodes just to start off, and got it figured out. And then, we started working alongside Sofia Nastri, who’s another BU student who graduated last year. She’s our lead audio engineer and she’s a very talented scientist, too. 

So, you started inviting people on the show? How did you grow from there?

Ning: Yeah, we aimed pretty big in the beginning, just because one of the marketing strategies [for a podcast] is, once you get a few big people, then the rest follows.

Ning and Jorfi started the A Fireside Chat series to introduce listeners to influential scientists and leaders in life science and engineering. Their first episode in the series featured Bob Langer, a professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Why do you think access to research in life sciences is particularly important?

Jorfi: There are millions of scientists and students in developing countries without the same resources as we have in Boston due to the lack of subscriptions to scientific journals at their institutions. Plus, we know how vital it is to sift through hundreds of scientific journals to stay up-to-date on the most pressing issues, yet a barrier of scientific jargon dilutes the main findings of studies.

Ning: With COVID-19, it’s becoming very apparent how important it is for the public to understand [research and the scientific process]. Before COVID-19, [the gene-editing technology known as] CRISPR was a big topic for public health and an ethical issue—regarding [genetically engineered] babies and whether it should be legal or illegal. Especially with how quickly the life sciences are evolving and advancing—almost outpacing the ability for us to make the laws and policies [to regulate new technologies and therapeutics]—it’s especially important. 

As trained scientists yourselves, what have you learned about communicating science to the public, or to people who are not as versed in the life sciences?

Ning: We’ve been working with a number of coaches who guide us to figure out how to create a narrative for each episode, and how to screen our guests so that the guests themselves are not difficult to understand in terms of jargon. We’ve picked up a number of different communication skills, as well as story writing skills to include into our podcast. There are so many [specialized] words in science, abbreviations, and terminologies that for Mehdi and me, at this point, we don’t even think about it. But, most people would be like, “Okay, what are nucleotides? Let’s talk about that!” So, that has been a challenge, because sometimes we ask questions without initially framing [the subject] in a way that most people would understand…. I go back and listen to some episodes and I can see how we’ve been improving. It takes weeks to go through the story, figure out which pieces we want to pull, whether we need to rerecord or explain jargon that may be very hard to understand for the general public. When you’re listening to a podcast or music, sometimes you don’t always pay attention 100 percent of the time, so it’s okay to repeat certain things that you’ve said before and, in fact, it’s probably encouraged. We’ve been learning to rephrase things or ask the same question with different words. But coming from a science background, it has been nice because we’re able to have very natural conversations with the scientists. Anyone should be able to understand, if not the whole picture, at least let’s say 70 to 80 percent of it.

One of our series, the 360 Perspective series, is really geared towards the general public and gives a holistic perspective on one topic or one particular public health concern. For the COVID-19 episode, we brought in patients, physicians from Italy, physicians in the United States, scientists who study COVID-19. And so we talked to them about their thoughts and their expertise, so the public can gain a better perspective of what was going on. 

Do you have any favorite episodes?

Jorfi: One of my favorite episodes is “COVID-19: A 360 Perspective.” 

Ning: The first episode has a good introduction between me and Mehdi about the motivation behind the show, and it is an episode that was right up my alley. [The episode is] called the “40 Hertz Idea,” with [our first guest] Dr. Li-Huei Tsai. She’s a leading female scientist in a field that is relatively male-dominated. Her work revolves around using 40 hertz of audio or visual stimulation to treat Alzheimer’s disease. I read [her] paper [describing the method] and followed the work over a number of years, so it was very exciting for me to hear the whole story from the person herself.

Do you have any dream guests that you would like to have on your show?

Ning: I think it would be really awesome to have Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory, because she is a neuroscientist by training. That would be really cool as a part of our Wonder WomXn in Science & Engineering series that we just started. 

Where would you like to see Science Rehashed go in the future?

Jorfi: We plan to continue to pursue our growth in the United States and United Kingdom, too, and we are aggressively targeting emerging countries with less available resources. Our goal is really to ensure that no aspiring individual will give up on science because of the lack of resources, because that should be the last challenge any scientists should have to face on their journey. 

Ning: One of the things we did to increase our reach in the countries we’re targeting is that we started a Science Rehashed ambassador program, where anyone—students, postdocs, early career scientists—can promote the podcast and introduce this resource to their peers and other people who might be looking for something like this. Right now, we have people from Iran, Peru, Switzerland, Turkey, Italy, Norway, India, and we have a US ambassador at Northeastern University. For some countries, there are language and cultural barriers that we need to overcome to capture our target audience. We are also focused on community outreach locally. So, getting involved with local youth programs and associations. There’s a huge number of organizations in Boston advocating for women in STEM and I think we want to join in that effort. We’re looking into figuring out partnerships, either with other nonprofit organizations or venture capitals, biotech or pharma, that share the same type of mission or want to support us in our mission. 

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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