Magic Mushrooms, Cicadas & Orgasms, Oh My! An Interview With Science Vs’ Wendy Zukerman

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In today’s society, it’s hard to decipher what’s real and hogwash in the science world and with information changing everyday, it’s even harder to stay on top of it all. While everyone seems to have a blog to back their strong opinions, Wendy Zukerman, host and executive producer of the award-winning Science Vs podcast, breaks down what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere between, in ways the everyday listening can understand.

As veteran science journalist, Wendy not just reports but debunks many common and spectacular scientific phenomena. Now in its tenth season currently airing, Science Vs topics ranges from the serious to the joys of life.

The Koalition spoke to Wendy about what makes season ten special, how she stays motivated, what fans can expect from her podcast and more.

“Ever since I became a science journalist I’ve always love science stories. I think they’re so hopeful and positive, for the most part, because science inherently is about discovery. When you think about other kinds of journalists out there: political journalists, foreign correspondents; it’s not really hopefully most of the time, you’re just circling around the drain. Science is inherently positive because you’re learning about the world and making discoveries. So many people have this feeling that we know so much and it’s so delightful everyday to come into work to realize ‘How many wonders of the world both big and small are still to be discovered?’ So I’ve always loved science stories.”

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“I think what’s been really fun about becoming a podcaster and working in audio is learning how to tell those stories in a way that makes sense with the media. There’s certain stories that just work really well on television. The obvious one[s] [are] your film stories, where you can see animals doing these crazy things: beautiful landscapes, David Attenborough-style things. If you think about it, a lot of those stories just wouldn’t work well in audio because there’s nothing to hear. You’ll see these huge expanse and that’s the majesty, seeing this huge expanse. Part of the fun of audio is ‘What are stories that we can tell that don’t need this visual elements although we can create a create something that mimics a visual element in sound, so that we can make people feel as if they’re seeing the stars when really they’re just hearing a podcast?’ I really enjoyed that.”

Armed with a passion to help people understand the complicated facts of science so they can better navigate and have an understanding of the world around them, Wendy was the guiding voice for a lot of people during the height of the pandemic. However, as things slowed down on the pandemic forefront with people grappling the new normal, Wendy also thought it was a good time to bring the fun back to science by starting with nature.

“When we look at the state of science and what’s important to people right now, that’s what is defining this season. It was season 8 [we] focused on the Coronavirus, of course, we were learning so much about it; so we focused our whole season on that. A lot of people felt there was a Coronovirus overload and so in season 9 we tried to move away from that, we tried to give people a break from the Coronavirus. We did one or two episodes when we thought science changed enough to rise to the level where don’t need to cover it.”

“We tried to cover things that were a little more fun. I’m thinking of the episode about orgasms or magic mushrooms and then now I think the world and our listeners are sort of settling into this new normal. So this season we’re still trying to do some fun more random things like the cicadas, the joy of nature around us, but we did still cover some Coronavirus. Like the world, Science Vs is trying to mimic the feeling in the room. [One of] our episode[s] is about screens, which has been going on for so long but really ramped up in the last year as we’ve been staring at them. ‘When we come out of this what will it mean for us?’

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Through the years Science Vs has covered everything from “morons,” to “fracking” to “pee” not every topic is right for the podcast. Each episode must grab people’s attention from the beginning, create passionate dialogue from people on both sides of the aisle. Simply put, it needs to pass the “pub test.”

“I’ve always said, a good Science Vs topic is something that what if you were in the pub with friends and you said, ‘What do you think about this?’ and everyone at that table had an opinion about it. A classic one would be gun control. All of sudden everyone says, ‘I think this…this is so obvious….oh no, of course this.’ Now no one at that table would have done research on the topic but everyone would have an opinion about it. Now that’s a good episode for Science Vs because it’s something people feel strongly about, think they know what’s going on, and then when we dive in the research it’s always interesting because things are so often more complicated. Even a lot of diets fit into that category. [Ask] ‘What do you think about the Ketogenic diet?’ And you’ll probably have 90% of people at that table saying, ‘What a fad, you’ll be an idiot for doing that.’ And then one person saying, ‘Oh actually, I’m giving it a go and I think it’s amazing.’ So those are the best topics.”

While each episode is roughly less than an hour, the process to getting it to the final stage can take weeks starting with the research which includes talking to others in the scientific community.

“For a normal episode it takes about eight weeks to fully develop and most of that is research. Through it all we’re doing research but we like to spend several weeks diving into the literature, talking to as many experts as possible to really get a feeling of the space and to work out what the scientific consensus as much as possible. Once we work out that, then we go one to try to find out what’s our storyline is going to be, whose our main character going to be, who are the cool scientists and stories we want to tell.”

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“I think because our show really tries to drill down into the science but we really don’t want to make it like homework. We want to make it fun and joyful and interesting and so that is also a continuous challenge. ‘How do we feel it fun and silly and say jokes that are appropriate?”

While it’s easy for anyone to start a podcast what separates Science Vs from others is Wendy’s ability to make it fun while learning. However, injecting the right amount of humor while educating, can come with its unique process and also set of challenges and learning curve. In the beginning, Wendy admits she wasn’t humble to the science which could have been a massive turnoff for listeners.

“I’ve learned a lot about being a manager and a boss over the last five years because I have this team of amazing producers and I’ve learned a lot about how to learn from them to get the product that we need. I learned a lot about being a bit more humble with the research. I think the feeling of Science Vs possibly at the beginning when I was making it might have been a little bit cocky a little ‘if you don’t think this maybe you’re a little bit silly.’ I really learned from our team and from our listeners really encourages curiosity and is about  ‘if you don’t know about what the science is and you think that this particularly product or diet or way of life is helping you, that’s totally fine.’ You don’t get paid to read the science, I literally get paid to spend every hour of my working life finding out whether things are true are not and I’m here to help you because that is the crazy opportunity that I have. So just being a little more humble about that, that we’re all in this together trying to work out how to live out our best lives to stay happy and healthy. [So] having that kind of attitude and to saying science is here to help us to know what’s real and what’s not. Science isn’t here to make us feel bad.”

To learn more about Science Vs and Wendy, check out our full interview below.

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