Amid the sound of piercing electronic beeps — and a mechanical kind of wheezing white noise — a researcher speaks: “So imagine your baby is sick. You think it could be a kidney problem. The nearest hospital is a day’s drive away.”
Listeners travel into this scenario as the undergraduate scientist begins listing the challenges facing the baby, some of them life-and-death: lots of blood drawn using a painful process, weeks before results can travel to and from a faraway lab.
“Now imagine an alternate scenario,” the voice says, and begins to offer hope that something will change for that little baby.
This is Victor “Tori” Puoci’s first episode of his science podcast. As it turns out, science can help that baby far away from medical help. Puoci believes there is reason for everyone to care about science — and he’s willing not just to say why people should care, but to shape the stories in such a way that people do care.
Produced with the familiar cadence of NPR’s “This American Life,” Puoci’s podcast, “At This Point,” wants to make science accessible by exploring topics that, At This Point, may seem too complex to understand. Topics like a small device that can run a blood test without expensive machinery or even electricity, and maybe help save a baby’s life.
From researching science to reporting science
A podcast was not on Puoci’s college bucket list. A fourth-year Honors biochemistry and molecular biology major, Puoci once — back in early high school — thought he would be a doctor.
“I thought I was going to do pre-med, because who doesn’t?” he says, laughing. “I’d say, ‘I’m going to do science’ and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a doctor?’ ‘Well, I guess; I don’t know what else there is.’”
Then he thought maybe biomedical engineering, “because that sounded fancy. I never really knew what specific kind of biology, chemistry — any of that stuff — there was until my senior year [of high school] when I did a unit on biochemistry and went, ‘Oh. This is what I want to be doing.’”
But one required class, Scientific Theory and Practice, put a 90-degree bend in his assumed trajectory.
The small class of 20 or so students tackled everything from methods to ethics: What responsibility does the scientist have to the public? How and where is research reported – only in journals read by scientists? Is it written in a way everyone can understand?
“I was wrestling with the idea of science being inaccessible,” Puoci says. “I wanted to continue those conversations about why isn’t science more accessible, and how can we make it more accessible?”
So he delved more deeply into the questions with his professor after nearly every class, searching for an answer for the problem discussed the previous hour. Did the answer make sense? What were the drawbacks? Did alternative options exist, and if so, what was the fallout?
He discovered he was just as passionate about the questions as the answers. What does science owe society? How responsible are scientists for helping the public understand science’s methods and discoveries? And what could he do?
“At This Point” took seed in Puoci’s mind.
Paying for a podcast
“We [scientists] all know we do really cool work, but we need to tell others,” he said. His advisor recommended he add to his major a certificate in Scientific, Technical, and Professional Communication. The certificate includes classes like media writing and technical writing, to learn how to do the telling. “And that got me to this project,” he says.
What if his science experiment used words instead of chemicals?
What if it were on the internet instead of in a lab?
What if he explained complex science methods in terms his grandparents followed, and used language his three younger sisters understood?
Puoci proposed a science podcast project to his mentor. A podcast focused on undergraduate research, produced for the general public, using immersive storytelling — inspired by WNYC’s Radiolab and NPR’s “This American Life.”
“I think science is really cool, and I think other people should have access to understanding how cool science is,” Puoci says. His mentor appreciated his passion, but also cautioned him. As non-traditional as the proposal was, it may not gain funding.
Still, Puoci submitted his proposal to Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) through the College of Science – a competitive program supported by donors that funds undergraduate summer research opportunities for science students. His proposal was accepted.