Explaining Engineering: 5 Questions with Lab Coats Podcast Creators Ahmed Hassan and Shane Allen
Texas Engineering graduate students Ahmed Hassan and Shane Allen are on a mission to change how engineering and science are communicated to the public. In 2016, Hassan approached Allen with the idea for a podcast series called Lab Coats. They began with a modest set-up: the microphone of a laptop, Allen’s kitchen as a recording studio and a handful of listeners.
Now, the two aspiring biomedical engineers have recruited a team to help with production, upgraded to professional equipment and have gained an ever-growing following with hundreds of podcast downloads.
We sat down with the duo to learn about their inspiration for Lab Coats, their ups and downs along the way and where they see their series headed.
What inspired you to create Lab Coats?
Hassan: I listen to a lot of podcasts, and I felt like they were the right platform for us to combine storytelling with our passion for biomedical engineering. The people around us, from faculty to grad students, are telling really interesting stories through their research and we wanted to give them a new platform to share those stories.
A lot of people don’t completely understand what biomedical engineering is and its significance in society. As I got more and more interested in the field, I realized that biomedical engineers design and create instrumentation and devices that can ultimately lead to better health care and quality of life. It is a really important part of engineering and science, and hopefully we can give it more exposure through this podcast.
Allen: I’m moderately obsessed with podcasts. They are such a cool medium that we can do a lot with, particularly for engineering and science. It’s so episodic and can be produced as frequently or infrequently as we want. We release about one every month, but we can tailor them to our schedules. Also, we can inject a little more personality with a podcast than in writing, which I find really nice.
Have you found Lab Coats to be a tool to take the complex ideas found in biomedical engineering and make them easier to understand?
Hassan: Yes. We want to make engineering as accessible as possible to everyone from your mother to a fifth-grader to someone who is maybe curious about the work in general but doesn’t necessarily want to dive into the nitty gritty details. We want to make it accessible and interesting.
Allen: Science and engineering can be way too technical sometimes.
Hassan: I think one thing Shane always tries to do — in addition to making science and engineering accessible — is to make it fun and entertaining. Over the last five episodes, we’ve started to define our roles a little more clearly, and if there’s an area to stick in a joke, Shane will go for that.
Allen: Science and engineering should be fun and entertaining. We’re not trying to give people an hourlong lecture in podcast form. We’re trying to show our personalities and that we’re normal people who are excited about biomedical engineering.
In what ways do you try to make it funny?
Allen: It might sound strange, but I find doing science and engineering innately funny myself. It’s so much failure, and we don’t really laugh at ourselves a lot. People tend to only present the good data, but I think the bad data can be just as fun and sometimes more interesting. For example, one of our most recent interviewees became interested in science by almost burning down his house.
Hassan: And in addition to making it funny, we also want to humanize it. If you imagine your typical engineer or scientist, you think of a very sterile environment. But while we’re meeting with people individually and getting to know their backstories and personal stories of what brought them to the field, there’s a character there. And having that character humanizes the work they do.
Allen: The journey to the research is as important as the research itself. In the interviews, we spend a decent amount of time talking to them about where they came from and where they are now.
What is your process for producing the podcast?
Hassan: We realized more than anything that this podcast is an indulgence for us, a passion project. So, when I try to find guests for the interviews, I look for people who I can learn something from and who have an interesting story. In general, I think Shane and I have different ideas for the content we bring. I look for people who do device development and work in the world of microscopy. Shane is more comfortable in the cellular and biological universe. I think that’s why we are good pairing, because we can show the broadness and diversity of biomedical engineering.
After we reach out to a prospective interviewee and record the interview, then we start the editing process, which is an intensive one. We swap off editing responsibilities depending on who’s more comfortable with the subject matter.
Allen: Through each recording, we’ve realized we’re still learning how to do all of this and as we get better we want to work our way up to even more well-known people in our fields of interest.
Hassan: So far, we have interviewed our peer Ph.D. students and post docs in biomedical engineering, but eventually, we might decide to work with people outside of our department and experiment beyond biomedical engineering. One idea we’ve been brainstorming is meeting with educators, particularly those who work with underprivileged high school students. Engineering and science education is a big part of what we’re trying to do, so interviewing people who are experts in that area would be good to have on our show.
What is next for Lab Coats?
Allen: Personally, I would like to do something with science communications in the future, even as a potential career. Communicating science and engineering is not highly prioritized within the research community, but laypeople often don’t understand research findings because it sounds like gibberish to them. It would be great to see if a major journal would be interested in something like our podcast. I think we want to first expand it beyond the biomedical engineering department and someday beyond UT.
AH: At this point, we are just inspired and excited to educate people while sticking to our roots in biomedical engineering.
If you are interested in being interviewed for the Lab Coats podcast or know someone who would, contact Shane and Ahmed at email@example.com.