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How I leveraged the power of podcasts to create academic community

Written by Kathryn Vaillancourt for Neurocrew

For a lot of us, science can be isolating; when I started first started grad school, there were days when I got home only to realize that I hadn’t spoken to another human in hours! I still dread the idea of spending hours alone preparing stock solutions.

Early on in my training, I realized what I most looked forward to were monthly journal clubs, where peers and mentors methodically reviewed newly published research. On the second Tuesday of every month, my passion for science was re-ignited and I felt like I was generating knowledge as part of a broader scientific community.

And I wasn’t alone. I could see the same excitement in my fellow students and our discussions often spilled out of the scheduled meeting time and into the commute downtown for after-work drinks. It was during one of these bus rides that the idea of the On Your Mind neuroscience podcast began.

Our goal: to extend academic scholarship and community beyond the walls of our institution

As we sat across from each other, waiting for the 112 East to leave the Metro station, my friend asked me if I listened to podcasts, and we immediately struck up a conversation about the diversity of subjects and styles of audio shows that were freely available online. He talked about one of his favorite science podcasts that took weekly deep-dives into new findings in virology research, and we realized that there were no such podcasts that took the same informal but insightful approach to neuroscience.

I made the off-handed comment that we should just record our next journal club and post it online. By the time we stepped off the bus we were brainstorming names for our show and it was clear that the idea of creating our own podcast had firmly taken hold. And it was clear that we would be guided by the following goal: to spread a sense of community and share exciting new neuroscience research with an audience of trainees, no matter where they worked.

The On Your Mind neuroscience podcast went on to produce 97 episodes over the course of three years, but before clicking record for the very first time, my two co-hosts and I gathered around the microphones I had set up in my living room/spare bedroom/recording studio to plan our inaugural episode.

We discussed or goals, our audience and the tone we wanted to strike.

We identified our audience and chose a tone

Since our listeners were mostly academic neuroscientists with graduate-level or higher training, we made sure to avoid over-simplification and spent our energy describing the novelty of the approach rather than the basics of the biology.

We chose a research article that found a protein involved in a fruit fly model of Huntington’s Disease. Then, because we had an academic audience, we chose to dive straight into describing the role of the protein in the molecular aspects of Huntington’s Disease rather than taking the time to define what proteins are in general.

We also chose to keep our episodes conversational and informal, to help us achieve our goal of creating community around the excitement for science. As trainees ourselves, we noticed that formal, scripted pieces were often dry and felt more like lectures being handed down from an expert than an open discussion.

Instead, we started episode number 1 with an improvised conversation about the struggles of generating data before a conference, which helped establish our role as peers talking about a paper that we found interesting. We maintained the informal and entertaining tone throughout our episodes, often interjecting and poking fun at each other.

The first episode of On Your Mind was published in September of 2013 and in the almost 5 years since it was uploaded, it has been downloaded over 780 times by people throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Although it’s been more than 3 years since the last episode, the show continues to be downloaded hundreds of times per month from listeners around the globe. And listeners of the show often share that our podcast helped make their hours under the fume hood go by faster.

Even though the articles may no longer be recent, I like to think that our podcast still helps people stay excited about science and feel part of the larger neuroscience community — no matter where they work and no matter how many stock solutions there are left to prepare.

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Neurocrew is a team of neuroscientists committed to improving the way neuroscience is communicated.

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Anahita Vieira, PhD

Anahita Vieira, PhD

Neuroscientist. Senior Science Writer by day. Creative writer by night. Twin/NICU Mom 24/7. But first, coffee.

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