Joining the March for Science

When the March for Science invited us to sign on as an official partner last month, we weren’t sure what we wanted to do.

The March is a political but nonpartisan protest taking place this Saturday (April 22) in Washington, DC and more than 500 other cities at last count. It began unceremoniously, but we see it as having come together around the need to speak out against government actions that ignore or impede science, from slashing budgets for essential research to outright denial of climate change to attempts at immigration bans that would stifle collaboration.

Courtesy American Astronomical Society

Courtesy American Astronomical Society

Many of us have been personally galvanized by recent political events, but our team hesitated. We worried (and continue to worry) about missteps from the March organizers on social media, and what we've seen and heard from critics and supporters alike. We wondered if we were straying from our core mission to find and share true, personal stories about how science affects people’s lives.

And then we thought about some of those stories we’ve gathered over the past seven years.

The environmental engineer who fought against government cover-up in Flint, Michigan, when he and his team discovered lead in the water.

The Muslim physicist whose neighbors reported him to Homeland Security.

The biomedical engineer who had to take out a loan “equivalent to feeding ten thousand hungry people for ten years” just to come to the United States for his education. The physicist whose perspective is forever shaped by her experience as a war refugee. And all of the other immigrant scientists we’ve worked with who came here to contribute to science.

The bioethicist who was sexually assaulted on the subway and couldn’t find a police officer who would take her seriously.

The geneticist who was harassed by Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers because she believes women have a place in science.

The transgender marine biologist who worried he wouldn’t be accepted by his colleagues.

The African American biologist who was called a “whore” because she wouldn’t work for free. And all of the other scientists who were told they weren’t good enough for science, or that they didn’t belong in science because of the color of their skin or because of their gender or ethnicity or sexuality, or because of their accent or where they’re from. The scientists who, as biologist Danielle Lee put it, have to “work twice as hard” for the same recognition.

And that was when we realized that, above all else, The Story Collider must stand with scientists. Not only because we genuinely care about each individual scientist we’ve worked with, but also because we know that things like racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia stand in the way of good science, which is proven to be most innovative when it’s diverse and inclusive.

There are three things that The Story Collider cannot, in good conscience, compromise on: respect for all people, respect for science, and respect for scientists. To remain silent now, a time of crisis for all three, would betray our values as an organization.

In the end, our board voted unanimously to become an official partner of the March for Science. In doing so, we’re proud to join over hundreds of other science organizations such as the American Geophysical Union (AGU), SACNAS, and AAAS. Many of our producers will be participating in their local marches. Our executive director and artistic director will be marching in Washington. We invite you to march with us, and to join us at our local DC venue, Busboys and Poets 5th and K, at 6 pm on April 22, for a post-march drink.

-- The Story Collider team


Celebrating the Stories of Women in STEMM

On March 27, 2017, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a "Celebration of the Stories of Women in STEMM."

The Story Collider was honored to contribute to the event by creating two audio segments to frame the discussion panels. These pieces were designed to be evocative sketches. They weave together just a few of the countless moments of courage, perseverance, and insight shared on our stage.

This playlist pulls together the full stories - we hope you enjoy! 


Our science, our stories

The Story Collider's tagline is true, personal stories about science. From time to time, we are asked "Where is the science in this episode? I thought this was supposed to be about science!" This is almost always in reaction to a story that focuses on experiences and feelings not directly tied to research. Here's how I explain our choices: 

First, The Story Collider believes that science is shaping all of our lives, perhaps now more than ever before. That means everyone has science stories and the right to tell them. This is why Story Collider has all kinds of people on our stages and podcast - scientists, of course, but also comedians, cops, patients, parents - and we're hungry to keep growing in this way. I've heard people call this "quietly subversive." I like that. Science belongs to everyone.

Second, we know that science is a human undertaking. A process that shapes and is shaped by flawed, funny, perfectly imperfect human beings. I care about the suffering scientists experience as they try to make careers or share their findings. I will not ignore the ways that race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, age, class, ethnicity, and immigration status shape their struggles.

We believe sharing intensely personal and political stories of science is essential. It reassures those in pain are in that they are not alone, that they are not unheard. We hope it moves our audiences to think about how their own work and lives would benefit from solving problems that don't affect them personally. And finally, we hope these stories inspire those with power to act. 

This is a great moment in time for all fans of science to think carefully about what exactly they are fighting for. 

- Liz

Story Collider Staff Picks 2016

At the end of every year, each Story Collider staff member selects a story that resonated with him or her to feature for our end-of-the-year roundup. This year, each of us has selected a story that changed us, or opened our eyes in some way, big or small. We hope you enjoy!

Paula Croxson: How Cold Is Too Cold?

There are people who are built to run. They gracefully devour the miles with long, strong legs and are a marvel to behold. I know because I spend a lot of time watching them while I plod along in their wake. I’m a late-blooming runner, galvanized by an NPR interview in which running was described as a “sport for stubborn people.” I may not be graceful, but tenacious? Sure. And I think it is specifically because I will never be particularly fast that distance running has become seductive to me. I had just started training for my very first marathon when I heard Paula Croxson tell the story “How Cold Is Too Cold?” Her human anatomy lesson is what initially caught my attention, but her race-day story and inner monologue during her swim are what stick with me. During my marathon training, I slipped on ice once and fell spinning. I got lacerated by brambles and sunk in mud over my ankles many times. I got disoriented and euphoric, crying with joy and exhaustion. Every time, Paula’s story was a touchstone for me. Was I overdoing it? Was I endangering myself? Were these things to be proud of or embarrassed by? Knowing when to turn back is just as important as being able to put your head down and keep swimming. As Paula says at the end of her story, “Don’t get me wrong, [doing these swims] still scares me… but I can’t wait to do the next one.” As for me, well, my second marathon is in April.

-- Liz Neeley, executive director


Nathan Boll: What Else Is Out There?

“What if” terrifies me. I can’t even have a discussion on vacations too far ahead of time because I worry about scheduling, taking time off from work, planning logistics, etc. The “let’s move to X” exercise often employed by my partner when we’re feeling overwhelmed actually ends up being more overwhelming because my mind immediately goes to, “How would we pay for it?” or “What if we couldn’t find jobs?” or “What would we take?” With this mindset, I have to say that I surprised myself when thinking about memorable stories from 2016 and immediately thought of Nathan Boll’s story, “What Else Is Out There?” He didn’t worry about the small (what I feel is huge) stuff. Each time in his life when he wasn’t happy, he took action to fix it. His independence and spirit and willingness to put himself out there are an inspiration to me. His story reminds me that things will work out, so perhaps I should stop worrying about everything.

-- Shane Hanlon, DC producer and host


Kaća Bradonjić: The Nature of Space and Time

There’s a particularly difficult kind of story to pull off: one where the science and the story are separate, but comment on each other. It’s easy to make that forced or for the parallel to not really work. Kaća Bradonjić’s story is spectacular in how well it works. The story of a war refugee whose notions of time and space are shattered by the experience is perfectly complemented by the ideas of a theoretical physicist who studies the notions of space and time in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and of course the story is really made powerful by the fact that they’re the same person. I love stories of science directly impacting people’s lives, but there is extraordinary poetry in the parallels when it really works.

-- Ben Lillie, co-founder and director of special projects


MaryAnn Wilbur: Two Pregnancies

Those of us in the storytelling scene talk a lot about empathy. What does it mean to experience someone else's life vicariously? Professor Amy Shuman offers a warning: “Empathy is one kind of obligation, sometimes creating a possibility for understanding across differences, sometimes involving sentimentality, sometimes romanticizing tragedy as inspiration, but in any case deeply compromising the relationship between tellers and listeners.” MaryAnn Wilbur's story is one of the most literal examples I have ever seen of the potential problems with empathy: an OBGYN delivering a pre-term baby at exactly as many weeks as she is herself "secretly pregnant." Totally understandable thoughts of her own fetus are followed by an admonishing "This is so not about me." MaryAnn beautifully captures the paradox many of us in caretaking professions confront every day: "I'm charged with caring for humans, but I'm a human."

-- Christine Gentry, Boston producer and host


Maryam Zaringhalam: Cheating My Way to Smart

When I was in school, I always finished my math test first, and was very proud of the deep sighs of annoyance that my fellow students would give me as I walked to the front of the class to pass in my exam. I played this story for my students the other week while they were studying for their final. I regularly find my role as a high school teacher is to relieve anxiety instead of teach because they seem to believe that if they don’t pass their math test, they will end up destitute, alone, and unloved. I find myself regularly telling my students that the test doesn’t matter, their grades don’t matter, and they just need to learn how to breathe. It may seem irresponsible, but I want them to know that they can cheat their way through school because I want them to know that success in school and success after school are not analogous. Though it may feel like it, school is not just a level in a game that they complete, but rather school is a time in life when they are open to learning lessons. Maryam’s story really hits home that idea that the lessons she learned from the classroom were not the ones on the syllabus. It’s an amazing reminder to have as a teacher -- it relieves me from the awesome responsibility that I arrogantly place on myself, and also humbles me to remember that the lessons that my students learn are as much based on who I sit them next to as what I say to them. So therefore I want them to know that they can cheat their way into all the smart classes, but the reality is that in adult life they are going to have to do the work, so they might as well learn how to do it now. I wish I had known that I was learning useful lessons when I was that age -- I might have paid more attention instead of just focusing on finishing as soon as possible.

-- Nisse Greenberg, New York producer and host


Nneze Akwiwu: The First Female President of Nigeria

I first met Nneze Akwiwu by phone.  I was interviewing her for a public radio story about her chemistry professor at Spelman, John Dimandja.  She spoke eloquently about the role he played in getting her to believe in herself.  John told a story at our Atlanta Story Collider in 2015.  When we returned to do a show in Atlanta in 2016, I asked him for recommendations of storytellers.  He suggested Nneze.  I leapt at the chance to work with her again.  And her story -- about her journey to want to become the first female president of Nigeria -- really moved me.  Nneze’s semester ramped up fast, so we worked together on her story over the phone just a couple of times. We decided to position her last in the lineup for the show, and her story was the perfect way to conclude the evening.  It contrasted the hardships of growing up as a girl in Nigeria with Nneze’s dreams of leading her country into a new era.  After the show concluded, numerous people approached Nneze.  One person asked her to follow up about a job opportunity.  And within a month of us posting her story on the Story Collider podcast, it became one of the episodes listened to the most.  I’m so proud of Nneze -- for daring to dream, and daring to do it out loud.

-- Ari Daniel, Boston producer and host


Patrick Freeman: Elephant Time

As a physicist, I don’t think much about biology. I mean, I appreciate it as an invaluable part of science, and I know there’s tons of interesting stuff happening in the field, but it’s not something I feel much connection to. Patrick Freeman’s story, “Elephant Time,” changed that for me. Patrick talks about how, while doing field work on elephants, he got the news that his grandfather had died, and how being among these large, serene, beautiful creatures helped him deal with his emotions even during the chaos of being in the field. When my parents died, I found consolation in my own research, i.e., math. The orderly process of doing a calculation helped me find solace in the middle of a turbulent personal period. Hearing Patrick’s story of how he found comfort in a “messy” discipline -- conservation biology -- let me experience how another type of scientist processes grief. And although I’ll never find myself in the middle of an elephant preserve, the next time I need to work through some difficult emotions, I may just sit down with a glass of bourbon, think of Patrick’s story, and watch a few elephant videos.

-- Brian Wecht, co-founder and LA producer and host


Dan Daneshvar: Making the Death Call

Listening to Dan's story about making phone calls to families requesting the donation of their deceased loved ones’ brains for science research, I couldn't believe that someone would do such a thing!  It seemed wrong to donate something that isn't yours -- or to pillage your family member's dead corpse.  I couldn't imagine saying yes to a request like that for my mother or father's brain!  In looking at a person, you don't imagine all the inner workings going on inside their skin.  You only see them on the outside.  The idea of a brain outside a body, being studied and poked -- I didn't want to think about it at all.  Even Dan himself admitted to feeling torn about the appropriateness of making this big ask to total strangers and admitted that it doesn't get easier to make each phone call.  What changed my mind about what I would say if I were ever to receive this call was his sense of mission.  It gives him the energy to continue -- to study the effects of repetitive concussions in order to help those who will be affected by it in the future.  If he's successful, his research could help save a life.  Not only would I now say yes, but his story has also made me realize that the best thing that you can do with your own life is do something bigger than yourself that will help others, create a ripple effect of good, and hopefully outlive you.

-- Cassie Soliday, LA producer and host


Rachel Yehuda: Cause and Effect

I first heard Rachel's amazing story last winter as part of a six-week workshop The Story Collider did with Mt. Sinai's Friedman Brain Institute. Rachel is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai who has made important discoveries about why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others don't, and how the effects can even cross generations. (You can tell she's important because she has her own Wikipedia page.) In her story, she returns to her hometown of Cleveland as a young psychiatrist in an attempt to study PTSD in Holocaust survivors in her community and finds they're less eager to hand over their "blood and urine" than she'd anticipated. Last winter, I was especially struck by this part of her story: "We used to have all these discussions about whether the Holocaust could happen again, in the United States. I really thought those were rhetorical questions. I guess I felt safe. But I could see that my friends who had Holocaust survivor parents were actually in some way preparing for this possibility... There was one family that cooked, ate, and slept in their basement, leaving two floors above unoccupied. I guess they still felt like they were in hiding." At the time, I couldn't fathom that anyone could really believe another Holocaust could happen today, in the United States -- so much so that they would still live with this fear. But since last winter, I've seen how hate can take root and gain strength quickly and unexpectedly, from the spray-painted swastikas that appeared overnight on our local Adam Yauch Park after the election to its more serious and insidious forms, and the way I listen to this story has changed. Like Rachel in her story, I've learned that the fears these survivors experienced are very real, and need to be heard and understood.

-- Erin Barker, artistic director

Remembering Raine, Ron & Stephanie

Two years ago, The Story Collider did a show with cancer patient community Smart Patients out in San Francisco that I was lucky enough to produce. I got to know six really special people who were fighting, or had fought, cancer, and work with them on their stories. Last year, I found out that two of those people, Raine and Ron, had passed away. Just this week, I found out a third, Stephanie, has passed away.

This is heartbreaking. I was fortunate to get to know these folks and to have them share their stories with me, and I will never forget them or their stories. Stephanie was a truly special and warm person. Her obituary describes her as "a quiet, but potent, lesbian-feminist activist." I can tell you from experience, she gave quality hugs.

We were only podcasted one of the stories from our Smart Patients show, "Fading Notes" by Emily Caudill (who is fortunately still with us), but you can watch the rest, including those from Raine, Ron, and Stephanie, on the Smart Patients YouTube channel. (You'll notice many of the patients were using notes, due to what they called "chemo brain.")

Sadly, they aren't the only storytellers we've lost to cancer. In 2010, Michelle Dobrawsky, one of our first storytellers on the podcast, passed away. 

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

Take Our Listener Survey!

Hello, science story lovers! 

We need your help to improve our podcast in 2017! If you get a chance this week, please take our brief listener survey and let us know what you think -- what kind of stories you'd like to hear more of, what kind of features we could add to the podcast, etc. We're so excited to continue bringing you science stories in the coming year, and I, for one, have a feeling that true, personal stories are now more important than ever. Click the button below to begin the survey.

Of course, one of The Story Collider's primary goals is to bring science stories to as many diverse audiences as possible, and we want to be sure that as we grow we're continuing to reach out to all audiences and demographics. For this reason, at the end of the survey, there are a few questions related to demographics. The results of this survey are anonymous and confidential, but please feel free to leave blank any questions you're not comfortable answering.

Thank you again for taking the time to contribute to The Story Collider!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

Saying Goodbye to Our Podcast Editor & Welcoming Another

Rose, reaching for the stars on the Story Collider stage in Brooklyn.

Rose, reaching for the stars on the Story Collider stage in Brooklyn.

The Story Collider is saying goodbye to our beloved podcast editor, Rose Eveleth, this month as she embarks on an exciting new opportunity producing the podcast based on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series

Those of you who know Rose will probably understand what she’s meant to The Story Collider over the years. She’s been an excellent podcast editor, but even more than that, she’s challenged us and inspired us to be better at every step along the way.

Do yourself a favor and check out not only her upcoming work at 30 for 30, but her amazing podcast Flash Forward -- which, each episode, explores a new possible future scenario. I'm told it will continue on a monthly basis while she tackles this new project at ESPN. Below, you can listen to the one time we managed to drag her out from behind the scenes at Story Collider -- a charming story of learning to ask for help. It's safe to say that everyone at SC will miss Rose's influence, her guidance, and her pathological love of foxes.

Luckily, we’re welcoming a new podcast editor -- Zoë Saunders. Zoë is currently an intern for our good friends at public radio’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen and has a master’s degree in archaeology. She says she's excited to be joining the Story Collider team (she did! I swear!), and we're excited to be welcoming her to the team!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director


In Recent Podcasts: Drunk Driving and Niagara Falls

Here at Story Collider, we're busy preparing for our fall slate of shows -- which includes trips to DC, San Francisco, New Orleans, and more! -- and I'm just catching up here on some of our recent podcasts today. Two amazing recent storytellers from our podcast? Comedian Wyatt Cenac and Science Friday's Ira Flatow.

Wyatt Cenac: Drunk Driving for Science

You may recognize Wyatt from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, or from his new show on TBS, People of Earth, about a support group for alien abductees (which, I have to say, looks great), or from his recent standup comedy special, Furry Dumb Fighter. We were lucky enough to have him in our May show that we produced in partnership with public radio’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. (You can still watch the whole show here!)

Wyatt shared a hilarious story about completing his high school community hours at a science center--”This was a place of science. I knew this because it was called The Science Place,” he says. At The Science Place, he became addicted to cracking their drunk-driving simulator, trying to find a gender, height, weight, and number of beers to enter into the computer that would still allow him to “get home safely.” “You’re telling me that a seven-foot-tall, 300-pound man can’t have beer?” Wyatt says. “I mean, I’m basically Shaquille O’Neal right now and I can’t have one beer?”

To Wyatt’s credit, according to a chart from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in this Business Insider article, Shaq could indeed have one beer. Also according to their chart, I am “impaired” after one drink and legally intoxicated after two. I have to say, given past experience, this makes sense.

Ira Flatow: The Sound of the Falls

Science Friday’s Ira Flatow appeared in one of our Brooklyn shows last summer, telling a story from his early days working for NPR, when he’d been assigned to find out what it sounds like to go over Niagara Falls -- using a recorder, not firsthand observation. He recounts his boss telling him, "I want to take a barrel and I want to throw it over Niagara Falls. But not just any sort of barrel. I want to put a tape recorder in the barrel so we can record what it sounds like to go over the falls in a barrel -- because very, very few people have survived to tell the tale of what that sounds like."

This turns out to be true! There is a Wikipedia page actually titled: “List of Objects that Have Gone Over Niagara Falls," and it's a bit of a grim read. (Can I please direct you to the entry from 1930, which includes the line “The turtle survived the ordeal”? I plan to end all future dinner party anecdotes with that line.) One thing I never thought of -- apparently fish swim over the Falls. "The volume of the Falls creates a cushion of air bubbles and water mixture at the base that softens the the surface of the plunge pool at the base of the Falls," and their bodies are built to absorb pressure, according to the website Niagara Falls Thunder Alley. Once, a tourist was grazed by a salmon that had been swept over the Falls.

So if you want to find out what it sounds like to go over Niagara Falls, you'll either have to listen to this story, or ask a fish.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In Recent Podcasts: Grandfathers and Hypothermia

Last week's podcast featured none other than Story Collider co-founder, Ben Lillie, aka my boss. What I love about this story is that it shows the importance of science communication on a granular level. We spend a lot of time thinking about science communication on a grand scale -- how do we educate the public, relay information to voters, become a more scientifically literate society? And all those things are important. But sometimes science communication can be as simple and as complex as a grandson wanting to understand his grandfather’s life. 

You can read about Ben's grandfather and his sailboats on his Wikipedia page here and find out "Whatever happened to the fun?" here. For more Ben Lillie magic, check out his previous story, "The Impostor Heart Attack."

Last week’s story came from neuroscientist Paula Croxson. Paula has helped Story Collider with our annual Brain Awareness Week shows, and told a story at a previous show about how her work helped her come to understand her grandmother’s neurological problems. The story Paula told with us this year is a little more lighthearted -- if still dangerous.

When Paula moved to New York from the UK, she wasn’t prepared for the culture shock. Looking for something familiar and comfortable, she began swimming, and this led her to sign up for her first open-water swimming race. Before listening to Paula’s story, I was unfamiliar with all the risks of ope- water swimming, particularly of hypothermia. “When you’re in the water the heat gets sucked away from you thirty times faster than it does in the air,” Paula says. The shivering can be a dangerous drain on a swimmer’s energy. “However,” Paula says ominously, “it’s not nearly as bad as when you stop shivering.”

Excuse me while I wrap myself in seven blankets.

Just wait until Paula tells you about “THE CLAW.”

Since listening to Paula’s story, I’ve read more about open water swimming and came across an article about the most dangerous open water swims that contained this passage, about Kim Chambers' swim across the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Kim Chambers... didn’t take warm showers for six months to prepare for the low temperatures. She was stung [by jellyfish] more than 200 times during her swim in 2014 and had to be hospitalised after she’d finished because of all the toxins in her body.

Yeah, I think I’ll stick to swimming pools. No offense, Paula.

See you next week!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

The Story Collider Podcast Achieves 5 Million Listens!

We're proud to announce that, as of today, The Story Collider's podcast has been listened to more than five million times on Soundcloud. Thank you so much, science story lovers, for helping us reach this goal! We've loved sharing every one of these stories with you.

As we continue to grow over the coming year, we'll need you help. Please help spread the word further -- by tweeting about us, writing reviews on iTunes, liking and commenting on stories on Soundcloud, sharing your favorite episodes with friends, etc. As always, we depend on you guys to get the word out. With your help, we can bring science stories to new and bigger audiences, and show more and more people how science is a real part of all our lives. 

Thanks again, from the entire staff of The Story Collider!


In This Week's Podcast: Equinox Magic

This week’s podcast came to us from our sixth (!) anniversary show at our home in Brooklyn, New York, from veteran storyteller and LGBT health educator Elana Lancaster.

Elana's story is about his overwhelming frustration when a student teacher attempted to teach his grade school class that, every year the on the vernal equinox, it's possible to balance eggs on their ends, due to planetary alignment -- something that young science enthusiast Elana immediately recognized as a myth.

It’s a hilarious example of that age-old problem -- what do you do when you KNOW the science and the person teaching you DOESN’T? What do you do when you know you’re right and the other person is wrong, but NOBODY will believe you?

I said, "You're wrong..."

I said, "You're wrong..."

Knowing nearly nothing about science myself, this is not a problem I have encountered often, though I know many people who have and it seems terribly frustrating for them.

In this case (SPOILER ALERT), Elana was of course right (shout out to astronomer Frank D. Ghigo for conducting the experiment that confirmed this in 1984!). Sure, you can balance an egg on the equinox, if you try hard enough, but you can also do this any old day of the year. Apparently there is a similar myth about brooms. (I never realized how creepy photos of brooms standing up on their own are!)

As a side note, Elana previously told a story with us about his partner’s transition that was, for me, transformative. There’s a moment, five minutes in, that I still sometimes think about and get serious feels from, even four years later.

Happy science story listening,

Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Summer's Podcasts: Pregnancies, STDs, Cow Insemination, and Heartbeats

I’ve been traveling quite a bit for the past few weeks, including an amazing trip, with our executive director Liz Neeley and co-founder Ben Lillie, down to Boulder, Colorado, where we worked with scientists from the multidisciplinary Biofrontiers Institute to hone their stories. I certainly learned a lot about many things, including but not limited to dolphin penises (they’re prehensile!) and fecal transplants (they’re a thing!).

Hannting. My nightmares.

Hannting. My nightmares.

Now that I’m back at home in my office, facing down this hideous stuffed dog that my husband won at Coney Island four years ago and that has haunted my dreams ever since, I’m reflecting on our previous four podcasts, which I haven’t had a chance to blog about during my globetrotting.


MaryAnn Wilbur: Two Pregnancies

One of my favorite kinds of stories from scientists are those in which their work suddenly becomes real to them in a new way. Something happens that really drives home the importance and the emotional significance of what they’re studying. In MaryAnn’s case, she was an OBGYN treating a woman who was exactly the same number of weeks pregnant that she was -- and that woman was going into labor.


Jo Firestone: A Sex Education

For those of you unfamiliar with Jo, she is a truly awesome comedian -- the hardest working comic in New York, in fact, some might say. Others might say weird. I suspect both are true. In the story she told for Story Collider, she believes fervently that she has an STD in college. There’s just one problem with this conclusion: She’s never had sex. Listen to this one to learn the basics of reproductive science.



Aaron Wolfe: The Inseminator

Aaron Wolfe is an old friend of mine, from back when he his talented wife, Naomi, lived in New York City too. This time, he told a story on our Boston stage. He’s a really dazzling storyteller -- the way he speaks on stage makes you feel as if he’s speaking just to you. The only thing I don’t like about his most recent Story Collider story is that I happened to be eating a Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch when I first listened to it, as is my custom when perusing our audio files. Suffice to say this meal didn’t pair well with a story that I later titled “The Inseminator.”

For an Aaron Wolfe story you can listen to during lunch, check out his original SC story, about science disappointing him as a kid, as well as the stories he’s told for The Moth.


Skylar Bayer: The Hummingbird of Doom

Skylar Bayer, as you may know, has produced Story Collider shows in the great state of Maine, where she’s based, in the past, and so I naturally love any story she has to tell. This one may be her most powerful. The way she describes her heart problems in this story is so visceral, a couple of audience members had to leave the room to calm themselves down at the live show.

Other work by Sky includes her original Story Collider story, from back in 2013 when we first met at Science Online Oceans in Miami, as well as her appearance on The Colbert Report, on which she coined the immortal phrase, “Gonads. Scallop gonads.”


In This Week's Podcast: No Man Is an Island

This week’s podcast came to us from London, by way of the Pitcairn Islands. If you’ve never heard of the Pitcairn Islands, you’re not alone. Our storyteller, Henry Duffy, had never heard of them either until he signed up to work on a project on underwater cameras there.

“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s near Australia,’” he says. “It’s not near Australia.”

Henry told his story at Round Chapel in London, at our first show in partnership with the British Science Association.

Henry told his story at Round Chapel in London, at our first show in partnership with the British Science Association.

To be fair, it's not actually near anywhere. The Pitcairn Islands -- which consist of Henderson, Ducie, Oeno, and the titular island of Pitcairn itself -- are in fact five hundred kilometers away from the nearest inhabited land. And only reachable by a boat that comes every three months. Talk about commitment to an assignment!

Not to mention, the island of Pitcairn is one of the world’s smallest communities by population. As of July, Pitcairn’s population was estimated at 49 people spread over just 23 households. (During his time, Henry estimates there were about 35 people living on the island.)

Fun facts about Pitcairn:

  • Pitcairn legalized gay marriage in 2015 despite having no known gay couples because there was “no reason not to.” Hard to argue with that, any way you look at it!

  • The Wikipedia page for Pitcairn contains such mind-blowing sentences as “All of Pitcairn's seven children were enrolled in school in 2000,” and “As of 2012, just two children had been born on Pitcairn in the 21 years prior.”

  • The residents of Pitcairn are mostly direct descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian consorts, who settled there in the late 1700s. In fact, many still have the original last names of the mutineers. The story of the mutiny on the Bounty is complicated and riveting, and highly worth falling down a Wikipedia black hole for. There's also a Mel Gibson movie about it, if you're into that sort of thing.

  • The language of Pitkern is taught alongside English in school. It’s a creole language that blends eighteenth-century English of the mutineers with the Tahitian of their consorts. 

Of course, to really understand what it’s like to live on Pitcairn -- for 97 days, no less -- you’ll just have to listen to Henry’s story. Stay tuned for more upcoming shows in the UK in partnership with the British Science Association!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In Last Week's Podcast: Man Flees Academia

Note: The blog for this podcast is slightly delayed as I was out of the office last week.

Last week’s podcast came to us from Nathan Boll at the National Academy of Science’s Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington, D.C. It was our second trip down to the Koshland Museum, where we put on a show with NAS’s Mirzayan Fellows. The Mirzayan Fellowship is the NAS’s twelve-week program for early-career scientists. After NAS policy fellow Christine Mirzayan was tragically murdered by a serial killer in 1998, the National Academy of Sciences established the Christine Mirzayan Memorial Fund “to celebrate Christine's love of life, enthusiasm for science, intelligence and high aspirations for contributing to human welfare.”

The Mirzayan Fellowship holds a special place in Story Collider’s heart for many other reasons, too. We got to know our DC producer, Shane Hanlon, when he was a Mirzayan Fellow and invited us to put on our first show at the Koshland. We also love the stories that come from these passionate young scientists and the close bond they seem to forge over their three months working together. This photo, on the right, of Nathan and co-fellows Kavita Chandra and Rochelle Williams, falling into a group hug after their stories, is one of my favorites ever taken at a Story Collider show.

Nathan spent his fellowship working with the Space Studies Board, helping the steering committee of the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space begin the “eighteen-month-long process of determining the Earth science priorities for the nation's space programs.” (That sounds exhausting! But important!)

Now, Nathan is working with Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress responsible for providing confidential, objective reports to Congress. As you can hear in his story, it’s been a long, winding road to bring him here, full of bongos and odd jobs. But I think his journey is a great example of how unexpected experiences can inform your perspective on science.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Week's Podcast: A Baby Doctor Climbs Everest

This week’s story comes to us from New York, from Nitin Ron. Nitin is a neonatologist -- or, as he explains, a “baby doctor.” (Not, not this.) He cares for premature and newborn babies, whom he admires because “they have mastered the art and the science of being in the moment.” Who can argue with that?

Naturally, in addition to saving babies’ lives, Nitin has also climbed Mt. Everest four times. (Bit of an overachiever, I would say. But then again, I am still wearing my pajamas at 3 pm.) His story blends the lessons he learned while scaling the Himalayas with those he learned from his tiny patients to show that sometimes we need powers beyond scientific understanding. The result is something truly -- and I don't use this word lightly -- heartwarming. 

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Week's Podcast: A Teenager's Voice Slips Away

This week’s story comes to us from Brooklyn, from journalist Emily Mullin. When Emily was a teenager, she acted and sang and wanted to be a broadcast journalist. So naturally she developed a neurological condition that stood in the way of all of those things! As one does.

Emily's voice had started to become weak and unstable, and speaking was an effort. It turned out this was due to spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that causes spasms in the vocal cords. With Emily’s kind of SD, called adductor, messages from the brain aren’t properly relayed to the vocal cords and so the vocal cords just slam together.

“The voice that was coming out of my mouth wasn’t mine,” Emily says in her story.

Emily on stage at Union Hall. I call this one "WTF, Spasmodic Dysphonia?"

Emily on stage at Union Hall. I call this one "WTF, Spasmodic Dysphonia?"

It’s something that seems bizarre, or even funny, until you think about what it would really be like to lose control of your voice. In an excellent article Emily herself wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, she pointed out that voice disorders can affect every part of the sufferer’s life, from their social life to their professional life to their emotional well-being.

“Our voice is our ambassador to the rest of the world,” says Dr. Norman Hogikyan, director of the University of Michigan Health System Vocal Health Center. “Often a first impression is based upon a person’s voice.”
For people with voice disorders, a part of our identity is stripped away. Our weak voices can be unfairly associated with emotional sensitivity, a lack of confidence, lower intelligence, and sometimes, physical illness.

To get the true picture of what it’s like to feel your voice slipping away, listen to Emily’s story, above. For more information, check out more of Emily’s excellent reporting on this subject (I have to say -- broadcast’s loss is print’s gain), including this recent story on speech recognition programs.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director


In This Week's Podcast: A Man's Obsession With Jock Itch

This week's podcast, which comes to us from Providence, Rhode Island, tells the story of Jeff Sparr's struggle with obsession-compulsion disorder, a mental illness characterized by unwanted and persistent thoughts and urges. In Jeff's case, it manifested in the form of a preoccupation with jock itch.

My favorite thing about this story is how unflinchingly honest Jeff is. He's not afraid to be vulnerable and speak frankly about his illness. "I became totally consumed with it," he says. "It got to the point where I was wearing different underwear and using different powders and creams. Not only was it affecting my athletic career, but it got to the point where was affecting my life in college." 

I don't think I'll say any more except that the moment at 5:43, when Jeff discovers a very unexpected passion, is my favorite.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Week's Podcast: A Neuroscientist Forgets Her Name

This week’s story, "A Picture of My Brain," came to us from Providence. Newly married and halfway through her PhD in neuroscience, Amanda Duffy is excited to get $20 and an image of her brain when she volunteers to be a control in an MRI study. Instead, she gets a diagnosis of intraventricular meningioma, a rare brain tumor.

The lesson here is, Never get your brain scanned. I think.

When she wakes up from her brain surgery, her problems are far from over. She finds herself unable to correctly answer simple questions such as, What is your name?

“Imagine, halfway through your PhD in neuroscience, forgetting how to multiply, tell time, or understand what the number four is,” she says. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine. As far as I’m concerned, a PhD in neuroscience is hard enough to get already.

It turns out these things are all symptoms of Gerstmann Syndrome, a rare disorder that can occur after brain injury. Gerstmann Syndrome was discovered by, who else, Josef Gerstmann, an Austrian neurologist, in 1924, after a 52-year-old woman was admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Vienna with writing and memory problems. People suffering from Gerstmann Syndrome (not to be confused with Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome -- this guy really likes naming things after himself)  usually have four main symptoms:

  • Dysgraphia, which is a fancy word for being unable to write coherently.
  • Dyscalculia, which is a fancy word for being unable to do math. I know, sounds familiar to many of us. But this can actually go a lot farther than being bad at multiplication. Gerstmann sufferers often can’t do simple arithmetic or even visualize numbers, as Amanda described above.
  • Finger agnosia. Josef Gerstmann was the first person to define this (and somehow, he managed not to name it after himself). It’s described as an inability to “distinguish, name, or recognize the fingers.” And it includes not just your own fingers, but everyone else’s too, oddly enough.
  • Left-right disorientation -- or not being able to tell left from right. (I know. This one is almost a let-down after the other three.)

Of course, for a real-life glimpse into the mind of someone dealing with Gerstmann Syndrome, you’ll just have to listen to Amanda’s story...

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director of The Story Collider

The Story Collider Seeks New Producer for LA Series

The Story Collider is seeking a new producer to launch our series in Los Angeles. As producer, your job would be to work with our team to find appropriate venues, recruit and coach storytellers from both science and non-science backgrounds, and plan and promote shows on a quarterly basis. There will also be opportunities to contribute to the broader organization.

Scientific background is not required, but passion for and experience with storytelling is. We’d love to hear about and help you develop your marketing, audio production, and other event-related expertise. Applicants must have good communication skills and respect for people from all walks of life.

This is not a full-time position. Producers are paid on a per-show basis.

Those interested should email with the subject line "LA Producer." Please include a resume and a brief explanation of why you would like to be a Story Collider producer. Hope to hear from you soon!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

Hello From The Story Collider's New Artistic Director

The unassuming email below, from March 2011, changed my life probably more than any other email I’ve ever sent.

At the time, of course, I had no idea. My friend Ben Lillie, a physicist and performer, had asked me the night before if I might be interested in helping him out with his science storytelling project since his partner, Brian Wecht, another physicist and performer, was moving to Boston and starting up the show there. I don’t think I could have been more surprised if he’d asked me to don a lab coat and conduct an open-heart surgery on the spot. I was honored that he thought I was capable, but I felt overwhelmingly unqualified. After all, unlike Ben and Brian, I was not a particle physicist. Not even close. The only science class I’d taken in college had been a course titled Plant Biology 101: Plants and People. Not exactly string theory.

“You know I don’t know anything about science, right?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” Ben said enthusiastically. “That’s why we chose you.”

Unsure whether to be flattered or offended, I went home and told my boyfriend, now husband, all my concerns. He listened carefully and then said, “Well, but you’re obviously going to do it, right?” And he was right. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. So the next morning I sent this email.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what “looked rad,” it was this postcard that Ben had created to promote the show in 2011.

I still think it looks rad. Especially the badass chick in the top left.

That was five years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten so much more than I ever bargained for. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work full-time producing these incredible shows. I’ve been fortunate to have so many storytellers share a piece of themselves with me, and our audience. I carry many of these stories with me every day. Many of them have challenged my assumptions and taught me more than I ever thought possible--sometimes even about science. For example, do you know what happens when sea urchins get cold?  Do you know how to solve a murder using the striations on a garbage bag? What a mucus plug is? The terrible things a guinea worm can do to the human body? This is all awesome and terrifying knowledge that I now have--for better or worse, in terms of my nightmares.

But even more significantly, I’ve Iearned about the lives of other people, scientists and civilians, and the challenges they face, the obstacles they overcome, their ability to find humor and grace in the worst of circumstances. Listening to the hundreds of storytellers I have worked with over the course of the past five years, I can’t help but be humbled by the honesty and vulnerability and generosity of our storytellers.

And I was humbled further, this week, when The Story Collider’s board voted to approve my promotion to artistic director.

As artistic director, I hope to carry on the legacy of my friend Ben, our co-founder and previous artistic director, as he transitions to a role on our board and directing special projects. Six years ago, Ben and Brian started something that now has a life of its own. I couldn’t be more proud of where we’ve ended up today.

I’m so excited to be leading such an amazing team of producers, and to be working alongside our fantastic executive director, Liz Neeley. And I’m even more excited to continue to hear your stories, to help shape them and be shaped by them.

Thank you, Story Collider community, for a great five years. Here’s to five more.

-- Erin Barker, artistic director of The Story Collider