Story Collider’s Staff Picks for 2015

At The Story Collider, we believe everyone has a story about science — a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level. We’ve spent the past five and a half years finding those stories in cities that range from London to San Francisco, and sharing them in our live shows and on our podcast. This year, we’ve heard a variety of stories — from bacon sandwiches to exoplanets to the elusive brontosaurus — that have excited us, moved us, and ultimately changed us, both as producers and as people. To highlight a few of these, we’ve asked each member of staff to choose one story from the podcast this year that particularly affected them and share a few words about it here. Happy listening!

My Prosthetic
By Chris Gunter

I confess — I’m a crier. There are so many Story Collider stories that have made me cry, even when I have already heard them before, multiple times, in rehearsal. A large percentage of those tears are a result of our annual show at the Atlanta Science Festival. I always love going down to Atlanta every year because the stories we find there are so special. They open me up to experiences far different from my own. They’re intimate and powerful andquietly poignant (stop me if I’m going on too much…). Chris Gunter’s story was no exception. For those of you who don’t know Chris, she’s a geneticist and a delightful human being who also suffers from a rare genetic condition that causes her not to grow any hair. Because of this, she’s worn a wig from a young age and also unfortunately endured many painful situations that left her fearful of passing on the disorder to her son. In her story, she attacks this problem as both a mother and a geneticist, and the result is beautiful. Chris is so genuine in her story, so honest and vulnerable, that you can’t help but fall in love with her and her son, and their wonderful relationship. Plus, she also gets in a shot on Cleveland (Ari Daniel’s hometown), and I’m always up for that. Just watch out for this ending… I’m still crying listening to it now.

— Erin Barker, senior producer

Jon Ronson vs. Jon_Ronson
By Jon Ronson

Though I love all of our stories, I’m particularly drawn to the ones about social science. (I find the humans endlessly fascinating.) Listeners of This American Life will immediately recognize Jon Ronson’s dry humor and signature accent; I’ve been a fan for years. I was lucky enough to see this story live (you can hear me laughing in the background multiple times) and was hooked from the opening, having “accidentally” typed my name into Google before too. This is a story about crafting identities, stealing identities, and confronting the dark side of technological advances (thinkBlack Mirror). It’s Ronson’s humorous exploration of whether, as one character in the story puts it, “the Internet is the real world.”

— Christine Gentry, Boston host and producer

Becoming American
By Teppei Katori

Not only is “Becoming American,” by Teppei Katori, wonderful (and charmingly told), but also working on it with Teppei was a really memorable experience. Teppei and I met a couple years ago when we were both physicists at Queen Mary University of London, and I immediately thought he’d be a great storyteller — he’s naturally hilarious, and his ebullient personality envelops every room he’s in. Every now and then I’d mention it to him, and he’d always gently say that he didn’t think he was ready to get on stage. Finally, after several attempts, I cornered Teppei in his office and essentially refused to leave until he agreed to tell a story.* We worked on the story together for about a month, and by the time the show rolled around, I was certain that his story of how a quiet introvert from Japan became a gregarious, extroverted American would stand out. It did. And, because I was just about to move back to the U.S. after several years spent in the U.K., Teppei’s story had me reflecting on my own American-ness, and the lessons I learned while living abroad. From now on, when I reflect on my time in London and the Story Collider shows I produced while living there, “Becoming American” will always be the story I think of first.

*Note to potential storytellers: this kind of strong-arm tactic is a highly atypical method of recruiting Story Collider performers.

— Brian Wecht, co-founder and former London producer, now L.A. producer

Lessons From the Man With a Machine Gun
By Aerin Jacob

The first thing I remember wanting to be is a field biologist. When I was ten, my parents got me Jane Goodall’s autobiography. The book starts with a scene of Goodall crouched in a chicken coop to watch an egg hatch. I didn’t have a chicken coop, but I did have a big rock near my house so I laid in the mud for a while, waiting for… something to happen. Nothing did, of course, until I got home covered in slime to find freaked-out parents who had no idea where I had gone. This is all to say that stories of field biology are very dear to me, particularly ones in which things don’t go quite as planned. And Aerin Jacob’s story of her trip out into the Serengeti looking for a cheetah is just that. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that the trip doesn’t go as planned. There is a lot of mud and a man with a machine gun involved. And Aerin tells the story with humor and grace and that kind of humility you want out of a storyteller. At the end, she passes on some valuable lessons to us, but they never feel preachy or cheesy. Bonus: a surprise visit from a hyena.

— Rose Eveleth, podcast editor

I Could Be an Astronaut
By Karen James

Like most marine biologists, as a child I had an equal chance of being compelled to follow my dreams to the stars like Jodie Foster in Contact, or follow my dreams to the bottom of the ocean like Sylvia Earle, Leonardo DiCaprio, and James Cameron. I chose the latter. Very few marine scientists get to experience both dreams in their lifetime. Karen James, a marine scientist, tells a compelling tale of a friendship she develops with an astronaut. It begins when she receives a weird email entitled “comm request” from an address that ended in, and she thinks, You don’t delete that. While the details of her story are naturally exciting because it involves spaceships, her reactions, passion, and humor during her performance are really the highlights of this recording. I don’t want to spoil anything more, but you should take a listen to Karen explaining what astronauts are really like and what it’s like rediscovering a lost passion within herself.

— Skylar Bayer, Maine producer

Whose Story Is It?
By David Moinina Sengeh

Raindrops, not gunshots. Childhood experiences in Sierra Leone inspired David Moinina Sengeh to pursue his research on prosthetic limbs. But rather than the narrative of tragedy and bloodshed you might expect, his science story began on soccer fields in the pouring rain. David’s research is utterly fascinating — but his personal origin story is what I remember most. I played David’s episode in my very first public lecture about The Story Collider. Standing in front of a packed room at Colorado State University, when David’s voice boomed over the speakers, “This is MY story and I will tell it,” I got goose bumps. I am so proud to be a part of sharing these stories with the world. At The Story Collider, we believe everyone has an amazing story. It’s yours to tell. Tell it well.

— Liz Neeley, executive director

Brontosaurus Claus
By Carter Edwards

I love so much about this story. I love how wide-ranging it is. It’s about dinosaurs, but also family, and American history, and growing up, and what it means to be a human being living in a world where we are constantly learning, constantly updating our knowledge. I love how authentic it is. I know Carter, I’ve known him since college, when he was called Bagel, and this his how he talks and thinks. He’ll randomly launch into a rant like this while we’re sitting around drinking or walking down the street. This is his voice — the voice of someone who is just fucking excited to be alive (and I love the swearing, because it’s right for him and the story). I also love how crafted it is. I love how it builds, how it starts low and, piece by piece, Carter adds to it until it hits crescendo after crescendo, how it twists and turns and never seems to settle down. I love how the conclusion itself is deeply uncertain. More and more, I find myself drawn to stories of uncertainty and ambiguity, and thinking about just how hard they are to tell. This is a spectacular example of how that can be done.

— Ben Lillie, co-founder and artistic director

The First Day of Class
By John Dimandja

I met John Dimandja while interviewing him for an audio series about chemistry called Small Matters. When I arrived at Spelman College, where he worked, he was warm, welcoming, and very smart. We talked about his science — he’s a world expert on a technique called 2D gas chromatography that pulls chemical mixtures apart into their constituent parts. And we also talked about what it’s like to be a black scientist. John explained the times when it’s been more challenging for him than for his white colleagues and mentioned, in passing, a story about being a teaching assistant for a chemistry course when he was a graduate student. John said that he could tell the undergraduates weren’t used to having a black instructor, but he soon won them over with his knowledge of chemistry. When Story Collider was invited to Atlanta a few months after that interview, I asked John if he would be willing to elaborate on this story and share it with our audience. He agreed, and he worked to develop his story into one that uses that experience in the classroom as a springboard to talk about the intersection of race and science. It’s a glimpse into who John is as a chemist and as a human being. The topic of race is a delicate one, and the audience was rapt as John talked about his experiences. I was touched by his courage to share this moment publicly, and to provide a stunning example of how — even when it might be easier to choose separation — we can find ways to connect.

— Ari Daniel, Boston producer