Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Confessions of a Podcast Junkie: Part II

I love podcasts.  Whether I'm biking to class, pipetting under a hood in the lab, or out for a run around Lake Lag, I often have my earbuds in streaming Planet Money, This American Life, Nature Podcast, or some other production of lively and informative sound bytes.  In this second post of a two-part blog entry series for Humans & Viruses, I review RadioLab's "Patient Zero:  Updated."  If you'd like to listen to the episode I discuss, check it out at

In my last post (Confessions of a Podcast Junkie: Part I), I reviewed This Week in Virology (TWiV).  Before I present my perspective on RadioLab, I feel it is important to confess that I have only ever listened to the one episode of TWiV I was writing about last week and my evaluation based on an n=1 sample was unlikely to be reflective of TWiV's overall characteristics.  By contrast, in this post on RadioLab although I reference one particular episode (Patient Zero: Updated), my overall impressions reflect many, many months of listening to the show (admittedly one of my favorite podcasts).

RadioLab's episode "Patient Zero: Updated" takes a multistory, narrative, anthropocentric approach to presenting history and scientific concepts related to infectious disease epidemiology.  The show is equally fun, informative, engaging and accessible--a testament to the careful planning and skillful interviewing, storytelling and audio-editing of the producers.  This episode, like most of RadioLab's, is divided into sections addressing different topics under a central theme.  In the first of these segments, the hosts discuss the infamous case of Typhoid Mary, spinning a tale of many disease-tracking public health officials and one perplexed and non-malicious but deadly-infectious "criminal."  The podcast's hosts use evocative, descriptive language and invite listeners to empathize both with the epidemiologists and with Mary herself.  In one particularly poignant scene, the hosts visit the isolated island house where Mary was imprisoned.  They look out her window and realize she could see from afar the home she was forced to leave behind in the city.  In the second segment of the podcast the hosts dig into the AIDS origin story, tracing the virus back to a putative recombination event between a red-capped mangabey SIV-like virus and guenon SIV-like virus that likely took place inside a co-infected chimpanzee.  This segment contains more science and less human narrative than the initial typhoid segment but offers an equally-compelling story.  After discussing the Ebola outbreak in a third segment, the hosts meander on to a non-virus-related origin story, that of the high-five.  More entertaining than educational, this portion of the podcast was was entertaining but seemed out of place.  However, to the hosts' credit, closing with a discussion of a quirky physical demonstration of congratulation and human connectivity does leave listeners with something happier to think about afterward than impending pandemics.

I would highly encourage you to listen to RadioLab, especially if you're new to this whole podcast thing!  One you've developed the stomach (or ear?) for listening to other people jabber in a distant recording studio about neat science, then try TWiV!

--Laurie Rumker

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