A podcasting venture: going ‘Behind the Microscope’

How a group of inventive graduate students have brought insightful personal conversations with scientists and physicians to the airwaves – and some general tips for starting podcasts.

Like Comment

In recent years, podcasts have radically changed how we interact with our world. They have allowed for people with similar interests to connect, even if dramatically geographically distant. They have also democratized the airwaves, handing the mic to the general public and providing space for any concept to blossom.

So what is a podcast anyway? It is a downloadable audio program that is released semi-regularly. I think that is about as narrowly as I can define it. Some podcasts listen like audiobooks, others like investigative reporting, others still are long-form conversations with no clear agenda. With that variety of form comes a versatility of purpose. Some are meant to entertain, others to educate, others simply to fill the silence or drown out the noise. People have been turning to podcasts as a sort of personalized alternative to radio for over ten years, and in the midst of a pandemic that has us more isolated than ever, podcasts have become a crucial window to the outside world.

For me, the idea of starting a podcast came before the issuance of stay-at-home orders. The concept was forged beneath the fluorescent lights and in the presence of the relentless hum of the cell culture hood in my final year of graduate school. I searched in vain for a podcast to fill the silence as I engaged in the tedious daily tasks of the lab. I found plenty of podcasts featuring interviews with authors, athletes, entertainers, etc. But I wanted to hear from my scientific heroes. And while many podcasts existed that covered aspects of popular science, nowhere could I find personal conversations with scientists – not just about their science, but about their lives. About their struggles, triumphs, lessons learned. What kept them hungry, humble, happy?

So along with several of my classmates we started a podcast that does just that: “Behind the Microscope”. We did so the same way we approach research – by trial and error, by learning from our mistakes and successes alike. We are now in the midst of our second season and have published nearly 40 episodes and 32 hours of conversations with scientists and physicians – early and established, young and wizened. We partially replaced the gnawing silence of the lab with the words of those that inspire us. Along the way we developed some guiding principles that kept us moving forward, even as the crush of our personal and professional lives overtook our initial enthusiasm. So if you want to start a podcast, or have an idea percolating somewhere in the back of your mind but don’t know how to get started, read on for our best guidance for getting going.

Make a mission statement
This can be anything, and it will likely evolve over time. Our mission started out simply to explore the lives of some of our scientific role models. It became a venue for advice to young investigators, post-docs, students –  an exploration of the many facets of mentorship. And inadvertently became a way to humanize the medical and scientific community, build trust in them as individuals even as public confidence in those institutions eroded. Pick a mission, a direction, and move toward it. But don’t be caged by it.

Assemble a team
When I wanted to launch Behind the Microscope, I was staring down a winter and spring that would see me submit and revise my manuscript, write and defend my thesis, and re-enter my third year of medical school. I had a lot on my plate and my concern was that podcasting would fade as my initial burst of excitement gave way to the realities of my busy schedule. So, I found others in my orbit that shared my enthusiasm, and we split up the work. Joe Behnke edited and mastered the audio. Carey Jansen did all the social media. Michael Sayegh helped schedule guests. Beyond those well-defined roles, we also kept each other accountable. When those weeks of writing or medical school or frantic manuscript revisions bogged any one of us down, we had each other to lean on for support and encouragement. We had a team that believed in and worked towards a common goal.

Dream big
We decided early on that we would try to only interview people in person. We believed that this made for a better, more personal conversation, not to mention significantly better audio quality. Our initial guests, therefore, included only those from within our university, or those who happened to travel to our university to give a seminar. With the arrival of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that accompanied it, we were forced to abandon this arbitrary requirement. That was fortuitous. We created a “COVID Check-In” series to explore the impact the pandemic was having on current graduate students and young faculty. We also started sending interview invitations to people from around the country –  people we never in our wildest dreams would have expected to take an hour out of their busy schedules to talk with a few students for their homegrown podcast. And to our delight, many responded, from the former director of the medical scientist training program at the NIH, to the current CEO of the American Medical Association.

Go for it
Much of podcasting is trial and error. Similar to research, some things can only be learned by doing, and failing, and adjusting. So, if you have a concept for a podcast, my advice is to jump into the deep end. Record that first episode. Invite those first few guests. It won’t be perfect the first time, or the second, or the third, but it will improve. And don’t doubt yourself. The world needs your voice. In a time when our scientific and medical institutions are the subjects of mistrust and conspiracy theories, the most effective antidote is clear and transparent communication of science and what it means to be a scientist. Podcasting is a powerful tool to do just that, and if you are reading this on a computer, or a smartphone, or a tablet, then you already have everything you need to make an impact. I look forward to listening.

Want to check out Behind the Microscope? Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts, or head to our website at www.behindthemicroscope.com for access to all of our episodes and our newly launched blog. Get started with some of our favorite episodes:
Anita Corbett, PhD – Mentorship, Grant Writing, and Team Dynamics
Curtis Henry, PhD – Always Push the Envelope
Adam Marcus, PhD – Doing Something No One has Done before


Top image of post: by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

Bejan Saeedi

MD-PhD Student, Emory University