Like the rest of the UK, when the pandemic hit, Kathryn Murie, a senior data scientist from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, found herself working from home. She passed the time at home listening to podcasts, and that’s when inspiration struck: What about doing a podcast about the work on Campus? She teamed up with fellow podcast enthusiast Sophie Belman, a PhD student at the Sanger Institute, and so the Decoding Life podcast was born. Here, Kathryn, Sophie and Decoding Life team members Piv Gopalasingam, Helena Cornu and Olivia Donovan discuss how the podcast started, what it is about and what their plans are for the future.
What, who and how?
When you want to start a podcast, one of the key things you need to work out is what should you be talking about, and why? For Kathryn, the obvious answer was to create a podcast that gives access to the fascinating types of conversations that happen every day on the Wellcome Genome Campus.
“My thoughts then were: we have such interesting conversations on Campus, but you only get to have them if you’re in a position of privilege by working on site,” Kathryn explains. “Many of them would’ve been so useful when I was at University, desperate to figure out what I wanted to do. So I thought, why not have these conversations recorded and put them out there, make them accessible?”
Another key question is “who are we going to talk to?”. For Kathryn and Sophie, exploring the stories and diverse career paths of women who worked across the campus seemed an essential topic to bring into the light.
“There are a lot of women in positions that might be thought of as predominantly male,” says Sophie, “but junior scientists often don't have access to these stories due to the underrepresentation of women in senior roles.”
Kathryn and Sophie and the inspiring women they interviewed on the podcast.
Kathryn and Sophie and the inspiring women they interviewed on the podcast.
Looking back on their own experiences, Kathryn and Sophie realised that through the podcast, they could help young people and students to find out the answers to some of the questions about life as a woman in science, and to provide information that would have been helpful for them when making their own career choices.
“One of the main things I have discovered through the first couple of years of my career and the podcast is that people don't have everything set out from day one,” says Kathryn. “Career paths are actually winding, people try new things, change their mind and discover new passions. I never realised how many roles there were that contribute to the science. The traditional academic route isn't the only option. Our aim in the podcast is to provide valid examples for people doing their undergraduate degrees. Also, we are asking some difficult questions, around maternity for example, and going back to work after that - questions you wouldn't have the opportunity to ask in any other setting.”
Having decided on the ‘what’ and ‘who’, the question then shifted to ‘how’? How do you start a podcast, ask people to take part, and make sure that the right people will be able to hear it?
“It’s not been an easy ride,” Sophie admits. “Initially, I thought I’d just just get a microphone and go for it, but there’s so much work involved! Not only coming up with the questions, but scheduling the calls, editing, deciding how you’re going to ask the more uncomfortable questions.”
“It is a lot of work,” Kathryn agrees, “but every time we come out of an interview, we always feel really inspired. Sometimes, you go into the interview dreading it a bit when you’re interviewing some really well-known and senior people. But then you realise they’re actually really funny, and that science isn’t everything in their life, they have other things like ballroom dancing or motorcycling. They are successful in their career, but still a fully rounded person, which is eye opening.”
The first podcast aired in March 2021 and interviewed Harriet Craven, a former dancer who is now a software developer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Over the course of the following 6 months, Sophie and Kathryn interviewed 10 inspiring women. They covered a huge range of topics, from how to become a leader in science to how to be inclusive in communicating science.
Changing and shaping our own views
While doing the podcast has been hard work at times, both Kathryn and Sophie feel that it has been worth the effort. “It’s been inspiring and motivating,” says Sophie. “I’ve joined the EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) panel on Campus as a PhD student representative. I don't know if I would have done that were it not for the podcast. Having all these conversations with lots of people with different perspectives is really valuable.”
Kathryn has also learned a lot from the experience. “I now express my opinions on why we should improve diversity in our own team. Where I normally would have probably just kept opinions to myself, I've spoken up,” she says.
Working on the podcast has also shaped their views on the prospects and careers for women in science. “We’ve also realised how things are getting better for women, with the conversations we’ve had with more senior members,” says Kathryn. “Sometimes we feel like we're just chipping away at a brick wall and not really getting anywhere, but when you look at how things were 10 years ago, you see a real change. So that has motivated us to keep going, being vocal and speaking up.”
It has also altered their perceptions on how they view themselves and their work. “It’s helped me make peace with the immense imposter syndrome that you feel as a PhD student at the Sanger,” says Sophie. “Listening to all these experiences in the podcast, it has validated this feeling and allowed me to accept and move beyond it.”
While Sophie and Kathryn are the faces of the podcast and conduct the interviews, they’ve also been supported behind the scenes by other colleagues on the Wellcome Genome Campus. Piv Gopalasingam, scientific training officer at EMBL-EBI, helped out with sourcing information for the podcast.
He explains, “I have a supporting role within the podcast by providing research on the guests: I do a bit of background reading, and I then write that in a way that makes sense to the podcast hosts so they can form the questions to ask. For example, prior to the episode with Professor Anna Middleton, I had no idea what society and ethics in genomics was whatsoever. I think it's really easy to forget just how many great talented people with various backgrounds we have on campus.
“Kathryn and Sophie have done a really good job asking the right questions and actually finding out more about the people, their motivations and their backgrounds,” he adds. “I think that's something that I don't see a lot of in science podcasts and it's humanising in the best way possible.”
Helena Cornu is the outreach officer for Open Targets at EMBL-EBI and has been helping the podcast to get noticed by creating graphics for social media. “I found out that the podcast was going to happen at a public engagement meetup,” Helena explains. “Because I already had experience with podcasting, I thought I could come in handy. This is something I’ve been wanting to learn more about and the project gave me this opportunity.”
Further help has come from Olivia Donovan, a management trainee at the Sanger Institute. “I help manage the social media and the promotion of the podcast,” she explains. “Management trainees rotate around different departments every six months. We can get involved in different projects that we hear about as well as just the day to day of that department. All this time I’ve been working from home, so it’s been really good to be able to build a bit more of a campus network.”
For Helena and Olivia, an advantage of working on the podcast has been to increase their knowledge of the science that happens on Campus. “In my case, my parents are not in science,” says Helena. “It was very hard for me to imagine what it was like to be a scientist. And there's a lot of things that I discovered once I actually got into the lab that were not at all what I had imagined. Career paths are much messier than we think. Being able to showcase this for university students, when you are at such a vulnerable moment, I think is really important.”
“For me, it's definitely been a way of making me more aware of the incredible science happening on campus,” agrees Olivia. “For example, when Sarah Teichmann was talking about her current research. I immediately identified it because I had worked on the grant application for it. I was like, Oh, wow, so my little part in management does actually lead to people like this being able to do all these incredible things.”
The Future of Decoding Life
The first season of the Decoding Life podcast wrapped up in June 2021. “We do want to start a second one at some point,” says Kathryn. “There's still loads more women that we'd love to interview, different careers that we'd want to touch on. Also, we’d like to start interviewing some men who are champions for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). There are plenty of them on campus, and who are helping to improve equality not just for women, but also for other minorities on certain topics.”
Is there anything they’d like to focus on in the second season? “We’d like to reach more people,” says Sophie. “So far most of the listeners that we engage with have been staff working on the Campus, which is amazing, but we would like for more undergraduate students to be able to hear it and be inspired by the stories we are sharing.”
The Decoding Life team would like to thank all of the women who have been guests on the podcast so far: Harriet Craven, Anne Bishop, Burcu Bronner Anar, Christine Boinett, Gosia Trynka, Alena Pance, Sarah Teichmann, Lindsey Crosswell, Em Dixon and Anna Middleton