Kilbeggan scientist's podcast topping the charts

The 'Unravelling Science' podcast is the brainchild of Megan Hanlon, a postdoctoral researcher of molecular rheumatology in Trinity College.

It is now a top weekly scicomm podcast, reaching number 6 in the Apple Podcast Science Charts.

A Kilbeggan native and the daughter of a dairy farmer, Megan who has always had an interest in media, just recently completed her PhD in immunology at Trinity College Dublin.

During lockdown, Megan decided to do a weekly podcast and talk to leading Irish scientists, including the likes of Prof Luke O'Neill, Prof Cliona O'Farrelly and Prof Emma Teeling to name a few, about the cutting edge research carried out every day.

“A week after finishing my PhD in lockdown in May I bought a microphone and recording set from Done Deal to start a science communication podcast. Within one month the first episode was out, it's a podcast series where I interview top Irish researchers about their lives and the research they conduct. I wanted to get a sense of the stories that shaped the science but also the scientist,” she explains.

Suddenly, it seems, is now cool given that now more than ever before it is so important to highlight science communication given this current pandemic.

“Scientists are all over the media at the minute, they’re on the news, they’re on the radio, but they’ve also become personalities,” she says.

Rock star science

“If you look at Professor Luke O’Neill, he has emerged as this rock star scientist, he has his own rock band, he’s just brought out a book, he’s a brilliant personality. So yeah, it has become a bit cool. And I think it’s opening up the possibilities for people in school looking at it as a future career.

“It’s important now more than ever for scientists to be able to communicate their research because we are essentially at the forefront of this pandemic.”

Megan studies the autoimmune disease Rheumatoid Arthritis, where the body mistakenly mounts an inflammatory attack on the body's own cells, mainly in the joints, causing pain and inflammation in patients and can ultimately lead to joint destruction and disability.

“I work on a particular immune cell called the macrophage to further our knowledge of how and why this occurs in the hope of discovering new biomarkers of early disease and new treatments for patients,” she continues.

The science path

So did Megan always have an interest in science?

“I grew up in Kilbeggan, I went to primary school there and then on to Our Lady’s Bower in Athlone for secondary school, which I loved.

“To be honest when I was in TY I was thinking of going into media. I did work experience in the Athlone Voice and iRadio, but then in sixth year, science won out. I knew I was more interested in human biology, I knew the merging of medicine and science was where I wanted to be.”

Megan studied Biomedical Science at UCD for four years, before starting her PhD in Trinity with Professor Ursula Fearon.

“I remember being in my third year in UCD and I couldn’t visualise the life of a scientist, I didn’t see that that was an option. I thought I would have to do graduate entry medicine or something, but that essentially changed when I met my old maths grinds teacher on the bus home to Kilbeggan one day.

“He suggested that I get some work experience for the summer in a lab, because we only really had small practical labs in UCD. He suggested doing a summer research project, but at the time I had planned to get my J1 visa for America. So he suggested I merge the two.

“I went home and emailed around 30 labs around America, and within a week I had got an interview for a lab in California. They did regenerative medicine and stem cell research, and took me on. I did three months there and I haven’t looked back since.

“It’s weird to think I could have ended up on a completely different path. I still got to have my J1 experience because I was in the lab all week, and at weekends I got to meet up with my friends who were in San Diego.

“When I came back I did my final year thesis and I ended up in Professor Ursula Fearon’s lab. And I suppose, I had just returned home from an international lab, I had the experience and I was really enthusiastic about science. We hit it off and I really wanted to work for her. At the time she had gotten a position in Trinity to set up a molecular rheumatology research group there, and I started with her straight after my degree, so I’ve been here ever since and I love it.

Podcast

“I listen to a lot of podcasts myself, I’m really interested in people's life stories whether it’s musicians or comedians or tv personalities. But I didn’t know of anyone who had one on scientists, or Irish scientists in particular.

“I’m obviously very into science and love what I do, and I get so excited about hearing new scientific research, and scientists themselves have interesting stories.

“People sometimes think of the crazy scientist stereotype, or, people think science is beyond their reach, but I wanted to show that it’s a profession like any other and it’s achievable. I wanted to convey the human side of science.

“When I finished my thesis I went about starting it and spent about three weeks looking at Youtube videos on how to go about starting a podcast, how to use the equipment, figuring out a name for the podcast, or what my logo would look like. There were so many little things to think of before I even put out one episode.

“So the first one I did was with Dr Mary Canavan who’s actually in my lab. That set the tone for the rest of the series really because it was a very conversational in tone, nearly like just having a chat with someone about their life and their research.

“Now I’ve done two seasons and I’ve reached the top six of the Apple Podcast Science charts which was mad because I didn’t think anyone was listening, so it’s great.”

The Irish company Biosciences have now come on board and sponsored the second series, which meant Megan could invest in “proper equipment”.

“For me it’s every scientist's dream, you’ve got a one-on-one with an expert in their field. I just get such a buzz out of it.

“Social media and Twitter for example, is really good for getting things out there and getting people talking. I’ve made so many friends and connections on Twitter because of the podcast, and I also have people writing to me telling me they’re a final year science student and weren’t sure what they wanted to do but want to get into research because of the podcast, which is really great.

“My colleagues in work listen, as do my family at home and now my mam and my sister are very well up in biology and bioengineering because of it,” Megan adds.

“There’s something for everyone in it, there’s the life story behind the science, and I really try to break down the science bit so that not everyone has to be a scientist to listen to it.”

It’s also connecting the scientific community.

“It gives researchers a chance to find out what others are doing and how it might useful to their own work. Collaboration in science is crucial and especially with Covid, now more than ever we need to come together, talk to each other and help each other out because this pandemic isn’t going anywhere any time soon,” says Megan.

“It’s important now more than ever for scientists to be able to communicate their research because we are essentially at the forefront of this pandemic.”

Megan says a Covid-19 vaccine produced within a year will make history, but also thinks

there will be a lot of questions about who will be willing to take it.

“I think scientists really need to be upfront and say there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding a vaccine still.”

Megan already has plans for a third series of the 'Unravelling Science' podcast, talking to people across all strands of science, from bioengineering, to astronomy and physics.

“If people do want to listen, there’s a wide variety of topics there about why we sleep, why we store memory, or the importance of exercise and cancer.

“I actually had a really brilliant scientist talking about why she thinks the cure for cancer could lie within the bat genome. Professor Emma Teeling studies why bats basically defy the laws of ageing - they live for hundreds of years. They don’t get much cancer and while they carry a lot of viruses, they don’t really get sick from them. I would recommend everyone listen to her because she has some really important research. So there’s something for everyone.”

Unravelling Science can be streamed on all podcast platforms, Spotify, Apple Podcast etc or via this link if you wanted to check it out: https://unravellingscience.podbean.com/#

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