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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Third season of UC Davis podcast ‘Unfold’ features curiosity-driven research

The new season dives into exciting research happening at UC Davis and offers a hopeful perspective on today’s science world

After a year and a half of increasingly disheartening science news — from pandemic coverage, to wildfires, hurricanes and other environmental catastrophes — the third season of UC Davis’ podcast “Unfold” seeks to offer a more hopeful outlook on the science world by featuring “curiosity-driven research” happening at the university.

According to a UC Davis press release announcing the new season, the first episode was released on Tuesday, Sept. 28 and tackles the question, “Why do songs get stuck in our head?” Episodes will continue to be released weekly through Nov. 23.

Amy Quinton, the manager and host of “Unfold,” explained that the podcast was built around the idea of the “pillars” of what makes UC Davis great. Among these include food and agriculture, sustainability, global health and research. The first two seasons covered the first two pillars, but plans for a third season centered around global health were halted when COVID-19 came into the picture. 

“We were going to do health this season, but I think after the pandemic, people really wanted a break, so hopefully we can tackle health next season,” Quinton said. 

Instead, they shifted the focus to what they call “curiosity-driven research.”

“We want to showcase UC Davis expertise and research,” Quinton said. “Curiosity-driven research, it’s sort of a large bucket — social science, engineering, earth and planetary sciences, history and so on.” 

The press release dove further into this concept and how it will be showcased in future podcast episodes. 

“Curiosity can lead to some of the greatest discoveries, like why songs get stuck in your head or what real-world engineering concepts you can learn from comic book superheroes,” the press release reads. “This season, we examine an archaeological discovery that raises new questions about the sexual division of labor in early hunter-gatherer societies. UC Davis researchers reveal what they found by peeling back the layers of a fish’s eye and by studying cute, pink, baby-faced axolotls.”

Kat Kerlin, the co-host for “Unfold” seasons two and three, has a career largely focused around environmental journalism and reporting on climate change. Kerlin said that for her, this season was a welcome break from often dismal environmental coverage. 

“I love covering climate change, but it’s a downer, and it’s been so refreshing to look at some of the other stuff happening at UC Davis,” Kerlin said. “It’s not COVID, it’s not climate change, it’s just the wonder and the excitement of life. These people are at the top of their field — they’re experts — but we also had a lot of fun.” 

Crystal Rogers is one of the experts who was interviewed for the podcast. Her lab focuses on “the molecular mechanisms that control early development in vertebrate embryos,” including the embryos of axolotls, a type of salamander. In her episode, Rogers talks about one Twitter-famous axolotl in particular: Chonk. 

“I had a bunch of little tadpoles, and Chonk was just so much larger than the others so quickly — she kind of ate one of her siblings, so we had to separate her,” Rogers said. “And then I tweeted about her, so she really took on a life of her own, and it honestly helped me to get through the pandemic.” 

Rogers went on to describe the experience of being interviewed for an audio medium.

“It was kind of interesting because I’ve been interviewed by video before, but this time, I had to think about how I could show the sounds that the animals make and how I could be descriptive with my words instead of showing what we do with the animals,” Rogers said. 

Quinton, who has extensive experience working in public radio, explained her take on the unique benefits of using audio mediums to tell stories. 

“Ira Glass, who is the host of the podcast ‘This American Life,’ said that ‘audio is the most visual medium,’ because it allows you to create images inside peoples’ heads,” Quinton said. “You can hear peoples’ emotions, and you really can’t in print.” 

She went on to emphasize that podcasts in particular also offer flexibility in terms of length. 

“In public radio, you might have three minutes for your news story,” Quinton said. “Science stories are really complicated. There’s a lot to unfold, which is where we got our name from.” 

Kerlin said that more than anything, she hopes that the podcast is a refreshing and inspirational break from the challenges of recent years.

“We made this podcast because we needed this, and we really thought maybe everybody else needed this too,” Kerlin said. “Of course we need to know about these things, these huge life-threatening things, but we also need to hear about our amazing, beautiful world.” 

Rogers added her thoughts on the importance of the project and podcasts as a whole. 

“I think one of the things we recognized through the pandemic is that scientists don’t always do a great job of communicating with the public, and so multimedia platforms are really necessary to communicate our research and what we’re doing,” Rogers said. 

Kerlin offered some final reflections on the frequently dispiriting reality of science journalism and how “Unfold” is a reminder that science can also be a beautiful, heartening and curiosity-driven place. 

“I look at the world differently because of my work, and it can be good and bad,” Kerlin said. “I guess the way I cope with it is […] by talking to other people, to scientists who are trying to figure out the problem and how to fix it. It helps me to see all of the people who are trying to help. It feels like it’s important, and I like being a part of that.”

To Rogers, curiosity-driven research is at the heart of what science is all about. 

“I love the allure of answering questions that no one has the answer to,” Rogers said. “And that’s what science is. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure in this career to discover something, but really it’s about the joy of discovery.” 

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org

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