December 28, 2021

Best of 2021

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Best of 2021

As 2022 rolls around the corner, we look back on the amazing topics we covered in 2021. Conor and Dodi were set an assignment to choose their favorite episode of the year, but as this was such a jam-packed year it made it very hard for them to complete their assignment. But as in all things, they delivered.

From fungi forays to an eye-opening conversation with Dr Joan Reede, President of the BSCP, Dodi and Conor discuss the best moments of the year, with a little input from the production team. Our podcast planner intern, Bethany shares her favorite episode, as does Thomas Henley our podcast editor and sound designer.

Stay to the end for a little surprise from us to you for the holiday season…


CONOR: It's that time of year again, Dodi!

DODI: Well, it's too late for back to school. I know that's your favorite season. So, what do you mean?

CONOR: It's the end of the year: the holiday season, cheer, and festivity.

DODI: Okay, alright. I've been looking forward to this.

CONOR: Yeah. And it's time to think a little bit about the year that's been and choose our favorite moments from Discovery Matters over the last 12 months.

DODI: Yeah, we got an assignment to pick our favorite two episodes. And of course, I couldn't go fewer than four. I think it's hard.

CONOR: I know. And I managed just two but we're going to be brutal. We're going to do one each. And maybe another one? No. Okay, just one each. So, there was a lot.

DODI: Yeah, it really kind of pointed out what good ideas maybe we can go chasing for 2022?

CONOR: Yes, and we've got some real corkers lined up for 2022. So, stay tuned for those! We're going to be looking into a whole range of really interesting things such as red blood cells, the physics of structural biology (who knew that was a thing), in vitro models for drug testing, and so much more. So, a very, very exciting year ahead.

DODI: And we welcome ideas, of course.

CONOR: Of course.

DODI: So, when you give us a rating, leave us your idea!

CONOR: Exactly. And can people email us?

DODI: They can!

CONOR: Who do they email?

DODI: [email protected]

CONOR: Or you could email [email protected]. Good luck spelling that...

DODI: Yeh, because that's so easy to spell!

CONOR: But Google™ and then you've got me.

DODI: Okay, well, we're going to look back at 2021 for this episode.

CONOR: Exactly. And that's really what matters today. So, for those of your diehard fans out there, who stick around to the end and don't skip to our credits, you'll know that Discovery Matters gained its very first podcast planning intern in 2021, the wonderful Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster.

DODI: Indeed. So, let's kick off this 'best of' episode with Bethany and hear which episodes stood out most for her.

BETHANY: I think my favorite episode hands down has to be 'The old biotech in the sea'! Just listening to Professor Ding Jeak Ling – or Lynne, as she prefers to be known – talk about how her discovery of recombinant factor C has changed the game when it comes to detecting endotoxins. It shows that biotech innovation has more than one objective. Of course, there's lifesaving therapeutics, trying to help you know minimize infection and contamination from vaccines and therapeutics, but also that it can help limit the strain on the environment. Because recombinant factor C, helps prevent these huge swathes of horseshoe crabs being harvested for their blood for this testing of endotoxins. And even its predecessor, the rabbit pyrogen test, used rabbit blood. So, her creation of recombinant factor C is far more advantageous, not just to the human population, but also for our environment. Our reliance on animal products within the industry is changing.

LYNNE: RFC is very well received, extremely well received by various groups of people. Firstly, of course, conservationists, they want to ensure that the horseshoe crab will not die off. Secondly, and very importantly, the biomedical sector industry. I think Eli Lilly has over five years explored the use of rFC, they have tested 60,000 samples using rFC. And in direct comparison of the 60,000 samples, rFC on one hand and LAL on the other hand and found that the rFC was efficacious in detecting endotoxin if not more specific and does not suffer from false positives.

CONOR: Big thanks to Bethany for all her support through the year, it's been fantastic and next year is going to be great. So, we're also happy to welcome back our podcast editor and sound designer Thomas Henley.

DODI: Yay, Thomas!

CONOR: It is great to have him back, and a father as well now, so he's back into the mix at the end of this year.

DODI: And here he is talking about his favorite Discovery Matters episode of 2021.

THOMAS HENLEY: For me, the best episode of 2021 is a recent one. Episode 44 in fact, 'Insects as biotech engines'. I love hearing how giddy Conor gets when he talks about the little things that he is so passionate about, be it mushrooms or seaweed, or indeed insects. And the fact that this episode touched upon not just insect pupae and proteins, but stuff that really matters to us now like vaccines and sustainability. For that reason, this episode is right up there for me.

DODI - EPISODE EXCERPT: This is so insanely sci-fi. Now I understand why you were jumping up and down to tell me all about this. Robots inoculating insect pupae for the production of recombinant proteins in these teeny tiny bioreactors.

CONOR - EPISODE EXCERPT: It's just so beautiful, isn't it? It's like a mash up of the Matrix, Blade Runner 2047, and Alien all in one, but without like the horrible dystopia bit.

DODI - EPISODE EXCERPT: So, what about Daylan? Is she using pupae as well for the fats?

CONOR - EPISODE EXCERPT: Not quite, but it does rely on the juvenile phase of the insect or worm or larvae phase that grow from pupa into adults, and it is in the larval phase where they have the highest content of fat because, well, they're just like little eating machines. Nom nom nom nom nom. Accumulating energy for, you know, metamorphosis.

DODI - EPISODE EXCERPT: And now we're into The Very Hungry Caterpillar. And why are they so good at making fats?

DAYLAN TZOMPA-SOSA: To make a fair comparison, in milk fat, we have 4% of fat in weight basis. And in wet basis we will have 12% of fat in insects. So, it's at least three folds more the amount of fat in the insects, similar to what we have in seeds.

CONOR: So, Thomas is right, that was a cracking episode. But, you know, let's hear your favorite. I know because it's all about me, isn't it?

DODI: Is it about the microbiome, is it about quantum physics...?

CONOR: Not quite. It's fungus! So, back at the beginning of the year, we had a great chance to speak to a couple of people who are deeply embedded in the magical world of fungi. We spoke to Claire Blencowe, who is an amateur mycologist and works at the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre in the UK, and of course Merlin Sheldrake, who is now a bestselling author.

DODI: Let's have a listen.

CONOR: Let's hear what they said.

CLARE BLENCOWE: I can entirely believe that this hugely understudied kingdom of organisms does all sorts of interesting, useful stuff, which benefits people. I think, kind of understanding the extent to which that can be applied to human existence is probably still in its fairly early stages. But I think it's a symptom of the fact that they've been so understudied for so long, that it is this vast and exciting field that has so much promise. I can see why people get super excited about what some can do.

MERLIN SHELDRAKE: About 500 million years ago, before plants had moved onto land or the ancestors of plants had moved onto land, there were these algal ancestors. The plants were living in fresh waters and lakes and rivers when washing up onto these muddy shores. But unable to make a life in the open air that was scorched and desolate, hot, and seared with radiation.

DODI: I remember that episode, and I remember listening to the music that was made by the fungi. Do I remember that correctly?

CONOR: Yeah, it was absolutely fantastic. It was the electrical signals as the fungus grew. The oyster mushroom grew and ate Merlin's book. I mean, it was so 'meta', it was fantastic.

DODI: That's right. All right. Should we talk about my favorite now? So, we talked with Dr. Joan Reede, who founded the Biomedical Science Careers Program.

CONOR: This was marvelous. Oh, she was really inspirational.

DODI: Absolutely, and we of course talked about the issue of needing to bring more inclusion and diversity into the sciences. But it was one of those conversations where you meet a stranger who is a friend, and she was so open and generous with her story and with herself. I loved when she said this in particular, let's listen...

DR JOAN REEDE: When we talk about the underrepresentation of certain groups in the sciences, and here you might think of STEM, of the technology, engineering, mathematics, really across the board, the fields of biomedical sciences, which is what the BSCP is about, it is not new. And as we see these demographic shifts in our country, that disparity in terms of representation is only going to grow if we don't address it. So, if we looked at, say, children under 18, today, in our country, were 36% students of color, black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, etc. If we look out towards 2016, we're looking at 64% being students of color. So, when we start to talk about who we're going to be the nurses, and the doctors, and the dentists, who're going to be the researchers, and the technicians, and the engineers of tomorrow, are going to increasingly be drawn from this youth of color. You know, I get lots of people saying, you know, would you be interested in going to his position for Dean or president or these other kinds of things? I had someone goes so far in one of these. I said, 'No, I'm not really interested, I like what I'm doing now'. 'Could I just put your name in? Because I need some black names here'. When you're a person of color, that is not an unusual type thing. People aren't always bold enough to say it. So, for me, do I take it seriously that somebody is really looking for diversity or are going to give me an opportunity or position? No, what you want is to have my picture there or my name there. All this stuff is playing through for kids, and then they look at our organizations and they say, 'Wait a minute, there's nobody else that looks like me. I don't know if that's the place I want to be.'

CONOR: And that's just an extraordinary insight and so important for us to realize that, you know, this is a journey and all of us in the industry and all of us as society as a whole, we've got a long way to go with this. And we need to keep pushing.

DODI: Yeah.

CONOR: So, to close this episode out, and indeed the year, this might be time to draw back the curtain a little bit and show people another side to the podcast. Another part of what makes this so much fun for us to do.

DODI: Right. And when you say draw back the curtain...

CONOR: This kind of The Wizard of Oz moment, right?

DODI: Yeah. Great. Oh, goodness. Okay.

CONOR: So, I'm still wiping away the tears from this moment, every time I listen back to it. I'm giggling again. During our recording of another great episode I sort of lost it giggling.

DODI: And we hardly got through it.

CONOR: And we had to record it I don't know how many times because it was hilarious. So, here it is. Here's that very moment, a little blooper for you to show you that it's not all plain sailing and we're not all polished professionals the whole time. In its total naked embarrassing entirety is the gift of me completely losing the plot.

DODI: That's right. And what we wish for you in this holiday season is the gift of colleagues who make you laugh hysterically. Thank you for listening to us through the year!

Do let us know what your favorite episode has been. And here’s to 2022...

DODI - BLOOPER: So, that's been working for a while but now we've decided this method isn't any good...?

CONOR - BLOOPER: It's not a bad method. But like you know, it has limitations. You've only got so much hip right? So yeah, eventually you're going to run out of hip... (laughing and snorting ensues)

DODI - BLOOPER: ...or maybe you should stop breaking your bones but okay...

CONOR - BLOOPER: I'm just seeing this guy say 'My legs are fine, my arms are fine, but I've got a wobbly bit in the middle. My downward dog is f**cked!' (Laughing resumes)

DODI - BLOOPER: You do a great headstand but no downward dog...

CONOR - BLOOPER: You've got me snorting! We should definitely do these on a Friday!

DODI - BLOOPER: (Dodi laughing uncontrollably).

(Tries to resume recording) No, it's not a bad method but it does have its limitations because you've... (laughing ensues AGAIN)

DODI - BLOOPER: You don't wanna run out of hip! (Laughing)

CONOR - BLOOPER: (Struggles to speak through laughter) 'Excuse me, can I please borrow some hip?' ... Okay, we're back. (Tries to resume ... again) It's not a bad method at all, but it does have its limitations because... (Fails to resume... again, laughter begins...again!)

DODI - BLOOPER: You have to get rid of this line!

The executive producer of Discovery Matters is Andrea Kilin and was produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster. Editing, mixing and music by Tom Henley and Banda produktion. My name is Dodi Axelson...

CONOR: ...and I'm Conor McKechnie. Rate us where you get your podcasts.

DODI: Okay, that's it.

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