December 11, 2020

Best of Discovery Matters podcast 2020

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

From beer to immunity: Best of Discovery Matters 2020

We end 2020 a bit worse for the wear, but we learned every day. Discover our highlights from the inaugural year of this gnarly yet emotional science podcast.


DODI: Conor, we are coming to the end of 2020.

CONOR: Oh, good gracious me. And I'm so pleased. What I mean, it's not been a year. It's been like a century. It's been a decade.

DODI: We have lived through a lot. But let's not dwell on pandemics or natural disasters or any of those days gone by. Did you know, by the way, that is actually what Auld Lang Syne means?

CONOR: I'm gonna say absolutely I did. But I didn't. So, is that what matters today?

DODI: Kind of. Today we're going to recall some of our favorite moments with our guests on Discovery Matters. Shall we?

CONOR: So, let's get behind the scenes of the podcast a little bit. People hear my voice. People hear your voice. But this podcast is the result of an extraordinary team and some fantastic teamwork. We've invited our executive producer, Andrea Kilin, and our editor and sound artist, Thomas Henley, to talk about their favorite Discovery Matters moments from 2020. Let's hear from Andrea.

ANDREA: My favorite episode of the year was actually The brewer, the baker, and the biotech maker. Obviously, knowing me you think that it's because of this snazzy title. But it's really because it brought biochemistry home. It brought it as close as the bread that we eat, and the beer that we cheer with. And that's what really opened my eyes that it's not just an abstract thing that some scientists do in the lab, hidden away, and they come up with these amazing things. But it's really just regular ordinary things that you would not stop to think about. So, I'm really grateful that we had the baker and the brewer on the podcast to really bring it home.

CONOR: So, let's hear a little soundbite from that episode.

MICHEL AHLIN-WIGARDT: Using fermentation and using bacteria in other parts of science, I guess that originates in ways from baking and making food years and years and years ago. Someone left a bowl of porridge sitting out in the sun. And after a day or two, it started bubbling and they tried to bake it. And it got even bigger. They learned how to make more food from less, kind of. And that must have sparked many ideas and questions about how we can use this in different ways.

ANNA ROSWALL: If you leave any type of fruit, it's going to ferment and you will have an intoxicating beverage, which most likely had an impact on people staying rather than going on and hunting and doing whatever they were doing.

DODI: Alright, now let's hear from Thomas Henley, our editor from Soundtelling, the production company that helps bring so much life and sound to this podcast. And here he takes us back to the episode we called Seeing Things Small.

THOMAS: A big joy for me when it comes to making Discovery Matters is not only hearing from those that Conor and Dodi meet, but also from hearing from the two hosts themselves. I am a radio producer. That's what I do. And so often I have no idea about the subjects of the episodes. But the beauty of Discovery Matters for me is that I come out the other end when all the interviews have been edited, and the music is written. And I know something new and fascinating.

A big part of that comes from Dodi and Conor’s interactions in the studio, the way they paint a picture for me and our listeners. I think a great example of this comes from episode 20, seeing things more straight from the get-go. In fact, I am with them discovering what they discover, and realizing that it matters.

(Excerpt from episode 20)

DODI: Conor, I am sharing an image with you and I want you to tell me what you're looking at. Now. Here you are. (You can view the image here.)

CONOR: Okay, it's just rendered. Oh, wow. Okay, what have we got here?

DODI: Well, you tell me. Describe what you are seeing for our listeners.

CONOR: Well, I don't know. Looks like it could be something from the Hubble Space Telescope. It may be something like the Pillars of Creation, that famous photo looking deep into space into the beginnings of the universe. And it's kind of bright purple, pink, yellows, green. Is it actually a photo? What is it?

DODI: Well, you would be surprised to know it is actually a close-up of breast cancer.

CONOR: Okay, so unexpected to see something so dark being so beautiful. When you get really close to it, I guess those are all little cells in a tumor or something like that, right?

DODI: They are.

CONOR: It is extraordinary.

DODI: And beautiful or not, the smaller you look at things, the bigger the understanding you get. (End of excerpt.)

DODI: All right now, Conor, when it comes to the stories that you and I have chosen, I think our true interests really come through. So, tell us your first pick.

CONOR: So, you know me and science communication. You know I like people to like good science. And I like the fact that we're prepared to embrace a little bit of the woo-woo. I do have a thing for the Cryotherapy to Cryopreservation episode. And the reason I like it is that we flow from alternative therapies that may or may not be proven, but you know, make people feel good, into some really quite deep-chill, hardcore science.

EXCERPT FROM PETER KILBRIDE: The first thing that we have to remember is that human cells do not like the cold. Human cells are used to being at a very controlled 37°C inside the body for their whole life. And lowering your core temperature even by a little bit can be extremely dangerous and just very uncomfortable. It's what we see when we're shivering or we go outside. And in extreme cases, such as with polar explorers or mountaineers, you can see their extremities get very cold.

They can end up having a condition called frostbite, which is essentially the tissue freezing and then becoming permanently damaged. It never recovers even after rewarming. So, I think our relationship with so-called cryopreservation is really the science of tricking cells into not realizing that they don't like low temperatures. And then trying to use even some of the things that normally are bad for cells at low temperatures, somehow to our benefit and to the benefit of the cells.

DODI: So, one of my favorites was actually when we explored oligonucleotides, which was entirely new for me as a nonscientist. But it was just one of those pull-on-the-heartstrings episodes. And remember, we actually heard the story of the patient, Roy, a young Swedish boy with SMA. And his mom, Maja, was generous with time and the story of how they got involved in an experimental trial for Roy.

EXCERPT FROM MAJA ÖDMANN: In August, I remember I was there and thinking, Oh, now he's going to meet the physiotherapist and he's going to show her that he's stronger now because of the medicine. And I remember that moment, he couldn't continue the exercises. And he couldn't breathe and it was chaotic and I was sweating so much, and he couldn't even breathe through this exercise. And I thought he would show that he's stronger. So that is how much I wanted this, how much I imagined this, and I understand that's why they have a placebo in some studies. My hope couldn't change his muscles or his DNA. But I thought he got the treatment because I wanted it, but then I understood that it was a lost race, that he didn't get it. He was only getting weaker and weaker and weaker, and we were spending more and more time at the hospital. And we noticed that he's not getting stronger, only weaker, but it took months.

CONOR: I love that story. That was very powerful. That was one of those sobbing-while-listening-to-the-podcast stories.

DODI: Yeah, I think so, too. All right, your turn again.

CONOR: So then the next one that I really like, and Dodi, you're making me feel like I should put some more emotion into this, because I've picked out the ones that are really science-y as opposed to the ones that are really people.

DODI: Well, that's what I meant by our true interests. You totally are a sucker for the science, and I'm a sucker for the emotion.

CONOR: I know, I know. And my EQ is not as high as I would like it to be, but I'm working on it. The next one that I love is the one about quantum biology where we spoke to a couple of researchers who are bridging the extraordinary kind of chasm between our understanding of you know, subatomic physics, quantum physics, and the sort of ticking clockwork behind the way the universe functions and biology. Because, until now, these things operated to what appear to be completely different sets of rules. And we won't get into that.

But I love the fact that as our knowledge advances, there are people that are working at the boundaries of bridging these two disciplines of quantum physics and biology into quantum biology. So, think of a traveling salesman. If a traveling salesman walks along from place to place, randomly trying all the different routes that they could eventually go by to find the most efficient way to have the most success, it's going to be an incredibly inefficient way of optimizing their journey, right? If you just go around in various directions, right? The thinking here is that if you think of the packets of energy that photosynthesis is delivering to the system, as it were, to the plant, these packets of energy, or this traveling salesman, explore every single possible way simultaneously,

EXCERPT FROM EDELINE D'SOUZA: That makes more sense efficiency wise, and that is one of the ways that quantum biology could potentially make sense. Because if we can use that understanding to create more efficient solar cells, we could really, really increase the amount of energy that we can harvest from the sun and make solar energy super cheap, definitely more efficient.

DODI: I had no idea what to expect from that episode. So, this is an example where you found both of those interviews, where you chased them down. And I think by the end of the episode, I was a believer, like you. So. I think that's one of the fun things about finding guests for Discovery Matters.

CONOR: And somebody somewhere out there is going to be on our list of favorite episodes for 2021. And if you know somebody who that is, send us the name. Who should we be interviewing?

DODI: Another random victim that I found for our podcast was actually sitting next to me on an airplane, when I was traveling on an airplane.

CONOR: Oh, yeah, you're like the worst person to sit next to on a plane. Do you remember airplanes? I don't remember airplanes. I haven't been on an airplane since February.

DODI: We used to fly in them. So, poor Rebecca Chandler was the one who ended up sitting next to me on an airplane. She was from the Uppsala Monitoring Centre. And it was a perfect match to put in an episode about The Artistry of Vaccines with our very own Daria Donati. And Daria — I have to share it with everybody again — she had a really wonderful way of talking about vaccines.

EXCERPT FROM DARIA: A vaccine is a way to educate our immune system to recognize foreign and dangerous stuff that can be viruses or bacteria. So, for me, vaccination is just a tool to give to our bodies to handle whatever can happen around us. The interesting thing in the immune system is that you can vaccinate people for many different types of diseases. Your immune system is just there to learn.

It's like when you tell people that children can learn many different languages until they're eight years old. They're not only able to learn one but even up to 10. And you just need to expose them to that. And that's the same with the immune system. The difference is that the immune system cannot only learn 10 different ways of reacting diseases, but many, many, many more. Actually, we don't know the upper limit. So, vaccination is a great tool to be able to do that.

CONOR: You could say immunizations are a way of teaching the immune system. So, even for the immune system every day can be a school day.

EXCERPT FROM REBECCA: Definitely. And that's why I spend most of my life working on immunology and trying to see how our immune system can be educated.

DODI: So, those are our favorites, and I just would love to hear from our listeners. What were their favorites from Discovery Matters in 2020? Let us know who you'd like to hear from in 2021.

CONOR: Outstanding. I'm looking forward to another wonderful series of really gnarly science interviews. It's gonna be fun.

DODI: Gnarly and emotional.

CONOR: We're going to learn so much more!

DODI: Thanks for listening.

CONOR: Take care.

DODI: Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery Matters is produced in collaboration with Soundtelling. Production and music by Thomas Henley.

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