"I’ve learned that using the simplest words doesn’t make you less of a scientist. It can actually make you a great scientist."
Sarah Nyanchera Nyakeri is an MSc fellow at the International Livestock Research Institute where she is researching the development of a better vaccine for contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP). She is also the winner of the recent ILRI CapDev challenge which seeks to find the best science communicators amongst the next generation of livestock researchers. She is also the host and producer of 'The Vulnerable Scientist' podcast which focuses on scientists' stories about their daily lives, work, and how they got to where they are.
From one podcaster to others, Elliot Carleton and Brenda Coromina talk to Sarah to find out more about her podcast, and what it unexpectedly reveals about being a scientist. This special interlude episode touches on failures, being a woman in science, role models in science, and more. Don't forget to check out Sarah's podcast afterwards!
Elliot: Welcome back to the Boma…
Brenda: Today we have a special episode… Interviewing Sarah Nyanchera Nyakeri. A scientist doing her MSc in Molecular biology and bioinformatics + fellow at ILRI
But she’s also a Podcaster and science communicator
So her perspective of science communication is different from ours in that she’s also coming from that scientific background
Sarah: You know, sometimes things just don’t work, you know. I mean, that's why it's research. You're trying to find solutions. And if things are always working, then what are you doing?
And it's something that I'm working towards making people feel safe to talk about those things.
Brenda: So, I actually sat down with Sarah last week
One thing really stood out to me about her title, the Vulnerable scientist
Theme of vulnerability
Not what you expect
Sarah: I remember when I wanted to set my podcast, I asked a few non-scientists what they thought about the name The Vulnerable Scientist. And people are like, Wow, I'd love to hear what a vulnerable scientist sounds like. Because we see scientists are very serious human beings, and we rarely see them laugh, or I don't know, we rarely see their emotions. But when I asked a few of the scientists, they were like, if you're vulnerable, then you perish. It's not something that is welcomed. So at that point, I knew that it's not something that people want to do, like to be vulnerable
Elliot: *express curiosity about the notion of vulnerability and science*
Like Sarah said, in science, “you’re vulnerable and you perish”
Brenda: *agree* and the reason it’s so important for Sarah, as you’ll hear, is because it’s an incredibly important, but not-very-much-discussed, aspect of research.
Has to do with transparency and being honest about process.
Sarah: In science, we mostly talk about the good things, the real good results. We rarely talk about the days that things don't work, or when experiments don't work, or the hurdles that come with doing research.
Elliot: I imagine there’s a stigma…
Science is supposed to be objective… makes it hard
How able are you to express that vulnerability in the scientific community?
Sarah: It's not a welcome space, especially when it comes to publishing, actually, most people will find that they won't talk about when things didn't work. And you'll find people repeating the same thing because someone didn't say about what didn't work. So I think it's a very important space when it comes to saying exactly when things don't work, not always when things work, like we need to talk about those things.
Brenda: Sarah’s point here:
There’s a shortcoming to this: can result in incomplete science that doesn’t show the full picture, and can actually hinder other scientists’ research
Sarah: It's a very common thing, you'll find that When you read a paper, yes, it has good results. But when you attempt to repeat what they did, you find that it is not reproducible. And that is mainly because people don't want to say everything about what happened when they were doing that experiment. Maybe they will just highlight maybe one time or two times, then they will not talk about the rest of it in that paper. So you find that that research, you can’t repeat that kind of research. Maybe you've based your research on that, and then you realize that's not the case. So it's something very common across, according to my knowledge.
Brenda: Struck by Sarah’s comments about being transparent with the “bad” or the things that aren’t working in a given research project
Wondered if it was about funding
Sarah: When you're seeking for funding, you want to tell the funder that things, this is possible and it can work. So if you're shouting out there that sometimes things are not working, it's not an welcome space
Elliot: Besides incomplete science… feel like it affects scientists too.
Mental toll, mental health struggles
Sarah: Of course, you think you’re the problem. You think that if I'm not able to repeat this work, then there's something wrong with me. I've followed everything that they've said. But you just don't realize that there are so many gaps. Later on, you're like, oh, there's so many gaps in whatever they had written. And before you realize that, you have gone through a phase where you're thinking, you feel like an imposter. You feel like, there's something wrong with you as a person, you shouldn't be there. Someone should deal with that, not you. So it affects you as a human being. And there's a certain type of view you feel towards yourself. Yet, most of the time, it's not you. Yeah.
Brenda: In addition to transparency, podcast = about connecting with the scientist behind the research with the intent of gradually and informally introducing the scientist’s research.
Sarah: I'm trying to connect the scientists and the non scientists first.
So the podcast is an informal conversation where if you're, taking family dinner, for example, or if you're going on a date or with your friends hiking, and you’re just having a conversation support your life as a, whatever you do. So you just happen to be a scientist, and you talk about your days, how your day is like, what do you do, what are the challenges you face, that open conversation. And then maybe you just happen, of course, to explain your science in the simplest of manner, so that someone can understand what you do, because they're not probably in science. So that kind of first serves this purpose of communicating the science to people who are close to you in terms of where you are. And also it's a space for scientists to embrace, as I said, embrace vulnerability in the most possible ways, because it is a sign of courage. It shows us good emotions and strength when it comes to a human generally.
Elliot: Sarah’s podcast = creating a safe space. Viewer gets to see more intimate side of science. Behind the scenes… who’s behind the work
Brenda. *agrees* in all capacities. Recall Sarah’s point about not shying away from any conversation. So she’ll ask her guests about parenthood, their personal lives, regardless of gender. Encourages stories of raising kids, having families, and juggling that with their work
Sarah: we talk about even the work life balance, we talk about hobbies, we talk about, because not all female have families. You know, it's not like female is equals to family. Being female is equals to family. But we also talk about the women who are mothers and how they try to juggle between having this, being in an environment where a scientist seem like it's okay for someone to overwork, that's okay, that's normal. And juggling that with family...
Elliot: funny, we’re flipping the roles today, Sarah is the scientist/podcaster being vulnerable today
Brenda: which is important too, it’s about representation. She’s a role model for aspiring scientists, podcasters, science communicators, etc.
Sarah: You’ll find most people don't want to call themselves scientists, because they have not, maybe they’re not with the PhD yet. But I’m a role model in the sense that I'm able to openly say, Yes, I'm doing science, and I am a scientist, and I'm also as a informal science communicator. So someone's seeing me what I'm doing, if they have crazy ideas in their heads of what they want to do, they will feel like oh, actually, it's doable. So I can do this. So that's the space that I'm trying to provide.
Elliot: Representation is also important to Sarah. Interviews diverse group of people. Usually, people she doesn’t know personally. Chance for Sarah and listener to get to know scientist together.
Sarah: When I'm doing my podcast, I don't do African scientists. I feature everyone from different spaces, everyone from different spaces. And the reason for that is you want someone to see someone who looks like them, who talks like them, who comes from the same background, like in terms of where they grew up, either in the rich side or the poor side. Like you want someone who can relate to the person who's on the podcast and seeing what they're doing. So in the sense that I'm a young scientist. I’m very young. I’m Kenyan, I come from the ghetto side. And if someone sees that, and they come from the same setup, then they can see that oh, okay, I can relate to that. Okay. I would like to, whatever they want to do with their lives. It doesn't have to be the same thing I want to do, they'll feel like it's doable. If she's doing it, then I can do it. Like I can even do better.
Elliot: Sounds like her podcast is different from ours
Brenda: *agrees*, focus of her podcast like she said, going on dates with the scientist. Informal discussions. Spark curiosity.
Sarah: right now the structure that I'm following, it's just an informal conversation, where the scientist doesn't know, the questions that I ask, but the main theme is the highs and lows of their career journey as a scientist. And from there, I just ask them to introduce themselves talk about their career, from whatever point they want to talk about it from, to where they are right now. And how they moved from one space to another, then the highs and lows that they've experienced, either directly related to science, or indirectly related to science. And then they talk about their hobbies, of course. And yeah, that's mainly that.
Elliot: Sounds awesome. Where can listeners find Sarah’s podcast?
Sarah: my podcast can be found on any listening platform, any podcast listening platform, plus YouTube. But if anything, you don't know what a podcast listening platform is, then you can just go to TheVulnerableScientist.com. And you can listen it from there or choose which platform that works for you. Maybe it's Spotify, Apple, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts or any other platform.
Brenda: Don’t forget you can also find Sarah and her podcast on social media.
Sarah: we are on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and TikTok and Instagra, @TVScientistPod.
Elliot: Awesome, thanks so much Sarah!
Brenda: thanks for being with us, sharing openly, being vulnerable about science and communicating that science
Elliot: Great place to leave off for today! Thank you to our listeners…