The Pulse

By WHYY

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Listen to full episodes of WHYY’s health, science and innovation program, The Pulse.

Episode Date
The Magic of Energy
49:29

Energy fuels our lives in ways that seem almost magical. It can transform darkness into light, cold into warmth, water into ice. Of course, it’s science — not magic — but like magic, there are rules that must be followed. One of the fundamental laws of physics is that energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. On this episode, we explore what these rules mean for our quest to create new power sources, and for life on earth.

We hear stories about what makes batteries a feat of engineering — and sometimes its Achilles’ heel. We also hear about the ongoing quest to create “fusion energy,” and the roadblocks standing in the way.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Esther Takeuchi — one of the world’s top energy storage scientists — explains the science behind medical batteries. Takeuchi holds a joint appointment at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory.
  • Clifford Johnson, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Southern California, explains the framework that defines and limits our quest for energy sources. Check out his graphic novel about science called The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe.
May 07, 2021
Public Health and Trust
50:14

Over the past year, public health officials went from being the people who nudge us not to smoke, not to drink and drive, and to eat our veggies, to being a highly visible arm of government involved in calling a lot of the shots: which businesses could stay open and which had to close; who could go to work or be in school; ordering people to cover their noses and mouths. Public health became powerful. Many people looked to them to keep all of us safe — others have felt suspicious and resentful. Like — who are these people to tell us what to do? To restrict our rights? Can we trust them? Trust has become a major issue of our time — trust in information, in government, in science, and in public officials.

Last week, we explored scientific research and trust. On this episode — the second part of our deep dive into trust — we look at public health, and how they talk to us, the public. What gets people’s attention and cooperation? What creates resentment and rebellion? Do public health officials have an obligation to be totally transparent — or to do whatever it takes to keep the public safe?

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with public health historian Howard Markel about the connections between public health and what used to be called “vice,” and why public health messages sometimes sound like they have moral undertones.
Apr 30, 2021
What We Believe
53:06

“Trust the science!” It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot during the pandemic. It’s come to mean things like “wear masks” or “get vaccinated,” but the phrase rubs many people the wrong way — including some scientists. One of the fundamental tenets of science is to be skeptical, and to keep digging deeper and deeper into a topic until something closer to the truth emerges. But sometimes it doesn’t emerge — sometimes we reach a deadlock, leading to fierce arguments in which both sides believe they have science on their side.

On this episode, we dig into science, trust, and why we believe what we believe. We hear about a controversial condition called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS), and what scientists say about its causes; we talk to science communicators about how we forge our beliefs, and what we mean when we say “trust science”; and we hear a science writer’s surprising take on Hollywood’s favorite conman, Frank Abagnale

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with science communicator Sarah Habibi and researcher Nicole Krause about why we believe who we believe, and what determines people’s trust — or lack of trust — in science.
Apr 23, 2021
The Puzzle of Personality
50:09

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Open to new experiences, or comforted by routine? Shy or the life of the party? Figuring out what makes us tick is an important part of understanding how we function within our families, communities, and workplaces. Thousands of tests online promise to assess your personality — but what are they actually measuring? Where does personality come from, how does it form, and where does it live? On this episode, we explore the science behind how we become who we are. We hear stories about what makes for a healthy personality, how our brains betray who we are, and why we change depending on who we’re with.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Reporter Jad Sleiman explores how advances in brain imaging are bolstering the science behind personality research — including the famous “Big Five” personality test. Neuroscientists Colin DeYoung and Emily Finn talk test scores and brain mapping.
  • Countless self-help books promise to turn us into the kind of people we want to be. But what exactly is a healthy personality — and is it even possible to change? To find out, Alan Yu talks with Kristen Meinzer about what she’s learned from years of living by self-help books, along with psychologists Wiebke Bleidorn, Rodica Damian, and Brent Roberts about what science has to say about personality change.
  • Science historian Jonny Bunning discusses how humans have thought about personality across the ages, and how we’ve tried to measure it. We also explore how much of our personality comes from within, and how much is shaped by outside influences.
  • Science journalist Olga Khazan from The Atlantic talks about her new book “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.”
Apr 16, 2021
Healthcare Behind Bars
51:00

More than 2 million people in the U.S. are incarcerated — and tens of thousands have had COVID-19. The pandemic has brought more attention than ever to the barriers to healthcare in prisons and jails. But this has been a problem since long before COVID-19. Incarceration stamps lasting effects on people’s health, and sends ripple effects beyond the prison walls, into the lives and health of people living on the outside.

On this episode, we look at incarceration and its long-term impact on health. We hear the story of Adnan Khan, a formerly incarcerated advocate fighting for better conditions in American prisons; how the design of prisons affects human health; and what it’s like trying to provide mental health care in a setting that’s not really set up for that.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with Stanley Richards about his personal experience being incarcerated, and why the very design of prisons creates an assault on people’s health. Stanley is executive vice president of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that supports people’s successful transition from incarceration back into the outside world.
  • As a psychiatrist, Elizabeth Ford wanted what was best for her patients — but working in the prison system often seemed at odds with providing treatment and care. She talks about her time as the chief of psychiatry for New York City’s Correctional Health Services, and how her obligation to her patients clashed with the limitations of the system.
  • While incarcerated at California’s Solano State Prison, Gordon Melvin found the inspiration to take his health and well-being into his own hands. His motivation came from a yoga program on PBS. It transformed his body, mind, and life. This story is from the KALW series “Uncuffed.”
Apr 09, 2021
Laughing Matters
51:21

There’s not a lot to laugh about right now. But throughout the pandemic, we’ve managed to joke about our shared misery — like making fun of toilet paper hoarding, Zoom mishaps, and mask mumbling. Humor helps get us through tough times. It’s a crucial coping mechanism, a way of connecting with others, and part of what makes us human.

On today’s episode, we explore humor — what makes us laugh, how it works, and the important roles it plays in our lives. We hear stories about inappropriate laughter, why jokes have a shelf life, and using humor to cope with trauma.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Philosophy professor Robert Clewis discusses different three theories on humor, and what makes us laugh.
  • Timing’s everything when it comes to jokes — including whether and how long they’re funny. Reporter Jad Sleiman explores the life cycle of jokes — what makes them land and what makes them bomb.
  • We talk with neuroscientist Sophie Scott about the science of laughter: what’s it like to study laughter, what it looks like in a brain scanner, and where our sense of humor comes from. Scott is the Director of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.
Apr 02, 2021
The Aftermath of Viruses
49:10

Left to their own devices, viruses are pretty much helpless. They need cells to infect in order to replicate. But they’re sneaky — many of them also manage to stick around long after we think they’re gone. When the immune system sets out to kill infected cells, many viruses hide and continue to cause problems. This aspect has come into much sharper focus during the pandemic, with thousands of people suffering serious symptoms months after first being diagnosed with COVID-19.

On this episode, we explore viruses — how they affect our bodies, and what happens when they stick around. We hear from a physician who’s treating long-haul COVID-19 patients, and find out from an immunologist how viruses manage to avoid and evade our body’s defense system. We’ll also explore how new research into the after-effects of viruses could benefit many people who are suffering with other little-understood conditions.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • What fascinated immunologist Carolina Lopez about viruses is how they are simultaneously so powerless and mighty. They can’t do anything without cells to infect — but once they manage to do that, they can inflict so much damage. Carolina explains what we know about how viruses manage to evade the body’s immune system, and what their continued presence could mean.
  • What can be done for the long-suffering COVID-19 long-haulers? We talk with internist Neda Frayha about how she is helping patients who are coming to her with this post-viral illness.
  • Viruses are always inside of our bodies, infecting our cells. Researcher Eric Delwart explains how sometimes that can work to our advantage.
Mar 26, 2021
Sending Signals
48:21

The modern world is made possible by a web of electromagnetic radiation. Your phone, computer, TV, cable box, radio — all depend on millions of signals zipping past each other every second. As more and more devices and inventions rely on these signals, this highway of information is getting crowded. We explore this unseen world and some of the new issues that are emerging.

We hear stories about how scientists are dealing with this increasingly crowded radio spectrum; who has access to high-speed internet, and who doesn’t; and our efforts to listen to space to get a better understanding of our universe, and whether or not we’re alone.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We chat with Nicol Turner Lee, who studies equitable access to technology, about who has access to high-speed internet, and who doesn’t. She explains the need for better broadband infrastructure and the challenges families and communities face in staying connected. Turner Lee is the Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
  • If intelligent life is out there — how would we know? And how would we communicate? Astronomer Derrick Pitts explains our search for intelligent life forms using radio signals. and the limits of this technology.
  • Tech expert Sean Gallagher explains how efforts to jam GPS signals have led to the return of an older navigation system called Loran-C. Gallagher is the Senior Threat Researcher at SophosLabs.
Mar 19, 2021
What Will It Take to Diversify Medicine?
51:15

Who becomes a physician in this country — and who never gets that chance? It’s a question a lot of medical schools are grappling with, as groups like Black people and Latinos remain especially underrepresented among students. What would it take to attract and retain a more diverse group of students? On this episode, we hear stories about people’s path to med school, and the challenges they face along the way. We learn about a major push to increase diversity that happened in the 90s — and what happened to it; why some are rallying to do away with a tough entry exam applicants have to take; and the challenges of being the only person of color in your class.

Also featured on this week’s episode:

  • University of Chicago Medicine OB-GYN Pierre Johnson describes his path toward becoming a physician, and the burden of often being the only Black student in the room. His book and nonprofit are called “Pulse of Perseverance.”
  • We talk with Jaya Aysola, the founder and executive director of Penn Medicine’s Center for Health Equity Advancement. She says more diversity in med schools would bring positive change – but beyond that, the entire health care delivery system has to change as well.
  • As a kid — growing up in the Bay area, the son of Mexican immigrants — Cesar Padilla didn’t imagine becoming a doctor. His school was bad, and his grades were failing. He tells the story of what changed along the way that guided him into medicine. Padilla is an obstetric anesthesiologist, and he will be joining Stanford University School of Medicine this May.
  • We talk with Madi Sinha, a physician and author, about her novel “The White Coat Diaries,” which explores the competing pressures of doing a medical residency — while also being a “good Indian daughter.”
Mar 12, 2021
Taking Our Best Shot
50:15

Throughout the darkest hours of this pandemic, the world kept its gaze trained on the light at the end of the tunnel: a vaccine. Just over a year into the pandemic, we have three — but even solutions can present their own problems: ethical dilemmas, like who should be vaccinated first; logistical bottlenecks, like how to get the vaccine to over 300 million people; and even some basic questions — like how long the immunity from vaccines will last. On this episode, we explore some of the issues that have sprung up around vaccination. We hear about three different models for distribution, along with the benefits and drawbacks. And we meet a doctor whose mission is to bring fairness to the vaccine process.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • How do we decide who gets vaccinated first? Reporters Alan Yu, Hannah Chinn, and Blake Farmer explore three models that aim to strike a balance between fairness, equity, and speed.
  • Have questions about the vaccines? Let vaccine expert Paul Offit answer them. He offers a rundown of the science behind the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, along with side effects, risks, and efficacy against new COVID-19 variants.
  • Physician Ala Stanford recognized early on in the pandemic that Black residents in and around Philadelphia were affected disproportionately by the virus, and not getting the resources they needed. She started to offer testing — and has now pivoted to vaccines. Reporter Nina Feldman has a profile of Stanford, who has attracted national attention for her work.
Mar 05, 2021
Bird Talk
20:19

When you are walking around in the forest, the park, or even the city, do you ever listen to the songs of birds? Really tune in, and listen? What are they telling each other? Scientist Erich Jarvis says bird whistles can teach us a lot about the ability to learn language. He studies how the brain controls spoken language. He joins us for this bonus episode with a discussion on animals that can learn language, animals that can’t, and much more.

Mar 02, 2021
The Species We Save
48:51

Humans have long tried to mitigate their own destructive impact on the planet through conservation efforts. Often, those efforts are attached to one iconic species or another — the majestic bald eagle, cuddly cute baby seal, or awe-inspiring blue whale. But is this about them, or is it about us? On this episode, we take a closer look at conservation, and dig into the human motivations and emotions behind it.

We hear stories about a near-extinct fish called the delta smelt — and whether it’s actually worth saving; how a weird-looking bird has sparked a battle over land in the American West; and how plucky raccoons carve out their own existence in cities.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Out in sagebrush country — a remote area of the American West — a strange and beautiful bird called the greater sage grouse has sparked a war over land. Reporter Ashley Ahearn explains why the grouse’s fight for survival has put it in direct conflict with humans, and how — and whether — compromise is possible. This story is excerpted from the podcast “Grouse.”
  • We talk with science journalist Michelle Nijhuis about what drives the conservation movement and the hard questions that not enough people are asking. Her book is called “Beloved Beasts.”
  • What can bird songs teach us about the origins of human language? Plenty, according to Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist who explores the neurobiology of vocal communication. We find out more in this preview of our new podcast extra series — subscribe to The Pulse to hear the whole interview and others like it.
Feb 26, 2021
The Science of Schooling
49:04

School closures during the pandemic have pushed education for millions of kids into a virtual setting. The sudden changes have caused some people to rethink our educational system. Why do we do things the way we do? Based on what researchers have discovered in recent decades about the brain and how we learn, do our current approaches actually make sense? Are they based on evidence or tradition? And is it time for a revamp?

On this episode, we look at what research can tell us about the way we educate, and how science informs this process — or doesn’t. We’ll hear stories about the controversy over how we teach reading, whether homework actually improves learning, and why Black teachers are crucial to the education of Black students.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with Firat Soylu from the University of Alabama about the emerging field of educational neuroscience, and what we’re finding out about the biology of how we learn.
  • Homework is a lightning rod in many homes. It ruins evenings and weekends, leading to tears and frustration. The pandemic has brought new attention to this issue — and has teachers, parents, and students wondering: What is the point of homework? Alan Yu reports.
  • Reading might just be the most fundamental skill schools are supposed to teach — it is the key to learning. But what’s the best way to teach this skill? A growing movement is asserting that one of the most popular approaches is not working for many children. We hear from a range of experts about this debate: literacy researcher Louisa Moats, parent activist Sonya Thomas, and Lucy Calkins, whose early reading curriculum is used across the country.
Feb 19, 2021
The Hidden Force Shaping Drug Prices
50:51

Every time you get a prescription drug, you’re dealing with a middleman you’ve probably never heard of — one who has had a hand in how much your drug costs. The same middleman decides which drugs are covered by your insurance, and even which medications are prescribed by your doctor. Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) are powerful and important companies that have become connectors between pharma, insurance companies, pharmacies, and consumers. But many critics say they’ve become too powerful, and are driving up prescription drug costs for all of us. On this episode, we explore their role, and how they affect patient care, drug prices, and our health care choices. We hear stories about one cancer patient’s battle to get her medication, why independent pharmacists say PBMs are putting them out of business, and what a recent Supreme Court ruling means for reining in PBMs.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Over the past few years, pharmacy benefit managers have emerged as powerful players in the world of health care — so why is it that so few people have heard of them? Liz Tung reports on why PBMs are the “Keyser Soze” of American health care.
  • In 2018, Norma Smith was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Her doctor prescribed a drug that would save her life, but then a pharmacy benefit manager denied her medication.
  • In December of 2020, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Rutledge v. Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA) — one that could have far-reaching consequences for PBMs. We talk about the surprising decision with Dan Gorenstein, host of the health policy podcast, “Tradeoffs.”

Read the full episode transcript.

Feb 12, 2021
The Science of Love
49:21

What is love? Is it that warm and fuzzy feeling, that crazed obsession, that deep sentiment of trust and good will? It’s all of those things, but where and how does love happen in our bodies?

On this special episode, we put love under the microscope (and into a brain scanner) to understand where this emotion begins, and where it takes us. We talk with neurologists and psychologists to get a better understanding of the feeling that can turn us into heroes, fools — or both.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Call it a crush, call it infatuation, call it obsession — some experts call it limerence. Reporter Grant Hill explains the difference between love and limerence, and what it has to do with “love addiction.”
  • How much has online dating changed the way we pick our romantic partners? We talk with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who developed an in-depth questionnaire for the dating site Match.com.
  • We also put together a mixtape with some of our favorite songs about love. You can find it on Spotify.
Feb 05, 2021
Shaping the Future
48:59

When we think of “the future,” it sounds like something abstract and faraway — we imagine new inventions, cutting-edge innovations, life on other planets. But the future can also be frightening. This past year has been a stark reminder of how quickly life can change, and how little we control. So which is it — a world that we shape, or one we’re propelled towards?

On today’s episode, we explore the future — our worries and anxieties about it, our relationship with our future selves, and our ability to shape the future we want. We hear stories about the predictions of futurists, the efforts of science to save a near-extinct animal, and how we make decisions for our future selves.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • The northern white rhino is one animal that may not have a future — with only two females left alive, the species is on the edge of extinction. We talk with Jan Stejskal, director of international projects at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, about scientists’ efforts to save the northern white rhino using in vitro fertilization.
  • We chat with psychologist Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at UCLA. He explains how we can make better decisions for our future selves.
  • If you could talk to your future self, what would you ask them? What would you say? We hear the story of someone who did — Nicholas Yañez, who wrote a letter to his future self at a time when his life seemed to be on the verge of falling apart. That’s because Nicholas had a secret that put everything — his marriage, his friendships, even his job — at risk. This story is based on an episode of the podcast “Hope This Finds Me Well” from editaudio which features interviews with letter writers from the website FutureMe.
Jan 29, 2021
Who We Are at Core
48:59

Who are you? There are dozens of ways to answer that question, from your name and nationality, to your relationships and job, all the way down to the nature of your soul. But the more we zoom in, the more the self can feel like an impressionist painting — from afar, you see distinct shapes, but the closer you look, the more it dissolves into a million tiny pieces. So what is the self really? What is it that makes us who we are?

On this week’s episode, we explore what scientists are learning about the concept of the “self,” and how deep it truly runs. We hear stories about the eroding effects of Alzheimer’s — and whether our memories make us who we are; what diaries can tell us about our best and worst selves; and what it really means to be self-aware.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and researcher, found that although 95 percent of people believe that they are self-aware, only about 10-15 percent really are. We talk with Eurich about why self-awareness is beneficial, and how to gain more.
  • Once a bully, always a bully — or maybe not. We talk with reformed bully Brittany Brady about how she came to realize she’d been a bully, and how that shadow version of herself affects her life now.
  • We chat with Iris Berent, a cognitive psychologist at Northeastern University, who studies human nature, and the moral implications of our “true selves.”

Read the full episode transcript.

Jan 22, 2021
The Miracle and Menace of Plastic
49:24

Plastic gets a bad rap — over the years, it’s become synonymous with environmental destruction, cheap fakery, needless consumption, and mass-produced junk. But there’s a reason plastic is everywhere — it’s inexpensive, strong, and versatile; a shapeshifter that over the past century has revolutionized the way we live, from science and medicine to consumer goods.

So, what exactly is it that makes plastic both a miracle and a menace? On this episode, we explore the science behind the dual nature of plastic. We hear stories about how plastic shaped everything from our homes to women’s bodies; what’s standing in the way of creating greener plastics; and how waxworms and garbage dump bacteria could hold the key to breaking down our plastic waste.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • For years, we’ve been hearing about the promise of “greener” plastics that aren’t made from fossil fuels and are easier to compost. So why haven’t they taken hold yet? Alan Yu reports.
  • Plastics engineer Chris DeArmitt — who’s also a chemist and polymer scientist — makes the case for why a lot of what we think about plastic is far more complicated than it seems. DeArmitt’s book is “The Plastics Paradox: Facts for a Brighter Future.”
  • We talk with Isabelle Marina Held, a postdoctoral fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, about how plastic revolutionized women’s fashion and shaped their silhouettes.
Jan 15, 2021
What’s Best for Our Pets
49:09

Owning a pet means making decisions that affect their health — from what they eat, to whether and how much they exercise, to how they spend their days. Some of those decisions are easy — should we get our yowling cat fixed? — but others are wrenchingly tough — how much is too much for lifesaving surgery?

On this episode, we explore some of the emotional, financial, and ethical dilemmas that come with owning a pet. Among the conundrums we explore: Should cats be let outside? When is it OK to crate your dog — and is there science that supports the practice? When do you know that it’s time to let your fur-baby go — and what’s the kindest way to do it?

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce weighs in on some of the complicated ethics of owning pets — from whether goldfish and geckos are in solitary confinement, to the humane way of walking dogs. Her latest book is called “Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.”
  • We chat with Mariea Ross-Estrada, a veterinarian and professor at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, about dos and don’ts for keeping pets.
Jan 08, 2021
Chasing Happiness
48:42

The pandemic has changed the way a lot of us understand and experience happiness. In normal times, we think of happiness as a big-picture goal — a guiding principle for making decisions. Will this job make me happy? Will this relationship make me happy? Will starting a family, or moving, or switching careers make me happy?

But over the past few months, as our lives have increasingly been shaped by restrictions, loss, and fear, many of us have had to reexamine what happiness means, and how we can find it.

On this episode, we hear from psychologists who study happiness, and explore what contributes to happiness, and what it means in this unique moment.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • How do we achieve happiness? That’s a question that University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has been exploring for years. She says happiness is both a state — a fleeting moment — and also a trait, something that’s more stable, and a more dominant characteristic in some people than in others.
  • Brock Bastian, a psychologist and professor at the University of Melbourne, discusses the pursuit of happiness, and how a more fearless approach to life might result in greater happiness.
  • At the age of 4, Lise Deguire was severely burned in an accident, causing third-degree burns all over her body. The ensuing years were filled with surgeries, pain, and parental neglect. Despite everything, Deguire — who’s now a psychologist and author — found her way to happiness. She tells us about that journey. Her book is called “Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor.”
  • How does culture shape our expectations and experience of happiness? We get the lowdown from Jeanne Tsai, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab.
  • We also created a playlist of songs about happiness. Check it out on Spotify or press play below.

Jan 01, 2021
Booze, Science and Our Health
50:08

We all know that drinking a lot of alcohol is bad for your health. It’s tied to heart disease, heightened risk for some cancers, addiction, and accidents. But there is a long-held belief that moderate drinking is fine — even good for your health. So what does science actually say about the health impact of drinking? On this episode, we dig into the complicated relationship between alcohol and our health, and discover a tangled web of industry funding, thwarted research studies, and frustrated scientists. We also hear stories about how the pandemic has affected our drinking habits, and a new substance that promises to deliver the buzz of booze without the hangover.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • New York Times reporter Roni Rabin recounts her investigation into a massive study that was supposed to shed light on how moderate drinking impacts health. Instead, she broke open a story that raised questions about money and integrity in alcohol research.
  • Vivian Gonzalez, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, discusses the impact of alcohol on Native American communities, and the widespread “firewater myth.”
  • Key West, Florida is a hard-drinking town — but like everywhere, COVID-19 has closed down bars and limited social gatherings. Will the pandemic change this party town forever? Reporter Nancy Klingener takes a look at the party town’s history — and its future.
  • Getting — and staying — sober is a daily commitment for many people… one that the pandemic’s made a lot harder. KUT reporter Claire McInerny tells this story about recovery in the time of COVID-19.
Dec 25, 2020
Persistent Patients
48:42

Most of us trust our doctors to figure out what’s wrong with us — but pinpointing illness isn’t always that easy. Sometimes, getting the right diagnosis — and the right treatment — requires patient persistence: leaning in, pushing for answers, and taking charge.

On this episode, we talk to patients who took their health into their own hands after getting the brush-off from health care professionals — along with doctors who are rethinking the anatomy of diagnosis. We hear stories about the challenges of medical detective work, a controversial illness that’s pitting patients against doctors, and one woman whose pushy mom ended up saving her life.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Physician and researcher Paul Offit explains how diagnosis is like detective work, and why young doctors are taught to “look for horses, not zebras when they’re hearing hoofbeats.”
  • Black women are three-to-four times more likely to die during pregnancy, and twice as likely to lose a child than their white counterparts. But now, Tennessee doula Kristin Mejia-Greene is trying to change that, with a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of Black doulas — and tailoring their training to improve Black women’s maternal outcomes. WPLN’s Damon Mitchell reports. His story is part of The Pulse’s reporting on health equity, which is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation.
Dec 18, 2020
Full House: Multigenerational Living and Health
53:20

One in five Americans live in a multigenerational household — that means at least two separate adult generations share the space. Think grandparents, parents, kids, maybe aunts and uncles … all living under the same roof. In recent years, the number of these households has been on the rise. Living this way saves money, makes childcare easier, and can create strong family bonds. But multigenerational housing can also have negative effects, especially when quarters are cramped. It has played a role in the spread of the coronavirus, made it difficult for some families to quarantine, and put elderly people at risk. On this episode of The Pulse, we explore how multigenerational housing impacts our health.

  • Urban Institute sociologist Claudia Solari explains the health impacts of growing up in overcrowded housing, along with some possible solutions.
  • We talk with Richard Fry, an economist and senior researcher at the Pew Center for Research, about the trend of multigenerational living and why more young adults are opting to live with their parents.
  • Reporter Jad Sleiman tells two stories of families striving to give their loved ones a “good death” at home.
Dec 11, 2020
Back from the Edge
54:14

Suicide is a tough topic — it can feel frightening, and sad, and hard to talk about — but it’s also one we can’t afford to ignore. Over the past 20 years, America’s suicide rate has increased by more than a third, and it now ranks as the 10th leading cause of death nationwide. So what do we know about suicide and how to prevent it? On this episode, The Pulse explores the mystery of suicide — what brings people to the edge, and how we might bring them back. We hear stories about the Suicide Prevention Lifeline — and whether it works; how families deal with losing loved ones, and therapists who have lost clients; and the suicide attempt that changed the course of one man’s life.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Suicide intervention expert Jonathan Singer explains why most of his work is really about hope. We talk about suicide prevention and risk factors. He is the host of the Social Work podcast, and a professor of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago.
  • Yolonda Johnson-Young talks about her son, Elijah who died by suicide in 2017. She made a film about him and the aftermath of his death called “Finding Elijah.”
  • Suicide attempt survivor Kevin Hines talks about his message of hope for others who are struggling with suicidal ideation

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Dec 04, 2020
The Puzzle of Personality
48:47

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Open to new experiences, or comforted by routine? Shy or the life of the party? Figuring out what makes us tick is an important part of understanding how we function within our families, communities, and workplaces. Thousands of tests online promise to assess your personality — but what are they actually measuring? Where does personality come from, how does it form, and where does it live? On this episode, we explore the science behind how we become who we are. We hear stories about what makes for a healthy personality, how our brains betray who we are, and why we change depending on who we’re with.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Reporter Jad Sleiman explores how advances in brain imaging are bolstering the science behind personality research — including the famous “Big Five” personality test. Neuroscientists Colin DeYoung and Emily Finn talk test scores and brain mapping.
  • Countless self-help books promise to turn us into the kind of people we want to be. But what exactly is a healthy personality — and is it even possible to change? To find out, Alan Yu talks with Kristen Meinzer about what she’s learned from years of living by self-help books, along with psychologists Wiebke Bleidorn, Rodica Damian, and Brent Roberts about what science has to say about personality change.
  • Science historian Jonny Bunning discusses how humans have thought about personality across the ages, and how we’ve tried to measure it. We also explore how much of our personality comes from within, and how much is shaped by outside influences.
  • Science journalist Olga Khazan from The Atlantic talks about her new book “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.”
Nov 27, 2020
A 2020 Thanksgiving
49:24

Thanksgiving usually means we’re going big — way over the top. Twice the size bird we could possibly eat; more side dishes than the table can hold; and, of course, so much pie. But so many things will be different this year because of the pandemic. Our celebrations will be smaller, and our travel plans limited. We’ll try to be grateful for what we have, while feeling the pain of all we have lost.

On this special episode of The Pulse, we explore the traditions of Thanksgiving through a scientific lens and discuss how the coronavirus will impact the holiday. We hear stories about the neuroscience of gratitude — and how it can help us through grief, how the pandemic has impacted our food systems, and what people are doing to stabilize the supply chain. We also make a visit to a multi-generational cranberry farm and hear about a tough decision over whether to cross state lines — not for turkey, but for love.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Jacqueline Mattis of Rutgers University researches positive emotions, and she says making time to feel gratitude is especially important this year.
  • To travel or not to travel — that’s the dilemma facing millions of Americans ahead of this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Health officials are urging the public to stay put, but as Alan Yu reports, the decision of whether to travel has become an agonizing one for people across the country.
  • Overeating is a Turkey Day tradition — but what exactly does it do to our bodies? To find out, we talked with Atlanta gastroenterologist Earl Campbell III about the nuts and bolts of digestion … from one end to the other.
  • The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our food system. Nate Mook of World Central Kitchen talks about the symbolic meaning of a hot plate of delicious food, and connecting the dots to get meals from people who produce it to those in need.
Nov 20, 2020
Our Favorite Rabbit Holes
48:50

We’ve all been there — you start out Googling local pharmacy hours, and all of a sudden you find yourself reading about how to construct a pool from Gruyere cheese. Such is the power of rabbit holes. We often think of them as time wasters, but at a moment when the real world can seem overwhelming, fun rabbit holes offer a respite — an opportunity to focus on something else entirely; to engage our attention and curiosity in a totally different way.

So, on this episode, we celebrate some of our favorite rabbit holes, with stories that investigate some of the universe’s most enduring mysteries: For instance — why do we put carpets in cars? Why do we drink tomato juice on planes? And why do some patients cry after anesthesia? We explore the answers to these and other questions you never knew you had.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with Randall Munroe — the prolific author behind webcomic XKCD — about some of his own favorite rabbit holes … like using math to engineer an above ground pool out of Gruyere cheese.
Nov 13, 2020
The Quest for a Coronavirus Vaccine
51:26

Not even a year after SARS-CoV-2 was first identified, several coronavirus vaccines are now in the final stages of testing. Some people worry we’re moving too fast; others argue that “Operation Warp Speed” is not moving nearly fast enough. There’s a lot at stake — from public health, to trust in science, to the economy — and failure is not an option.

On this episode we track the quest for a coronavirus vaccine. We talk with people who’ve received trial vaccines, scientists who are developing their own, and experts about everything from supply chain issues to the ethics of who should be vaccinated first.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Creating a vaccine is hard enough — but distribution might be even harder. Reporter Alan Yu explores the challenges of producing and transporting billions of doses of vaccines around the world. Thanks to David Weiner, director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at the Wistar Institute, for his help with this story.
  • We hear from two people who are volunteering as participants in a phase 3 clinical trial for a coronavirus vaccine — physician and public health expert Chris Pernell, and podcaster and minister Scott Jones.
  • We talk with Paul Offit, an infectious disease physician and co-creator of the rotavirus vaccine, about the process for proving vaccines are safe and effective, as well as some of the missteps and tragic mistakes made in recent history.
  • Legal scholar Govind Persad takes on thorny ethical questions about who should get the vaccine first.
  • We talk with science journalist Olga Dobrovidova about Russia’s coronavirus vaccine — what we know about its efficacy, and why it’s getting the side-eye from the Russian public.
  • We hear from listeners about their hopes and fears about an upcoming vaccine.
  • The people of the Navajo Nation — the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. — have suffered one of the worst COVID-19 death rates of any place in the world. But when the vaccine trials came looking for volunteers, few were willing. Reporter Anthony Wallace explains why.
Nov 06, 2020
Laughing Matters
50:21

There’s not a lot to laugh about right now. But throughout the pandemic, we’ve managed to joke about our shared misery — like making fun of toilet paper hoarding, Zoom mishaps, and mask mumbling. Humor helps get us through tough times. It’s a crucial coping mechanism, a way of connecting with others, and part of what makes us human.

On today’s episode, we explore humor — what makes us laugh, how it works, and the important roles it plays in our lives. We hear stories about inappropriate laughter, why jokes have a shelf life, and using humor to cope with trauma.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Philosophy professor Robert Clewis discusses different three theories on humor, and what makes us laugh.
  • Timing’s everything when it comes to jokes — including whether and how long they’re funny. Reporter Jad Sleiman explores the life cycle of jokes — what makes them land and what makes them bomb.
  • We talk with neuroscientist Sophie Scott about the science of laughter: what’s it like to study laughter, what it looks like in a brain scanner, and where our sense of humor comes from. Scott is the Director of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.
Oct 30, 2020
Working Memory
49:00

Think about the millions of details stored in your memory: what you had for breakfast; how to get to work; the smell of lavender; your first kiss; a great vacation; how to calculate percentages. So much of our existence is based on our memory. All of the small and big things we accomplish and do every day tap into this system. But how does memory work? Why do we remember some things and not others? On this episode, we look at memory. We hear stories about what scientists say happens to our earliest childhood memories; people who cultivate a practice of remembering their dreams; and a new therapy that uses the senses to improve recall among people with dementia.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Michael Yassa, professor of neurobiology at the University of California Irvine, explains what we know about how memories are stored and accessed in our brains.
  • We look into the “jukebox” in our heads that stores thousands of songs and melodies — and seemingly plays them at random.
  • We explore the relationship between creativity and memory with Kevin Paul Madore, a research psychologist at Stanford University. We need memory to be creative, but sometimes it can be a tricky partner when we’re trying to come up with something brand new.
Oct 23, 2020
The Hidden Costs of Science
49:15

In science, we tend to focus on the destination, not the journey. But for every big breakthrough, every historic discovery, there are countless contributions that no one notices: the forgotten grunt workers, research that came to nothing, even lives lost in the pursuit of progress. Today’s episode is about the hidden cost of science — the price of doing business that we rarely think about. We hear stories about the mental health toll of graduate school, the literal cost of research, and the environmental impact of scientific progress.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • J’Nese Williams — a historian of Modern Britain and lecturer at Stanford University — tells the story of the enslaved workforce that built the botanical garden on the tropical island of St. Vincent. She did some of her research on this topic during a fellowship at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • We talk with diabetes researcher Antentor Hinton Jr. about learning to say no, and his tips for succeeding and thriving in graduate school.
  • Each year, universities spend millions of dollars on a hidden cost: access to research and scientific journals. But that’s starting to change thanks to the Open Access movement. Reporter Liz Tung talks with University of California librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason about what’s changing and why.
  • Many scientists are passionate about the use of animals in their research. They feel empathy for the animals, but they also believe that this work is necessary, and serves a greater purpose. Reporter Jad Sleiman explores this complicated relationship.
Oct 16, 2020
Chasing Happiness
48:42

The pandemic has changed the way a lot of us understand and experience happiness. In normal times, we think of happiness as a big-picture goal — a guiding principle for making decisions. Will this job make me happy? Will this relationship make me happy? Will starting a family, or moving, or switching careers make me happy?

But over the past few months, as our lives have increasingly been shaped by restrictions, loss, and fear, many of us have had to reexamine what happiness means, and how we can find it.

On this episode, we hear from psychologists who study happiness, and explore what contributes to happiness, and what it means in this unique moment.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • How do we achieve happiness? That’s a question that University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has been exploring for years. She says happiness is both a state — a fleeting moment — and also a trait, something that’s more stable, and a more dominant characteristic in some people than in others.
  • Brock Bastian, a psychologist and professor at the University of Melbourne, discusses the pursuit of happiness, and how a more fearless approach to life might result in greater happiness.
  • At the age of 4, Lise Deguire was severely burned in an accident, causing third-degree burns all over her body. The ensuing years were filled with surgeries, pain, and parental neglect. Despite everything, Deguire — who’s now a psychologist and author — found her way to happiness. She tells us about that journey. Her book is called “Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor.”
  • How does culture shape our expectations and experience of happiness? We get the lowdown from Jeanne Tsai, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab.
  • We also created a playlist of songs about happiness. Check it out on Spotify or press play below.

Oct 09, 2020
Booze, Science and Our Health
50:08

We all know that drinking a lot of alcohol is bad for your health. It’s tied to heart disease, heightened risk for some cancers, addiction, and accidents. But there is a long-held belief that moderate drinking is fine — even good for your health. So what does science actually say about the health impact of drinking? On this episode, we dig into the complicated relationship between alcohol and our health, and discover a tangled web of industry funding, thwarted research studies, and frustrated scientists. We also hear stories about how the pandemic has affected our drinking habits, and a new substance that promises to deliver the buzz of booze without the hangover.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • New York Times reporter Roni Rabin recounts her investigation into a massive study that was supposed to shed light on how moderate drinking impacts health. Instead, she broke open a story that raised questions about money and integrity in alcohol research.
  • Vivian Gonzalez, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, discusses the impact of alcohol on Native American communities, and the widespread “firewater myth.”
  • Key West, Florida is a hard-drinking town — but like everywhere, COVID-19 has closed down bars and limited social gatherings. Will the pandemic change this party town forever? Reporter Nancy Klingener takes a look at the party town’s history — and its future.
  • Getting — and staying — sober is a daily commitment for many people… one that the pandemic’s made a lot harder. KUT reporter Claire McInerny tells this story about recovery in the time of COVID-19.
Oct 02, 2020
Confronting Implicit Biases
49:35

We’re trying to have more meaningful conversations about racism as a country. Part of that means talking about implicit bias — assumptions and stereotypes that may influence our decisions and actions without us even realizing it. Implicit bias can have many harmful consequences: The customer who’s accused of stealing; the grad student being told they’re in the wrong room; the driver being pulled over for no reason. And in some cases, these biases can lead to violence.

On this episode, we explore what implicit bias means — what it is, how we can test for it, and what we can do about it. We hear stories about whether or not anti-bias training actually works, the origins — and criticisms — of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, and where our biases actually come from.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt talks about the ways implicit biases have affected her own life, and how she tries to educate people about them in her work. Her book is “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.”
  • Evolutionary psychologist Corey Cook from Pacific Lutheran University discusses the evolutionary origins of biases. He argues that they likely developed as a way to assess threats.
  • We hear from Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, one of the researchers who helped develop the Implicit Association Test, about the humbling experience of confronting her own biases. Her book is “Blind Spot – Hidden Biases of Good People.
  • White people aren’t the only ones with implicit biases — that’s what Brennan Center for Justice fellow Ted Johnson discovered when he took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test a few years ago. In this story, we hear what the test taught Johnson about himself, and about the nature of racism. Johnson’s Atlantic essay is called “Black-on-Black Racism: The Hazards of Implicit Bias.
  • Despite its popularity, the Implicit Association Test has drawn criticism over the years. Is it really an accurate way of measuring biases? Olivia Goldhill, a science reporter for Quartz, helps us dive into the history of the IAT, and its critiques.
  • Neurologists Anjan Chatterjee and Roy Hamilton of the University of Pennsylvania discuss an app they’ve used to try and change people’s biases.
Sep 25, 2020
Science and Medicine, Under Pressure
48:24

The pandemic has put a lot of pressure on both our health care system and the scientific process — exposing weaknesses that have long existed, but only now become impossible to ignore. On this episode, we take a look at some of the hard truths that COVID-19 is revealing, and what can be done about them. We hear stories about America’s problem with drug shortages, how COVID-19 is affecting the lives of young doctors, and the devastating reality of racial health disparities in New Orleans.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • President Donald Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine as a potential COVID-19 treatment in March, causing a surge in demand, and shortages for patients who needed it. But even before the pandemic, drug shortages have led to missed cancer treatments, and even deaths. Reporter Alan Yu talks with Rebecca Mosner, Ethan Daniels, Chip Davis from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, Ryan Marable from Kroger and the National Pharmaceutical Association, Erin Fox from University of Utah Health, Rena Conti from the Boston University Questrom School of Business, Anne Pritchett from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
  • Racial health disparities exist across the country — but in New Orleans, recently, ProPublica has found they led to the deaths of elderly Black patients who were sent home to die after contracting COVID-19. We talk with the investigative reporters behind that story, Annie Waldman and Joshua Kaplan.
  • NYU medical ethicist Art Caplan talks about the importance of a slow and deliberate process in scientific research, even when the pressure for breakthroughs is great.
Sep 18, 2020
Why We Need Friends — Especially Now
49:04

We rely on our friends for all kinds of things — companionship, laughter, and right now — support in times of crisis. But it’s only recently that scientists have started investigating how friendship works, and why it matters to our health and well-being. On this episode, we explore the anatomy of this unique bond, with stories about what happens when friendship turns romantic, the painful experience of bestie breakups, and how friendships can form between unlikely animal pairings.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Science journalist Lydia Denworth discusses why friendship is essential to our health and to our survival. She is the author of “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.”
  • Dakota Fisher-Vance and Cara Scharf were both diagnosed with cancer in their early 20s. They talk to us about how being young adults with cancer brought them together, and why having a shared illness has made their bond stronger. They are the co-founders of Young Adult Cancer Connection.
  • Do friendship apps actually work? Reporter Buffy Gorrilla takes us on a journey as she navigates different apps while looking for friendship in Australia.
  • Some animals form something akin to what we think of as friendship. It’s usually animals that live in “stable, bonded social groups,” like primates or whales. But sometimes, friendships happen with animals that aren’t usually candidates for that kind of relationship. Liz Tung reports on an unlikely friendship between two bears at the Philadelphia Zoo.
  • We also created a mixtape of all of our favorite songs about friends. Check it out on Spotify or press play below.
Sep 11, 2020
The Future of Work
49:18

Technology is always changing the way we work, and what kinds of jobs are available. But now these changes are happening at lightning speed, and some people have dubbed the integration of technology into every aspect of our lives “the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” What will work look like 10 years from now? And what makes humans unique and relevant, as robots are taking over? We look at the future of work, and also examine some more imminent changes: the impact of working from home, “bossware” that allows employers to check up (or spy) on their employees, and the career aspirations of the next generation of workers.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • What do humans have that artificial intelligence doesn’t? Natalie Nixon says creativity gives us a leg up, and we should tap into this resource with more intention. Natalie is the author of “The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work.
  • Why do we work so hard, and care so deeply about our careers? Philosophy professor Jennifer Baker discusses the ideas of the influential sociologist Max Weber, who argued that our work ethic has its roots in religion and morality.
  • What does the next generation of workers aspire to? Many of them say they want to be gamers or YouTubers. Should that worry us? Reporter Sonja Swanson looks into it.
Sep 04, 2020
Buzz Off, Mosquitoes
49:44

Most of us dread mosquito season — but on some level, you’ve got to admire these pesky bloodsuckers. Over the millennia, they’ve spread around the world — finding ways to survive even the coldest winters, mate while flying through the air, breed pretty much anywhere, and hunt their prey with relentless precision. In the meantime, viruses have evolved to use mosquitoes as a free ride to millions of hosts. That, of course, is a major reason to fear mosquitoes — they’re not just annoying, they’re dangerous, serving as the vectors for deadly plagues past and present. Scientists and communities have been striving to figure out how we can reduce their numbers. On this episode, we explore why mosquitoes are so hard to control, and why the fight to control them sometimes becomes its own war, tearing communities apart.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Cornell University entomologist Laura Harrington explains why mosquitoes feed on humans, how viruses capitalize on that relationship, and what mosquito research looks like in the lab.
Aug 28, 2020
Class of COVID-19
49:13

Fall usually means the start of a new school year — but for millions of American kids, it marks the continuation of an extended limbo that’s come to define their lives. With the pandemic, uncertainty, upended routines, and constant change have come to replace the usual hallmarks of growing up — from school plays and sports, to proms and graduations. And then there are the smaller moments: hangouts with friends, birthday parties, and first crushes. How is all this affecting kids? On this episode, we explore what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of COVID-19, and how kids are dealing with the added pressures. We hear stories about what it’ll take to return safely to school, what kinds of (life) lessons kids miss when learning goes online, and some of the unexpected ways the virus is affecting children’s health.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • When Victoria Marsh tested positive for COVID-19, her mother, Karen, was beside herself with worry. Victoria has osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer that requires immunity-busting treatments like chemotherapy. Without a healthy immune system, Karen worried, her daughter would be subject to the ravages of COVID-19. But as it turns out, immunocompromised kids might not be as vulnerable as everyone expected. Liz Tung reports.
  • We talk with Adam Ratner, the director of pediatric infectious diseases at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, about MIS-C — a rare condition that affects some children in the wake of COVID-19.
  • One of the biggest disruptions in lives of children during this pandemic has been the transition from in-person to online classes. After months of missing school — will students bounce back? And who are the students in need of extra support and attention this fall? We discuss learning loss with Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at NWEA in Portland, Oregon.
  • The pandemic has brought just about everything to a screeching halt — including many of the time-honored traditions that high school seniors have been looking forward to since freshman year. Trinity Hunt, a student reporter, brings together her two best friends, Jackson and Ivanka (online, of course), to share their hopes and fears on how COVID-19 will affect their senior year.
  • This episode was produced in collaboration with students from WHYY’s Pathways to Media Careers Youth Employment Program, with support from The Lenfest Foundation, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Bank of America. Our student reporters were Sammy Sacksith, Kaitlyn Rodriguez, and Trinity Hunt. Special thanks to instructors Gabriel Setright and Becca Morgan for their help and guidance.
Aug 21, 2020
The Puzzle of Personality
48:47

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Open to new experiences, or comforted by routine? Shy or the life of the party? Figuring out what makes us tick is an important part of understanding how we function within our families, communities, and workplaces. Thousands of tests online promise to assess your personality — but what are they actually measuring? Where does personality come from, how does it form, and where does it live? On this episode, we explore the science behind how we become who we are. We hear stories about what makes for a healthy personality, how our brains betray who we are, and why we change depending on who we’re with.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Reporter Jad Sleiman explores how advances in brain imaging are bolstering the science behind personality research — including the famous “Big Five” personality test. Neuroscientists Colin DeYoung and Emily Finn talk test scores and brain mapping.
  • Countless self-help books promise to turn us into the kind of people we want to be. But what exactly is a healthy personality — and is it even possible to change? To find out, Alan Yu talks with Kristen Meinzer about what she’s learned from years of living by self-help books, along with psychologists Wiebke Bleidorn, Rodica Damian, and Brent Roberts about what science has to say about personality change.
  • Science historian Jonny Bunning discusses how humans have thought about personality across the ages, and how we’ve tried to measure it. We also explore how much of our personality comes from within, and how much is shaped by outside influences.
  • Science journalist Olga Khazan from The Atlantic talks about her new book “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.”
Aug 14, 2020
Nurses Taking Charge
49:10

Nurses have been a part of every aspect of care with the coronavirus pandemic — taking care of patients, communicating with families, writing health guidelines, spreading public health messages, and even advising public officials as they open or close businesses and schools. This is a reflection of the changing roles of nurses. Today, nurses are highly specialized, they have branched out into new areas of medicine and health care leadership. Still, nurses remain on the front lines of patient care. They communicate with doctors, relay patient wishes, and address family concerns. On this episode, we look into how nursing is changing, and how that’s affecting patient care.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Sexual assault examinations are crucial for criminal prosecutions — but not all ER nurses know how to do them. Reporter Stephanie Marudas heads to one hospital in rural Pennsylvania that’s using technology to connect forensic nurses with expert practitioners who can walk them through the process.
  • Nursing historian Patricia D’Antonio of the University of Pennsylvania discusses nurses’ role in advocating for public health reforms.
  • An average day in the emergency room is never easy, and during a pandemic, the stakes are even higher — with more patients needing critical care. ER nurse and audio producer Kate O’Connell shares what it’s like working on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak in the Transom series “Pandemic ER: Notes From A Nurse In Queens.”
  • When long-time nurse and former hospital CEO Sandra Gomberg got the call to build a coronavirus surge facility at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, she knew she had to step up. We talk with Gomberg about how her background as a nurse helped her lead this effort.
Aug 07, 2020
Beauty and Health
49:13

Health and beauty may go together in the drugstore — but in real life, the two aren’t always so simpatico. From excessive dieting to plastic surgery and chemical peels, looking good comes at a cost — to our wallets, our health, and our overall well-being. But in recent years, more people are starting to rethink mainstream beauty standards. Where did they come from? Who do they hurt? And what are we willing to risk to meet them? On this episode of The Pulse, we investigate our own ideas of beauty, and how they relate to health. We hear stories about the potential dangers of hair dye, the bane of “maskne,” and why more men are opting for nips and tucks.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • More men than ever are getting cosmetic surgery — reporter Liz Tung looks at what they’re getting done, and why.
  • What is maskne, and what can we do about it? We check in with University of Texas dermatologist Anisha Patel.
  • Writer Kiese Laymon talks about what it means to be black, male and overweight, and how his relationship with his body changed along with his size. His 2018 memoir is called “Heavy.”
  • We talk with Dr. Christine Martey-Ochola — a scientist and cancer researcher who parlayed her biochemistry chops into a different business: hair care products. Martey-Ochola talks about how she learned to embrace her natural locks, and the potential dangers of chemicals like sulfates and parabens. Her company is called Nuele.
Jul 31, 2020
How Tech is Changing the Way We Talk
48:36

Technology isn’t just changing our world — it’s changing the words we use to describe it. Language is evolving at breakneck speed, thanks to the internet and social media, which allow people from around the world to connect, and spread new words and ideas. But technology and language influence each other in ways beyond the internet. On this episode of the Pulse, we explore how technology and language shape each other. We hear stories about the invention of talking computers, the quest for nuance in online communications, and an unexpected culprit changing the way Scottish teens talk.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Host Maiken Scott makes a copy of her own voice using a program called Overdub, and then talks voice synthesis with one of the program’s makers, developer Kundan Kumar.
  • Reporter Todd Bookman investigates the origins of how we made machines and eventually computers talk like humans.
  • Language is changing faster and faster thanks to the internet. We talk with linguist Gretchen McCulloch about how those changes are happening, and how she keeps up. Gretchen is the author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.”
  • A few years ago, British sociolinguist Jane Stuart-Smith noticed something strange — teens in Glasgow, Scotland using a Cockney pronunciation. Her research uncovered an unlikely culprit: an English soap opera called EastEnders. Jad Sleiman reports.
Jul 24, 2020
The Future of Trees
48:42

Humans have a close relationship with trees. We plant and cultivate them for food and shelter. Trees offer protection from the rays of the sun. We relax and seem to breathe more deeply in their presence. And of course, we couldn’t breathe at all without trees — since they act as the “lungs of the earth,” converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.

On this episode, we explore our relationship with trees, and the shifting give-and-take in a changing world. We hear stories about how climate change is affecting our forests; what it’s like to live in a tree; and how science is trying to bring a near-extinct tree back to life.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • How is climate change affecting trees? Unlike animals, they can’t migrate when the going gets tough — which is why reporter Alan Yu says some humans are giving trees a hand at moving house.
  • For more than a century, American chestnut trees have teetered on the edge of extinction, due to a disease called the “chestnut blight.” But now, after decades of work, scientists have come up with a solution — a genetically engineered chestnut tree that’s resistant to the blight. Supporters say it could revive the species — so why are some critics saying it could destroy America’s forests? Liz Tung reports.
  • What’s it like living in a tree? We find out from Nate Madsen, a lawyer and environmental activist. In the late 90s, he spent two years living in a redwood tree to save it from loggers.
  • Air pollution from highways can affect people’s health. Could trees help? WABE reporter Molly Samuel talks with a researcher who’s studying which trees are best at blocking pollution.
  • California forest fires seem to get bigger and more destructive every year. But climate change isn’t the only culprit — 150 years of bad forest management have changed the very structure of the wildlands, and not for the better. According to scientists, what they actually need is more fire and maybe a little help from some forest-loving lumberjacks. Daniel Merino reports.
Jul 17, 2020
Do Less Harm
48:53

In sharp contrast to abstinence-only education or “Just Say No,” America has been moving toward a public health approach that doesn’t hinge on moral absolutes. It’s called harm reduction, an approach that prioritizes safety, care, and meeting people where they are. The resulting policies can be controversial — from supervised injection sites to needle exchanges, or safe sex education for teenagers — but they can also save lives. On this episode of The Pulse, we trace the growth of harm reduction, from its scrappy roots into its blossoming present. We hear stories about bringing practicality to the fight against COVID-19, lessons learned from Canada’s safe injection sites, and one woman’s mission to get naloxone into the hands of everybody — even those selling drugs.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk to Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, about his “targeted” proposal for fighting COVID-19 — and why it ruffled so many feathers.
  • Epidemiologist Ellie Murray explains how the pandemic is helping to illustrate harm reduction in real time.
  • Imagine needing surgery, and having your doctor turn you down — because of your belly fat. That’s what happened to Lenée Voss. She talks to reporter Alan Yu about her experience, and how it continues to affect her relationship with doctors. We also hear from sociologist Sabrina Strings, historian Hanne Blank, and physician Fatima Stanford.
  • Reporter Travis Lupick covers the opioid epidemic in Vancouver, where, for the last five years, he’s lived across the street from a supervised injection site. As the U.S. considers its own injection sites, Lupick offers some of the lessons he’s learned — including the importance of community input. Lupick’s book is called “Fighting For Space.”
Jul 10, 2020
How Movies Move Us
49:07

Movies may not be real — but in a lot of ways, they’re real to us. Great films help us understand the world, history, and one another. They have the ability to reach a level of truth that we can feel in our bones. When a great actor delivers a line, we believe them. When a beloved character dies, we mourn them. When danger approaches, our hair stands on end.

What creates these strong reactions — and makes the illusion so compelling? On this episode, we look to science to explain how movie magic works in our brains and plays out in our emotions. We hear stories about the creation of movie sounds, method acting for dogs, whether you can really trust an actor, and how we draw the line between onscreen romance and real-life love.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Reporter Ari Saperstein takes us inside the world of Foley artists, who recreate everyday sounds for movies, from walking to eating to sneezing.
  • Alan Yu reports on our obsession with on-screen couples, and explores whether acting in love can lead to real romance.
  • For a lot of actors, embodying someone else can take a toll on your psyche. Barton Goldsmith talks about his work as an on-set film therapist, and how it can lead to a more productive movie making experience.
  • We talk with Cornell psychology professor James Cutting about how and why films capture our attention.
Jul 03, 2020
What’s Here to Stay or Gone Forever?
49:11

COVID-19 hasn’t just changed the world — it’s transformed the way we live. On a national scale, it has upended politics and flattened our economy. On a human level, we’ve lost loved ones and livelihoods. But the pandemic has also led to unexpected changes for the better — it’s accelerated innovation, revealed new truths, and pushed us to find new ways of doing things. On this episode of The Pulse, we look into some of those lessons. What will the world look like after COVID-19 — what’s here to stay, and what may be gone forever? We hear stories about the benefits of working from home, how the pandemic has affected romantic relationships, and why more scientific conferences may be moving online for good.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • For a lot of scientists, academic conferences are the biggest event of the year — a chance for them to network, present their research, and catch up on the latest in their field. This year, however, the pandemic forced most conferences online. Reporter Alan Yu explains why this stopgap solution might turn into the new normal, even after COVID-19 subsides.
  • Germ expert Connie Steed from The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology offers her predictions about what we can expect from our new reality, from tech innovations to how we travel.
  • Will the pandemic accelerate efforts to bring hospital care to people’s homes? We hear an excerpt from the health care podcast “Tradeoffs” that digs into that issue.
  • We talk with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher about love and dating in the midst of COVID-19 — she explains how couples are dealing with being cooped up together, and why the pandemic may lead to more meaningful relationships.
Jun 26, 2020
Social Media’s ‘Infodemic’
48:53

Thanks to COVID-19, social media has never been more important — or more dangerous. Information — good or bad — spreads at lightning speed, including viral rumors, conspiracy theories, and “cures” that can kill. In fact, the spread of misinformation on social media has become such a threat to public health that it’s earned its own name: “infodemic.”

On this episode, we track the spread of viral messaging on social media, and its implications for our health. We hear stories about the origins of the “infodemic,” and how researchers are fighting back; why posting on TikTok could be an “ethical gray zone” for doctors; and how researchers are using what we share about ourselves on social media to better understand our mental health.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with public health researcher Timothy Caulfield about how and why social media has become a vector for the spread of health-related misinformation — along with what we can do to the fight the ongoing COVID-related “infodemic.”
  • Medical ethicist Dominic Sisti explains why social media is valuable for health care providers, but can also be an “ethical gray zone” for Tweet-happy doctors that could ultimately harm the profession. Gastroenterologist Earl Campbell adds his perspective about why doctors can — and should — be active on social media to help combat prevalent misinformation.
  • Sometimes it feels like we’re being inundated with conflicting messages about the coronavirus. So how do we sort what’s true from what isn’t? Enter “Nerdy Girls,” an all-female team of researchers and clinicians who’ve made it their mission to spread accurate and up-to-date information on social media. We chat with one of their members, Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the behavioral aspects of preventing infectious diseases.
  • Researchers are mining our social media posts for information on our moods and well-being. We hear from University of Pennsylvania emergency medicine physician and digital health expert Raina Merchant, and Chris Danforth from the Computational Story Lab team at the University of Vermont.
  • Footage of police brutality — most notably, the recent murder of George Floyd — has sparked a nationwide movement for justice. But what is the psychic cost of watching these horrific videos? We talk with adolescent and child psychiatrist Karriem Salaam about the impact these images have on mental health, especially for Black and brown adolescents.
Jun 19, 2020
Fake vs. Real — And When It Matters
49:01

There was a time when seeing was believing — but that’s changing, thanks to new technology that’s elevating fakery to a whole new level. In an ever-growing world of synthesized realities, how do we tell what’s real from what’s fake? And when and why does it matter?

We explore that question on this episode, with stories about deepfakes — a new kind of fake video, powered by artificial intelligence; lab-grown meat in our pets’ food; and fake laughter.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Reporter Susie Armitage explores fake laughter in its natural habitat — comedy open mics. We hear about how up-and-coming comics learn to tell real laughter from fake, and how our evolutionary past explains that ability… along with our tendency to chuckle when things aren’t remotely funny.
  • What happens when a piece of information shatters everything we believe to be true? Reporter Molly Schwartz explores that question with the story of Austin Lane Howard, a devout Jehovah’s Witness whose doubt eventually pulled him away from the church.
  • We talk with Lydia Pyne, author of “Genuine Fakes,” about everything from lab-grown diamonds to replicas of famous historical sites.
Jun 12, 2020
The Impact of Police Violence on Health
48:58

The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis has sparked another wave of national outrage over police brutality and violence. Protesters have taken to the streets, demanding an end to police violence, and some are even asking for police departments to be defunded or abolished altogether. On this episode, we explore what better policing could look like, and what role research and science might play in serious reform. We talk with experts about the effects police violence is having on Black Americans’ health — both mental and physical. It’s not only the actual violence — it’s also the constant fear of violence, and the fear of being stopped and arrested that’s causing stress and anxiety. We hear ideas for reform, along with how we can improve, or even reinvent, American policing.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk to Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, about his experiences with police, and his essay “Bad apples come from rotten trees in policing.” He is also a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
  • Harvard University public health researcher David Williams and Bay Area pediatrician and community health advocate Rhea Boyd discuss the health impact of police violence on communities of color. The threat of violence can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance.
  • Rohini Haar, an emergency medicine physician in Oakland, California, and medical expert for Physicians for Human Rights, explains the health effects of tear gas, which can include permanent injury and even death.
  • We talk to Karen Quigley, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, about how more factors than we might think affect police officers’ decision-making. Judith Andersen, a health psychologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga, then weighs in on how better, science-based training could help officers overcome their fight-or-flight response in the midst of stressful situations.
  • Tracey Meares — a law professor at Yale Law School, and founding director of The Justice Collaboratory — discusses her research on how to improve the relationship between police and the public, which she says involves a fundamental reframing of how we think about police.
Jun 05, 2020
The Science of Staying Cool
48:28

Imagine for a moment a world without air conditioners, refrigerators, fans, or even ice. We take them for granted — but keeping cool is a lot more complicated than you might think. As we roll into what’s predicted to be one of the hotter summers in recent memory, The Pulse explores the science of keeping cool. We hear stories about battling heat islands, designing cooler buildings, and cooling down our bodies and our minds.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Irina Zhorov reports on what creates “heat islands” in cities, and how deadly heat waves inspired a new way of cooling houses down.
  • We talk with Ajla Aksamija, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, about how high-performance buildings are starting to replace air conditioning.
  • Most of us think of sweat as a nuisance — but it’s a key part of our bodies’ internal cooling system and essential to our survival. Pulse producer Lindsay Lazarski explains why we sweat, and what happens when you can’t.
  • In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) heat isn’t just a temperature — it’s an indication of health. Reporter Liz Tung investigates the TCM concept of “internal heat,” to find out what it is and how quelling it might help one patient overcome her chronic intestinal problems.
  • Despite ongoing quarantine orders, warmer weather is drawing crowds to beaches and parks. Jodie Guest, a professor of epidemiology at Emory University, explains how to stay safe.
  • Poet, birder and wildlife biologist J. Drew Lanham talks about the importance of green spaces for all, and explains how being in nature is helping him keep his spirits up during this time.
May 29, 2020
Science Interrupted: The Impact of Coronavirus
48:54

Around the globe, COVID-19 has frozen economies, closed schools, stores, and restaurants, and even canceled the Olympics. Millions of people are stuck at home, trying their best to keep their work going from a distance. So what does all this mean for scientific research? On this episode, we explore how the pandemic is transforming the lives and work of scientists, both now and in the future. We hear stories about the impact on field research — and what that means for the next generation of scientists; one lab’s mission to rescue valuable research mice; and areas that have been thrust into overdrive, including a high-stakes drug trial seeking a cure.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Reporter Irina Zhorov pulls back the curtain on the high-stakes drug trials digging into a hyped — and hated — potential treatment, hydroxychloroquine.
  • Stephen Tang, the CEO of OraSure Technologies, discusses their work developing a rapid COVID-19 antigen test.
  • We talk with MIT’s Martin Culpepper and Drexel University’s Genevieve Dion about their universities’ efforts to help in the fight against COVID-19.
  • We hear from scientists around the world who talk about how the coronavirus has affected their research. Jacinta Beehner describes what it’s like to pack up a field station in a hurry.
May 15, 2020