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Goggles Optional: Stanford podcast aims to “influence the culture of how science is viewed"

BiggishGogglesCommunicating science to a non-specialist audience is an art. Or is it a science? David Zhang, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in immunology and rheumatology, and colleagues bring some of each to Goggles Optional, a lively podcast series produced by Stanford scientists to capture's the public's interest in research.

Since November 2013, Zhang and the rest of the Goggles Optional team, made up of postdocs and grad students, have recorded a weekly audio program featuring news, research headlines, expert guest speakers, game-show antics and songs, all exploring the latest, most significant and/or weirdest happenings in the field. (You can check out the full list of free podcasts on their website here or download them from iTunes.)

The 13 episodes so far have covered science news from stem cells to staph infections and explored civilian-interest questions such as why we sleep. With more than 7,000 downloads so far, Goggles Optional will expand to include conversations with industry leaders in science. Zhang notes that when spotlighting research, Goggles Optional interviews the first author of a paper to give listeners the perspective from "inside the trenches" and provide grad students and postdocs an opportunity to talk about their work.

Thirteen members strong, the Goggles Optional team includes writers, hosts, a social media specialist and a webmaster. (For a good read, scroll through their bios.) All those involved volunteer their time.

How can these full-time scientists also be broadcast journalists? I wondered that, too.

Collaboration is key. "I give all the credit to the team," Zhang says, emphasizing that the high volume of work required to produce the series wouldn't get done without each member's contributions. Their process, which begins by digging through Nature, PNAS and the like, is streamlined using a shared Google Doc for gathering content ideas. Then, on Monday night, the group meets for a two-hour writing session followed by two hours of audio recording at Stanford's KZSU studio. The scientists write in pairs or larger groups to decide for each segment, "Is it true?" and "Is it funny?"

The team wants to make science news a table topic in the average educated household. Zhang notes, "I think we have a responsibility as scientists to not just focus on our work, but really to share science with the broader community." He said the sequester's devastating cuts to NIH funding was a key example of the need for this kind of outreach. "I don't know if we have a right to complain as scientists if we're not putting the effort to share with the public why science is so important," Zhang says. That's why he's driven to clock non-lab hours in the recording studio – as part of a long-term goal "to influence the culture of how science is viewed in our country."

Previously: You are what you read: The academic diet of the 21st-century medical studentHawkeye Pierce (i.e. Alan Alda) teaches scientists how to better communicate about their workHelping the public make sense of scientific research and Alan Alda on communicating science. Yes, M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce
Photo courtesy of David Zhang

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