This is Crohn’s Disease

1204_crohns-disease (1)-2Producer/reporter Jack Rodolico and his wife, Christina.

Told by the couple who lived it, this is a story of how Crohn’s disease can change lives when you least expect it. And it’s a story of how science can present multiple paths to — hopefully — relief or recovery.

What’s it like making a very personal radio piece about your spouse? Jack Rodolico shares it all in this special follow-up article.

For more on treatments for illnesses like Crohn’s and C. diff, listen to The Straight Poop. Our microbiologist host visits a fecal transplant bank north of Boston and shares some of the questions surrounding this experimental treatment.

This is Crohn’s Disease was reported and produced by Jack Rodolico in 2014 for PRX’S STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

Photo of Christina and Jack by Shelley Fajans.

Finding the Elusive Digital Stradivarius

A hammer tap to the bridge
— light as a dried pea —
helps Curtin capture an acoustic
instrument’s sound signature.

In music, everything seems to have another digital life. Pianists can play with different voicings on an electric keyboard. Guitarists can filter their instrument’s signal through a pedal or amp to create various effects. Why shouldn’t violinists be able to digitally harness the sound of a Stradivarius? For starters, it takes an incredible feat of engineering to make an authentic-sounding digital violin. Radio reporter (and violinist!) David Schulman takes us to visit a top violinmaker who has been working with a physicist and two engineers to create a prototype digital violin.

Inside the Episode:

Scientists say the violin is one of the hardest instruments to mimic. But MacArthur Award-winning violin maker Joseph Curtin has been working for several years with physicist Gabi Weinreich, along with sound engineer John Bell and industrial designer Alex Sobolev, to create a digital violin. They say its sound will be hard to tell from a recording of a Strad.

Data from 12 different locations let violinmaker Joseph Curtin digitize a violin’s sonic fingerprint.

Joseph Curtin and Alex Sobolev with prototypes of the digital violin

Joseph Curtin’s workbench, where he carves, builds and varnishes his acoustic instruments.

Closeup of some of the pigments and syses used in varnishes for finishing acoustic instruments.

Convolution Reverb samples:

Bonus — Meet David Schulman, the reporter of this story:

PRX was able to ask producer/reporter David Schulman about his experience making this audio story. He says,

“The chance to do this piece brought together several things I am deeply fascinated by — music, violins, sound-rich audio storytelling, and the nature of creativity & discovery.”

Something that didn’t make the final cut of the story, which sheds more light on why a digital Stradivarius is so difficult to engineer, is

“Weinreich’s research has shown that a violin’s sound is in fact deeply varied in the spatial dimension, and that, with each note, the physical power and direction of the overtones changes widely  — one likely reason why it’s hard to actually record an acoustic violin well.”

On convolution, the name of the technology developed for the digital Strad, David says,

“With it’s potential for alternate aural realities, [convolution] is a richly metaphorical area for scientists, artists and storytellers […] Imagine a situation in which  convolution impulse maps are the most vivid documentation remaining of a ransacked temple, or a lost Stradivarius.”

While he was gathering tape and doing interviews, David tells us that he was even able to play some of Curtin’s instruments, an added bonus for someone who is a musician on top of being a radio producer. Still, such an idyllic experience still was not without its challenges:

“The central challenge of the piece involved using demos to link several rich — though rather technical — ideas,and to arrive at a final comparison where you’d hear the digital Strad and an actual Strad, side by side.”

This episode was reported and produced by David Schulman in 2013 for PRX’S STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed by Erika Lantz.

Photos: David Schulman

Totally Cerebral: Exercise and Your Brain

A story of movement, memory, and mentors. Dr. Wendy Suzuki introduces us to Dr. Marian Diamond, whose lively classes ushered Wendy into a career in neuroscience. And Wendy shares how she came to study how exercise profoundly affects the brain, not just the body.

20150520_115214Dr. Marian Diamond and Wendy Suzuki on Wendy’s undergrad graduation day

Here’s more from Wendy:

A science mentor can make your career. Dr. Marian Diamond not only ushered me into the field of neuroscience with her lively and engaging classes but she has continued to influence me and help me throughout my work as a scientist and teacher.

What made Marian such a profound mentor? Her multi-dimensionality. First, she was the best teacher I have ever experienced in my entire thirty-year career, unendingly fascinated with her specialty, human anatomy, including both brain anatomy and gross human anatomy. Now, if you have never taken an anatomy course before, you should know it can be as dry as learning last year’s tax laws. Marian made anatomy come alive, relating every brain or body part to a question or observation about ourselves, such as “The word uterus means Hysterical- do you agree with this?” Or “Do you know what the largest organ in the body is? It’s your skin- take care of it!” She made anatomy relevant and personal.

Second, she made groundbreaking scientific contributions on the capacity of the brain to change in response to the environment. When she did this work in the late 1950s/early 1960s, nobody believed that the adult brain could change – at least in any ways that scientists could measure. Marian and her colleagues showed that changing a rat’s living space (what she called “enriching” the environment) could have profound effects of the brain’s anatomy and that she could measure them. In this episode, I’ll describe Marian’s pioneering studies and how they related to recent studies showing the profound ways that exercise transforms the brain.

Third, she offered me a role model of a thriving, engaged and enthusiastic female scientist, even if it took me years to appreciate how lucky I was. You see, she was such a powerful presence on the Berkeley campus that I thought that smart strong, successful female neuroscientists who were extraordinary teachers were everywhere! I never questioned whether I would be able to do the same thing, because she showed me that it could be done. Only much later into my post-doctoral studies did I notice that other female scientists didn’t seem to have the same confidence that I did; they saw the sea of men in science with only a few successful women and many found it discouraging.

Only later was I able to fully appreciate what a wonderful gift she gave me as my role model in science. Because Marian did the work she loved, she allowed me to sail right over worries over whether a woman could make it.

In this episode, we’ll hear from Marian herself, as she teaches a class and describes her groundbreaking findings. Her work on brain plasticity is at the heart of the work that I and many neuroscientists pursue today.

— Dr. Wendy Suzuki

This episode was hosted by Wendy Suzuki and produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, is on sale now.

Science’s Blind Spots

One of the things we assign to science is that there are true, absolute facts. But scientists are human and, it turns out, as prone to blind spots in their thinking as the rest of us, especially when cultural assumptions and biases get in the way.

Emily Martin
& Richard Cone

In this episode, biologist Christina Agapakis explores ways these blind spots, especially around gender and sexism, have affected research and women’s careers in science. She talks with one of her heroes, anthropologist Emily Martin, and her husband, biophysicist Richard Cone, about Emily’s 1991 article “The Egg & The Sperm.” Reading that article about the ways cultural romantic assumptions limited scientists’ understanding of human reproduction was a turning point for Christina as a young scientist who considered her feminism as something separate from science.

Kate Clancy

She also talks with anthropologist Kate Clancy who has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the ways women’s careers in science are different from men’s. Kate offers some thoughts on what science needs to consider to truly bring in more underrepresented voices and perspectives. New perspectives and voices in science may be key to science seeing blind spots for the first time.

Episode Extras — Your Transistor producers have picked out some further reading on this topic and how it affects both men and women:

This episode was produced by Kerry Donahue and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and mixed by David Herman.

Music Credits:
Hauschka: “Cube” from Salon des amateurs
Anna Meredith: “Bubble Gun” from Jet Black Raider
Four Tet: “As Serious As Your Life” from Rounds
Not Waving: “Two-Way Mirror” from Intercepts
Laurie Spiegel: “Patchwork” from The Expanding Universe

Early Bloom

When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, three decades later, science is reconsidering.

His discovery came on the heels of the book The Secret Life of Plants, which claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. It was a huge bestseller and Rhoades’ experiments sounded like they were straight from the book. His work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.

Today, however, Rhoades’ experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.

Bonus! Hear how this radio story went from script to sound-designed mini-doc in this episode of the HowSound podcast:

For even more about the craft of radio storytelling — subscribe to HowSound right here.

Early Bloom was produced by Peter-Frick Wright and Robbie Carver of 30 Minutes West. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

The Next Generation of Galapagos Scientists

What motivates young people to become scientists? Meet Maricruz Jaramillo and Samoa Asigau, two young women scientists from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, whose professional aspirations have taken them to the Galapagos Islands. Science reporter Véronique LaCapra joined Mari and Samoa in the Galapagos, where they are studying a type of malaria that is affecting native bird populations.

001_Mari_and_SamoaMaricruz Jaramillo (standing) and Samoa Asigau wait for their ride back to the Charles Darwin Research Station after an early morning of catching birds in an agricultural area on Santa Cruz Island.

002_Male_yellow_warbler (1)Samoa holds a male yellow warbler that was caught in a mistnet. Each bird gets weighed and measured, and a small blood sample is taken from underneath one wing to test later for malaria.

004_Mari_measures_warblerMari measures the wing of a male yellow warbler. This species of warbler is endemic to the Galapagos.

006_Samoa_and_Mari_Media_LunaSamoa (left) and Mari look out over the mist-covered hillside at Media Luna, a peak about 2,000 feet above sea level on the island of Santa Cruz. A reddish, broad-leafed shrub called Miconia robinsoniana dominates the landscape.

008_Samoa_age_7 001_Mari_in_tree

Samoa (L) says growing up in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, she thought of herself as a “fancy city girl.” She is 7 years old in this family snapshot. Mari (R) has always loved being close to nature.

This episode was produced and reported by St. Louis Public Radio science reporter Véronique LaCapra in 2013 for our STEM Story Project. It was mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz. All photos (except childhood photos courtesty of the scientists) by Véronique LaCapra.

Totally Cerebral: What’s That Smell?

Scents and tastes are powerfully evocative — one whiff of perfume or cooking aromas can transport you back to a particular moment, a particular place, a particular person. Because the things we smell reach two brain structures called the hippocampus and amygdala in just one synapse, scents can almost immediately stimulate the key brain areas for memory, emotion, and location.

In this episode of Totally Cerebral, Dr. Wendy Suzuki speaks with neuroscientist Howard Eichenbaum, an expert on olfactory memory, and together with chemist Kent Kirshenbaum, sits down to a meal with Chef Anita Lo to hear how she plays with our senses and our memories in her delicious creations.

This episode was hosted by Wendy Suzuki and produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, goes on sale May 19, 2015.

Image from Shutterstock.

The Skinny on Your Skin

Art by Noa Kaplan. Photo by Jed Kim

Your skin is your largest organ and is also is a thriving ecosystem, covered in bacteria. While many of us consider regular showers key to keeping our skin healthy, a group of scientists — and artists — are starting to ask: Could the future of skin care not be soap, but bacteria?

Inside the Episode

Biologist Christina Agapakis visits AOBiome in Cambridge, Mass. to talk with the team there that has developed a bacterial mist you spritz on your skin several times a day instead of showering.

Then, it’s off to rethink one of the most common skin problems, pimples. We meet Noa Kaplan, who makes sculptures based from ultra-magnified shots of her pores.

©Noa Kaplan

©Noa Kaplan

We also explore how fabric could support our skin’s ecosystem. Fashion futurist Suzanne Lee talks about the not-too-distant future when our clothes may do more than just cover us – they may be made from living bacteria and designed to interact with our skin. Check out this article about Suzanne’s process, and her TED Talk.

This episode was produced by Kerry Donahue and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and mixed by David Herman.

Music credits:
Hauschka: “Cube” from Salon des amateurs
Four Tet: “As Serious As Your Life” from Rounds
Anna Meredith: “Bubble Gun” from Jet Black Raider
Pye Corner Audio: “Palais Spectres” from Sleep Games
Laurie Spiegel: “Patchwork” from The Expanding Universe

The Ultimate Wayback Machine

Looking through a telescope is like being inside a time machine — you are seeing light from the past. And some space telescopes allow astronomers to see light that is billions of years old and existed before there was an Earth or sun. Astrophysicist Michelle Thaller introduces us to scientists who started two of the most powerful telescopes, the Hubble, which launched 25 years ago, and the James Webb Space Telescope, being built right now.

Inside the Episode:

Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with Nancy Grace Roman, the first Head of Astrophysics at NASA, about how she got interested in the stars and her time working at NASA on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Then, Dr. Thaller meets with Jane Rigby, Deputy Operations Project Scientist for The James Webb Space Telescope, the next generation of space telescope, launching in 2018. Its mirror will be seven times the size of Hubble’s and will help astronomers see farther than they’ve ever seen before. Here are some photos of their visit:

Drs. Michelle Thaller (L) and Jane Rigby look into the clean room where NASA is building the James Webb Space Telescope. This six-story room is the largest clean room in the world.

Drs. Jane Rigby (L) and Michelle Thaller gaze up at a giant piece of machinery at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that will be used to test the James Webb Space Telescope before its launch in 2018.

This episode was produced by Lauren Ober. Mix and sound design by Whitney Jones. Photos by Lauren Ober.

The Poison Squad: A Chemist’s Quest for Pure Food

Dining Room 2In the fall of 1902, twelve young men in suits regularly gathered for dinners in the basement of a government building in Washington, D.C. The men ate what they were served, even though they knew that their food was spiked with poison. The mastermind behind these experiments was Harvey Washington Wiley. Before you condemn him, though, you’d be surprised to know that you probably owe him a debt of gratitude. Incidentally, Wiley is the founding father of the Food and Drug Administration.

Inside the Episode:

PoisonSquadLogoThe intention of these experiments was not to induce digestive discomfort for its own sake. Rather, they were part of an extensive study on how chemical preservatives in food — before regulations existed — could harm human beings over time. You might cringe at what was once used to keep food “fresh.”

Producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni gave us a closer look inside the story. About diving deep into archival materials, she says,

“I spent hours [at the Library of Congress], reading thousands of [Wiley’s] letters and squinting at his tiny journals.  It is when you know every curve and squiggle of a man’s handwriting that you feel as though you’re starting to get to know him!”

One surprising fact that she discovered while researching the piece was that while Wiley’s experiments contributed so much to food regulation, today’s practices still leave something to be desired:

“…The FDA doesn’t really test food additives anymore.  There are more than five thousand additives commonly found in processed food and most of them haven’t been tested on animals and almost none (except for dietary supplements) have been tested on humans.”

Sruthi sent us some photographs of the Poison Squad, Wiley, and some (how shall I put this?) unconventional tools that were used during the experiments.

William Carter with Wiley and the Poison Squad


Wiley Lab
Wiley in his lab


A letter showing interest in participating


A fecal drying machine

“None but the brave can eat the fare.” Are you brave enough? Full serving of intrigue and radio in this piece. Bon appetit.

The Poison Squad won Best Radio & Podcast Media at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards in 2014.

The Poison Squad was produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni with sound design by Brendan Baker. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

All photos: FDA