Forensics in Flames

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Over the past 20 years, there’s been a revolution in the science of arson investigations. Many of the clues that had been used for decades to determine that a fire was not accidental, especially the analysis of burn patterns on walls and floors, have been proven to be false. Reporter Michael May looks closely at two deadly fires to explore the cutting edge of fire science.

For more on this case, here’s Dave Mann of the Texas Observer on NPR’s All Things Considered last year:


This episode was produced by Michael May in 2013 for PRX’s STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Josh Swartz.

Image from Shutterstock.

That Crime of the Month

What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her actions to PMS? We revisit the court case for — and the science behind — the first use of the “PMS defense” in this country, back in 1981. Featuring the true crime show, Criminal.

This episode was produced by Criminal — Phoebe Judge, Lauren Spohrer, and Eric Mennel — 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.

The Last of the Iron Lungs


As storms raged through Oklahoma in 2013, Martha Lillard waited them out from inside her iron lung. She is one of just dozens of polio survivors who still rely on their decades-old machines.

The Last of the Iron Lungs is a portrait of Martha, who contracted polio in 1953. To Martha, the 1940s iron lung is comfort and survival. As a researcher explains in the story, newer machines operate differently, forcing air into the lungs in a way that doesn’t feel right for iron lung patients.

Producer Julia Scott sent us some thoughts about her experience reporting this story:

“Martha’s story is fascinating enough on its own. It’s a radio producer’s dream to be able to capture the kinds of sounds no one will ever hear again – the mechanical bellows, pushing air through a machine older than Martha herself.

“Reporting this story made me realize how distant and abstracted polio has become in our national memory. Martha’s bedroom is dominated by her iron lung, a relic of history that most people my age may never even have heard of (I’m 32). To her, it’s a trusted companion and a lifelong friend. But the iron lung symbolized one of the most terrifying, unpredictable health epidemics of the 20th century. Archival photos like this one brought home the sheer scale of the outbreak – and the prospect of lifelong paralysis that thousands of people endured.

“One of the highlights of this project was being able to try out Martha’s iron lung – something I was a little scared to do. I laid down on the sliding cot, pushed my head through her foam neck collar and she sealed me in. It wasn’t claustrophobic, but I wasn’t counting on how hard it would be stop drawing breath and let the respirator take over pushing my diaphragm in and out, forcing air to whoosh into my throat. ‘Stop trying to breathe!’ Martha instructed. For her, lying in the iron lung is the most comfortable sensation in the world.

“Since the story has aired I’ve received emails from people whose families were touched by polio, grandfathers and great-aunts who spent time in an iron lung but graduated to breathing on their own. They see Martha’s story as part of the same continuum.”

This episode was reported and produced by Julia Scott. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

Image of Martha Lillard © Julia Scott.

Where Math and Mime Meet


Tim and Tanya Chartier present a
classic mime stance

Some things can be better left unsaid. Who would have thought that math could be one of them?

Tim Chartier has found a way to fuse his two great loves: math and mime. He and his wife strive to have their audiences become a part of the world that they’re creating on stage, and in so doing, the math becomes at once understandable and unforgettable.

Inside the Episode:

Producer Ari Daniel gives us an inside look on pulling this story together:

“The hardest thing about this story was how to bring math (a subject that most people aren’t especially fond of) and mime (a subject which, by definition, just doesn’t work without being able to see it) to life on the radio. I was fortunate that Tim is an incredible storyteller and communicator, and that he and his wife, Tanya, were so generous with their time and expertise when I visited them. In addition, my editor, Sean Cole, helped me improve this piece immensely, by focusing the storyline and adding humor and creative vitality. This piece is one of my favorites to have worked on.”

After you treat your ears to math and mime, feast your eyes on a video of one of Tim Chartier’s performances. It may not be the most conventional of combinations, but the product of math and mime is nothing short of amazing.

This episode was reported and produced by Ari Daniel under the name “Loving Math and Mime” 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.

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.