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Teaching the World about Science:

Dr Megan Hanlon’s ‘Unravelling Science’ Podcast

During the depths of lockdown 2020, Dr Megan Hanlon, a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, started a podcast. In fact, it was her father that spurred her on, suggesting that the whole family on their Westmeath farm take on a lockdown project. Dr Hanlon had been thinking about such an endeavour, and in June 2020 while the rest of us were perfecting sourdough and banana bread, the wildly successful ‘Unravelling Science’ podcast was born. Passionate about Science Communication, Dr Hanlon is also part of a group that have been instrumental in communicating to young people about the Covid-19 and vaccination. We were thrilled to catch up with Dr Hanlon to discuss her creation, who’s up next on the podcast, and her own research in Rheumatology (including a scoop on Dr Hanlon’s favourite cell!)

Tell us about your Podcast

Unravelling Science is a weekly scicomm podcast where I interview top Irish researchers and listen to the stories that shape the science but also the scientist. Each week I chat to a different scientist and get a sense of their journeys through academia, their passions and advice and their research with the aim of getting a glimpse the ‘people behind the publications’ so to speak.

One of my favourite things about the podcast is that I have had guests from various career stages and research areas such as immunology, bioengineering, ecology, palaeontology, neuroscience, physics, cancer biology, astronomy. Talking to researchers from various career stages from PhD and early career researchers right up to the Prof level has been invaluable to get an honest insight into academia: the trials and tribulations, the highs and lows, the passion and dedication. I’m currently on Season 4 with 39 episodes to date and I am extremely lucky to be sponsored by the Irish company Biosciences Ltd now part of ThermoFisher. The podcast has surpassed any of my original expectations. It has become a top science podcast with listeners in over 40 countries worldwide, charting consistently in the Apple podcast charts, reaching No 6 and No 7 in Ireland and Luxemburg, respectively.

Of course, one of the main focuses of the podcast is to communicate the amazing research being conducted in labs around Ireland and the world. As Unravelling Science is a very casual, informal chat, it allows researchers to relax and just chat about their research in an accessible and engaging way. I’ve had great feedback from both academic and lay audiences, there really is something in it for everyone from why we sleep, how studying bats could unlock the secrets of health to hearing from a former heroin addict turned neuroscientist and much more.

How did it start?

In June 2020 the first episode of Unravelling Science went live. I was back home on my family farm in Westmeath, I had just finished my PhD and had been thinking about starting a podcast for a few months and thought well what better time? I can 100% say this wouldn’t have come about if not for lockdown, I remember my dad saying to us all that we should all try something new, a ‘lockdown project’. I took him up on the challenge and bought a podcast kit on Done Deal for €100 and I just started to play around with it. Honestly it kept me sane during those first few months of lockdown. I had the time to learn how to edit audio, to figure out my format and which questions I wanted to ask, pick a logo (designed by my cousin who lived in my 5km radius, we would meet on the road between our houses and brainstorm podcast names and logos) and decide which guests I wanted to approach. My first guest was Dr Mary Canavan a fellow Rheumatology researcher and good friend of mine, the interview was extremely conversational and casual which set the tone for the rest of the series. It just went from there. Initially I was planning to put episodes out every fortnight but having interviewed my second guest, Dr Annie Curtis (Royal College of Surgeons Ireland), I couldn’t wait and just released it the following Tuesday meaning I was now running a weekly podcast. I didn’t really anticipate I would still be doing this a year and a half later or that people would have even listened, but it has been the most enjoyable experience and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!

Tell us about some of the researchers that you have featured to date

I have had the pleasure of speaking to some wonderful guests including many School of Medicine researchers such as Professor Jacintha O’Sullivan (Translational Oncology), Dr Clíona Ní Cheallaigh (Inclusion Health), Professor Rose Anne Kenny (TILDA and Ageing) to name but a few. I’ve also spoken to many other Trinity researchers such as Professor Luke O’Neill, Professor Kingston Mills, Professor Cliona O’Farrelly. My podcast guests cover a wide range of research areas including ecologist Dr Darragh ‘The Menace’ Ennis newest addition to ITV’s The Chase, food scientist Professor Alan Kelly based in University College Cork, and University College Dublin’s Bat expert Professor Emma Teeling. I have heard from researchers such as Dr Katriona O’Sullivan about being homeless and pregnant at 15 to becoming a lecturer at Maynooth University and Brian Pennie who overcame years of addition to pursue a PhD in Neuropsychology.

Who would you love to feature over the next while?

A lot of this current series features Irish Researchers Abroad (a nod to one of my own favourite podcasts Jarleth O’Regan’s ‘An Irishman Abroad’). While researching guests for this season I put out a call on Twitter to find more Irish Women scientists abroad as I needed to fill one/two more spots in the season. The reaction was huge, I couldn’t believe the amount of people who got in touch and offered to get involved. Off the back of this I have decided to feature only Irish Women in STEM abroad for Season 5. It will be tough to narrow it down to 12 guests as I have a spreadsheet from this Twitter thread with over 100 suggestions, but I am very excited to get started after Christmas.

Is there a historic figure that you would have loved to interview?

Oh, that would have to be Élie Metchnikoff, father of innate immunity and founder of my favourite cell the macrophage. I would love to pick his brain.

Your podcast aims to unravel science. Was there any big moment for you so far, in which you finally understood a complex topic?

The world of physics, especially astrophysics always interested me but also intimidated me. Having struggled with physics for Leaving Cert (I actually switched out physics for chemistry in the end) and tried to take as little physics classes during my undergrad as I could, I just thought I had a mental block when it came to this subject. When I began the podcast, I initially stuck with a lot of biology researchers as it was what I knew, I was comfortable speaking to immunologists and cell biologists etc, however I knew I wanted to branch out and hear from researchers in other areas of STEM. I was so nervous before my first interviews with astrophysics researcher Professor Peter Gallagher (DIAS, Dunsink Observatory), I had been reading all his papers and googling any complex terms worried I wouldn’t be able to ask him follow on questions. How wrong I was! Professor Gallagher’s chat was one of the most enjoyable I’ve had on the podcast so far, the way he explained his field and why he loves to study the sun and astrophysics put me at ease instantly. It was a big moment for me, realising that I could interview people so far outside my own field and ask intuitive questions did wonders for my confidence and communication skills. I have some really interesting physicists coming up this season including two Irish researchers abroad Professor Margaret Murnane (University of Colorado) one of the foremost active researchers in laser science and technology and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (University of Oxford) an astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. Doing the podcast has unearthed a love or appreciation for physics I didn’t think I had, which is amazing!

What are your long-term goals?

I really love science communication and public engagement in science. Last year I was the Co-Director for Pint of Science Ireland Festival which brings scientists around Ireland and the globe together for a 3-night festival each May. I am also a member of the SciComm Collective a group of 12 science communicators brought together by the Department of Health in Ireland to convey clear messages about COVID-19 and vaccination to young adults on social media. This work along with my podcast has really opened my eyes to how beneficial and crucial it is to be able to communicate our research clearly and effectively to the wider public. I don’t intend to pursue a career in science communication at the moment, I love research far too much, but I do hope to continue to marry the two over the next few years.

Tell us about your own research

I am currently working in translational rheumatology with Professor Ursula Fearon and have just been awarded a two-year Irish Research Council Enterprise Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue my work on synovial tissue macrophages in rheumatoid arthritis. Examining specific macrophage subsets residing in the inflamed Rheumatoid Arthritis synovium, I have identified a dominant population of CD206+CD163+ synovial tissue macrophages that become dysfunctionally activated upon initiation of disease. I aim to investigate the origin and function of these macrophages, whether the local joint microenvironment provides an ‘on’switch to imprint these macrophages, and importantly how early in disease this occurs. These studies could offer unique opportunities to preferentially target inflammatory infiltrating macrophages with minimal impact on homeostatic tissue-resident macrophages as well as opportunities for early targeted therapeutic intervention.

What is your background and how did you get into research?

I always had a keen interested in science and graduated from Biomedical Health and Life Sciences in University College Dublin in 2016 having done a summer research project at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, San Diego. This international experience really cemented my love for research and so I then began a PhD with Professor Fearon in the Molecular Rheumatology research group here in the School of Medicine in Trinity College Dublin as an Irish Research Council Scholar. My PhD was focused on myeloid cells such as macrophages and monocytes which are critically involved in directing the immune response in Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic progressive autoimmune disease. During my PhD I demonstrated that circulating monocytes are already primed in both Rheumatoid Arthritis and ‘at-risk’ individuals, displaying hyperinflammatory and hypermetabolic profiles, a phenotype that persists following differentiation into ex vivo macrophages, suggesting the immune system is already activated. These studies provide us with important clues in understanding the evolution of Rheumatoid Arthritis and patient stratification

How do you see your research impacting health?

In the clinic we currently cannot predict which patients will develop severe erosive RA or who will respond to treatment. Examining myeloid cells (macrophages and monocytes) from individuals with established Rheumatoid Arthritis but also those at risk of developing Rheumatoid Arthritis and healthy individuals will enable us to understand the evolution of Rheumatoid Arthritis and identify cellular/soluble biomarkers to predict disease onset and potential new targets for therapy. Uncovering the molecular patterns and cues that transform circulating monocytes and synovial tissue macrophages into dysfunctional inflammatory activation states may also provide opportunities to reinstate joint homeostasis in Rheumatoid Arthritis patients. Indeed, manipulating these cells away from inflammatory mechanisms could be of therapeutic benefit to provide new treatment options for those patients who do not respond to current drugs. None of this research would be possible without partnership and collaboration with patients and clinical teams at St Vincent’s University Hospital and Tallaght University Hospital. This allows for a truly translational approach whereby data is constantly feeding from the scientific team back to the clinical team and vice versa. This means that observations made at the bench can be translated back to the clinic and all data is assessed with respect to clinical information (disease severity, progression and response).

Who are your biggest supporters?

Professor Fearon has been extremely supportive of all my endeavours both research and science communication wise for the past 5 years. I am also very lucky to have received funding for both my PhD and Postdoctoral studies from the Irish Research Council. Finally, Biosciences Ltd have supported Unravelling Science since Season 2 and are the nicest people to work with, they have trusted me and the podcast for a year now and I am extremely grateful for their support.

The ‘Unravelling Science’ podcast can be accessed from Spotify/Apple Podcasts/Google Podcast, or wherever you get your podcasts! https://unravellingscience.podbean.com/

Dr Hanlon’s Twitter can be accessed at https://twitter.com/MeganHanlon4