Former Bower student brings science to the public with successful podcast

A postdoctoral researcher from Kilbeggan has recently found success by combining her love of science with communication in the form of her podcast, ‘Unravelling Science’.

Each week, Dr Megan Hanlon invites a new scientist onto the show where they not only discuss guests’ research, but also the journey they have taken to get to where they are today. So far, guests have discussed why humans sleep, if bats hold the secret to everlasting life, and one researcher, Brian Pennie, has discussed his path from overcoming a heroin addiction to working towards a PhD in neuropsychology.

In just ten months, the podcast has been so successful that during its second season it reached the sixth spot on the Irish science podcasts charts and even has a sponsor.

Megan, who completed her PhD last year, says that her interest in science began while she was a student in Our Lady’s Bower.

“I had great teachers the school for all my subjects, but Ms Kenny in Junior Cert and Ms Gough in Leaving Cert were both brilliant teachers,” she says.

In fifth year, Megan initially opted for Chemistry, Physics and Applied Maths.

"Within the first week of fifth year then I ended up switching to Biology from Physics. It’s funny how it could have been a different path if I had stuck with Physics.”

Megan soon went to UCD to study Biomedical, Health and Life Sciences, and remained unsure of where she wanted to take her career post-college.

“A lot of the people in my course wanted to do graduate medicine, so in second and third year I got that into my head as well, because I really wasn’t sure where to go.

“I was getting the bus home to Kilbeggan and I met Colin Hogg who was my old maths grinds teacher and he suggested getting experience in science over the summer. I went home that weekend, emailed about 40 labs in America and by that Monday I had gotten a placement in San Diego to work in a stem cell research lab, which ironically was across the road from where Colin had done his ten years previously!”

She completed her final year project on rheumatology in St Vincent’s’ University Hospital. Her supervisor, Prof Ursula Fearon, then took her on for her PhD which Megan completed between 2016 and 2020.

Megan’s research looks at how an immune cell called macrophage is dysregulated in rheumatoid arthritis.

“These macrophages can be good, but in rheumatoid arthritis they lean towards being bad for people. The difference between these good and bad cells can be manipulated by how they intake oxygen, so I was trying to revert the bad cells into good cells by manipulating their oxygen intake.”

Megan also sought to test the bloods of people who have aches and pains who may develop arthritis, and found that early intervention can reduce the trauma of joint inflammation and potential disability.

After successfully defending her research via Zoom in her childhood bedroom as a result of the pandemic, Megan decided to take the plunge into creating a podcast.

“Myself and Ursula were speaking towards the end of my PhD, and we had planned for me to work in a lab abroad. Obviously those plans were thrown up in the air.

“I was in lockdown at home, and I had just completed this huge project. I was still employed by Ursula, but I had thought about a podcast before. I listen to a lot of them myself and I really love chatting to people. One of the things that I was nearly going to go towards for college was English and media.

“I basically bought a kit from DoneDeal for €100, and I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I was googling best sound mixing software, and I didn’t even know how to upload a podcast, but I had the time to figure it out because of lockdown.”

Dr Mary Canavan was the first guest, with Megan soon emailing other researchers to be guests on the podcast.

“I just started emailing people that I looked up to and whose research I was interested in, and to date I haven’t received a no. As the episodes started to come out I’d post them on Twitter, and when I approached some people they had already heard of it, which was amazing!”

The show is currently on its third season, with guests including Bower alumni Prof Cliona O’Farrelly and Prof Marina Lynch, as well as Prof Luke O’Neill and Mullingar’s Prof Kingston Mills.

“People have a much higher understanding of what scientists do as a result of Covid, and scientists definitely have a responsibility to describe their research in a more public-friendly manner. There’s so much ambiguity and misinformation out there, and they have to help the public decide what is ‘good’ information and what isn’t.

“We also need to be careful though, because we don’t know all the answers yet, and there’s a difference between certainty and clarity. The worst thing any scientist could do right now is say that Covid will be gone in six months and that the vaccine will work on everyone. We don’t know that yet, so it’s tricky to navigate.”

Megan is also involved with a festival called ‘Pints of Science’, where each May scientists go to the pub and chat about their research over three nights.

“Breaking down the barriers to science and making it accessible is important. Science communication is a huge interest of mine in general, and it doesn’t have to be full of difficult jargon.”

Megan is hoping to receive word shortly on a research funding application and then go abroad in early 2022, but plans to keep the podcast going either way.

Unravelling Science can be found on all streaming platforms including Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and new episodes are released each Tuesday.

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