Behind the Lab Coat
Dr Megan Hanlon; photo Trevor Butterworth
By Aisling Cameron
From banana bread to zoom quizzes, we have all had our share of lockdown projects, but not many as successful as Dr Megan Hanlon’s. A post-doctoral researcher in the Molecular Rheumatology lab at Trinity Biomedical Science Building (TBSI), Hanlon used the month between the end of her PhD and the start of her post-doctoral position to launch ‘Unravelling Science’, a podcast which explores the personal and professional journeys of leading scientists.
Hanlon had always gravitated towards storytelling, having interned at her local radio station, iRadio and newspaper, the Athlone Voice, during her transition year in Our Lady’s Bower secondary school, Athlone. Science and science communication also became a focal point of her adolescence through her participation in SciFest and The BT Young Scientist. Science ultimately triumphed over journalism, as she began a degree in biomedical science in UCD in 2012 and finished up her PhD from Trinity College in 2020; but she couldn’t shake the interest she had in other people’s stories, especially those of successful scientists.
“I had been waking up in the middle of the night”, says Hanlon, “and writing questions on my phone as to what I would ask people. I just remember being so lost in college, and not knowing what a scientist was, not knowing how you got there, and not knowing all the different types of jobs and roles you can have when you’re a researcher.”
Hanlon and a friend, Eimear Flanagan — both had plunged into PhDs straight from undergrad — would attempt to decipher the paths taken by their professors, to figure out what their own scientific journeys might entail. “I would say to Eimear”, says Hanlon, “I don’t know how to get there — do you know?’”
The interruption of lockdown and the impulse purchase of a podcast set on DoneDeal were all that was needed for Hanlon to find out. “It was definitely a big learning curve,” she says, “there’s so many things you don’t think about when you’re starting a podcast. I spent about two weeks thinking about what I was going to name it and I had never done any sound editing before… so it took me about a month to figure all that out”.
The inaugural episode of Unravelling Science, with its promise to focus on “the people behind the lab coats” was uploaded to Spotify and Apple Podcasts on June 1st, 2020. “Was I nervous putting up the first one?” says Hanlon, “Absolutely yes, I was very nervous — the fear was that people would make fun of it or think it was cringy, but that didn’t happen”.
Her first guest was Dr Mary Canavan, a research fellow and colleague in the molecular rheumatology research group in TBSI, and twice winner of the Young Investigator of the Year award in rheumatology. Although they had been friends for years, Hanlon was still nervous when asking Canavan for an interview. But the familiarity set a casual and intimate conversational style — with Canavan quickly revealing how she was suddenly fascinated by biology in her school transition year, having previously neither studied nor been interested in science. The discussion hit on the critical importance of mentorship but also how exposure to a diversity of people in scientific research — finding people that, as Canavan put it, “are just like us” — can help you see your own path in science.
“I think that from the outset, I really wanted it to not just be a pure science podcast”, says Hanlon, “I think people’s personal journeys or experiences — what shaped them into who they are today — are the hooks.” Leading with the personal journey also helps listeners to become invested in the person’s story, she adds, which then becomes a gateway to the person’s research and the intellectual and practical challenges behind it.
“People often have a limited understanding of what life is really like for a science researcher,” says Dr Cliona O’Farrelly, Professor of Comparative Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, “Megan’s interviews give a fantastic insight into diversity of these lives and how exciting they can be”.
After four episodes had hit the airwaves, Hanlon received a message on LinkedIn. “I just wanted to let you know, I’m a final-year science student, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and listened to your podcast, I really think I want to get into research, thank you so much”.
“I was literally like, ‘wow’, because that is what I was like”, says Hanlon, “I knew then that I should keep the podcast going”. Unravelling Science has since featured over 30 guests in areas from immunology to astrophysics, bioengineering to dermatology. It has hit number six in the Irish Podcast Charts and number seven in the Science Podcast Charts in Luxembourg. “Luxembourg?” she says, “That’s crazy.”
“When I posted the first episode I was planning on doing them twice a month,” says Hanlon, “but I had recorded Dr Annie Curtis’s interview the day after I had posted the first episode and I was so excited to get it out that I changed everything and decided to do it weekly”. A new episode of Unravelling Science is posted every Tuesday. “It is actually a lot work and I think that if I didn’t set myself that strict schedule of kind of routine, I would never have done as many episodes as I have and I never would have stuck with it.”
The overriding payoff from the podcast is the realisation that no two stories are the same. “The biggest thing I’ve learned about the life of science and the life of academia is that nobody has a straight path,” says Hanlon, “There is a lot of luck and a lot of serendipity. That doesn’t mean the hard work doesn’t count, it just means that there will be a lot of opportunities — and they can’t be planned in advance”.
Unravelling Science is sponsored by BioSciences Ltd, an Irish biotechnology sales and distribution company. “I’m an avid podcast listener, especially when I’m out driving or mowing the lawn, so when Megan first asked us last year, I was immediately interested”, says Dr John Synnott, a Sales and Marketing Executive at BioSciences Ltd. “It’s a podcast for everyone and anyone and gives a great insight into what different labs are out there, what researchers are like, and how there’s no real set journey”.
Hanlon’s own journey in science communication does not end here. The Department of Health recently called on Hanlon, along with 11 other young researchers, to assemble the ‘Scicommcollective_ire’, making COVID-19 information available on TikTok and Instagram and appealing to the 18-24 age demographic in Ireland. The in-house Immunometabolism Forum (IMF), organised by Professor David Finlay, recently invited Hanlon to highlight her episodes that ‘Unravelled Immunometabolism’ on the newly launched IMF Youtube channel. She is also the co-director of Pint of Science in Ireland, which recently held its annual festival online.
Aisling Cameron is a graduate of Molecular Medicine from Trinity College Dublin and is currently completing a MSc in Immunotherapeutics. She has an interest in all areas of immunology and is currently working on improving her science communication skills as an intern on the communications team at Trinity Biomedical Science Institute (TBSI).