WWU's Spark Science podcast explores diversity and accessibility in the sciences
Say the word ‘scientist’ and images of stark white lab coats, bubbling test tubes and a Bill Nye-esque researcher might spring to mind; Regina Barber DeGraaff, Western’s STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist, is trying to change that.
For the past six years, she’s been working in collaboration with students and other creators to make Spark Science. The science-focused podcast does more than explain concepts, it’s aimed at making science more accessible to the average person and highlighting the diversity within STEM.
“My goal is to feature people who don’t fit into the classic scientist stereotype; I don’t want to just interview Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future’ over and over again,” DeGraaff said.
While working toward that mission, the podcast has explored everything from the danger of misinformation to the experiences of women in STEM by interviewing scientists from a wide array of backgrounds.
The inspiration for Spark Science first came about in 2015, when Suzanne Blais, a former manager at KMRE who now works in Western’s University Relations & Marketing Division, approached DeGraaff with the idea for a science-based radio show.
The only question for DeGraaff was: How do you make science interesting for everyone?
“I was really inspired by shows like Star Talk because they were able to make these grandiose concepts seem relatable and interesting,” DeGraaff said.
After three years of broadcasting Spark Science on KMRE, DeGraaff sought out an official endorsement from the university and received it. After that, Spark Science became a fully online podcast hosted on Western’s website.
Now the podcast runs its season from February to August every year with monthly episode releases. DeGraaff, Blais and a rotating team of student volunteers work to source, edit and produce every episode.
Wanted: Communicators and scientists for the Spark Science team
For Julia Thorpe, a former senior audio manager for Spark Science, the podcast was more than a chance to learn new audio skills, it also highlighted the importance of making science accessible.
“When you have that disconnect between scientists and the public, then the question ‘What’s really true?’ pops up and the guessing games begin,” Thorpe said. “That’s why giving people clarity and breaking down that imaginary barrier is so important.”
Although Thorpe isn't involved in the podcasting world now, she said she still dreams of reentering the field.
"I may not be recording and editing podcasts anymore, but I'm still tuned in to them on almost a daily basis," Thorpe said. "My involvement might have faded, but my interest is still as intense as ever."
DeGraaff said she’s always on the lookout for new students to join the Spark Science team, and said you really only need two things: a love of science and an open mind.
As more students get involved and bring in original ideas, DeGraaff said she hopes to transform Spark Science into a course where students can get credit as they create everything from podcasts to short documentaries.
“I want Spark Science to have that freedom,” DeGraaff said. “For students to not only go out and be correspondents, but I also want them to be creative in how they approach these science-heavy topics”
Most importantly, DeGraaff said she wants to hear from listeners.
“If you scroll through our episodes and we haven’t covered something you think is important, let us know, or better yet, come work with us and help make it,” DeGraaff said.
Interested in working on Spark Science? Reach out to Regina at Regina.BarberDeGraaff@wwu.edu.
WWU's Regina Barber DeGraaff celebrates another completed episode of "Spark Science."
Host Regina Barber DeGraaff sits across from Josh Kaplan, an assistant professor of psychology at Western, as they discuss how cannabis can affect the brain. // Photo courtesy of Regina Barber DeGraaff
WWU's Regina Barber DeGraaff, host of the Spark Science podcast and the university's STEM Inclusion and Outreach specialist, chats with Professor of Geology Jackie Caplan-Auerbach on the set of Spark Science