Geosciences PhD student, comedian, and podcaster Laura Fattaruso is in the studios of WMUA on the UMass campus with two biochemists and a comedian. The biochemists, research assistant Emily Agnello ‘18 and Meg Stratton of the Stratton Lab at UMass, are talking about their work studying a protein in the brain that is critical for memory.
Comedian Laura Patrick, a member of the improv troupe The Ha Ha's, asks, “So is that why the story changes every time I tell it? Why the fish keeps getting bigger?”
It’s just this sort of demystifying interaction that punctuates Laura’s radio show and podcast, Lab Talk with Laura, which features scientists from a range of disciplines and backgrounds discussing their work in a way that keeps it exciting and straightforward for everyone who tunes in.
For first-time listeners, can you tell us about the show?
I started the show in January 2018, and I just reached out by word of mouth to get volunteers to be on the show. The basic format has been to have scientists from the UMass community come on and just talk about what they do. I so appreciate the enthusiasm of people in the university.
I have a co-host who is a comedian as a guest host on each episode, and that brings an outside perspective, and also brings humor and levity to keep the science from feeling to heavy or too jargon-y. I am a scientist, so sometimes there’s a limit to how much I can provide that lens when something is closer to my own field. Having the co-host helps keep it accessible.
In the fall I did something a little different. I did short interviews with scientists at conferences I was attending, and then for the episodes, I brought some of the scientists who had been guests on previous episodes of the show back to listen to those interviews and chat about them.
What motivated you to create the show?
When I was working on my master’s degree I got into standup comedy as a hobby. And that grew into hosting an open mic at Bishop’s Lounge [in Northampton] for almost five years. What I found was that it felt like I had evolved two really separate identities — as a standup comic and as a scientist — so I really wanted to try to find a way to bring those things together.
When I decided to come back to school for a PhD , I knew I really wanted to focus on doing more science outreach and science communication, and to use those skills I had accrued in comedy to make that outreach more effective.
My first semester as a PhD student I did DJ training at WMUA, which was a really wonderful experience. It’s an amazing resource for people on campus to be able to learn how to use all of this sound and editing equipment, and to have it all available to use for free.
What do you want audiences to take away?
I’m a first generation academic. My parents didn’t graduate from college. Being in science, I’ve been amazed by all the opportunities that have come to me through school — to travel to amazing places, to do really cool work. It’s been such a pleasure.
When I was younger, I don’t think I realized the possibilities that science would open up to me, and so really my biggest goal is to share that with people who aren’t as familiar with the sciences and how they work on a human level: What it means to be a scientist , and what that looks like.
And I also want to show all of the different people who are doing scientific research. We’ve really had a wide range of people on the show, all different ages, research levels, backgrounds, ethnicities. So I’m really just trying to give people a sense that scientists are human beings like anybody else and hopefully that might inspire someone to feel that they can access science more. If one person hears it and becomes a scientist, that would be amazing!
Besides your life as a radio host , what else are you up to?
I’m in the second year of my PhD program and working on a research project using a new software developed at UMass that predicts how fractures grow in rocks using a different criteria than most previous approaches. It looks at the work budget and basically chooses fracture paths based on what would require the least work. I’ve been using that tool that was developed by a previous UMass student to look in finer detail into how rocks break and compare my results from simulations to lab experiments.
In the lab, they are pushing on a rock and as many ways as possible they will observe it breaking, measuring the forces necessary to start fractures, and measuring the fractures. But even in a highly controlled lab experiment there’s a limit to how many things you can measure. That's where the simulations become useful. We want to improve our understanding of earthquake processes.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in the process of making this show?
One thing that surprised me are the connections between different sciences. I interviewed people in polymer science and I thought that chemical engineering could probably not be any further from my field of study. But it turns out we both are interested in this concept called rheology – which is about how materials respond to forces, how some things flow, some things break, and some things do a combination of those. It was surprising to me that it was a concept that translated across our fields.
Another thing that was really surprising and very cool was that there’s somebody in our university who studies sea slugs, and their brains are so simple, they have so few neurons compared to a human brain, that they can actually stimulate certain neurons and control their brains. So there are, like, cyborg sea slugs being created at UMass, which is shocking! I think they’re even in my own building and I didn’t realize it.
That’s another thing that’s so funny is that you’re so close to all these people doing amazing things, you see them every day but you don’t know what they’re up to. The show gives me a way to find out. It’s really fun.