Anyone can be a scientist, even if they don’t realize it yet! This central theme drives the new podcast Dope Labs that aims to empower listeners to discover their inner scientist to understand experiences in daily life. It explores the science behind pop culture phenomena—everything from consumer DNA testing to why we lie. And the co-hosts will be the first to tell you: “This is NOT your typical science podcast!”

Those hosts are PhD scientists and educators Titi Shodiya and Zakiya Whatley. Shodiya was a postdoctoral researcher in the U-M Chemistry’s Maldonado group.

Shodiya and Whatley became friends while earning doctoral degrees at Duke University and, for them, the podcast is a natural extension of their relationship. They admit that “we’ve basically been doing this podcast since 2011, we’re just now hitting ‘record.’ ”

Zakiya Whatley, PhD and Titi Shodiya, PhD

While in graduate school they noticed that people outside of their scientific communities would have “a million” unanswered questions once they found out that the two were scientists. According to them, “…we realized that there was a need for scientific questions to be answered in a way that is more digestible.” Dope Labs provides Shodiya and Whatley with a platform to do just that, in a way that is both informative and entertaining.

Sound Up Bootcamp aids launch

The two got the opportunity to make the podcast a reality when Shodiya was one of 10 participants from 18,000 applicants selected to attend Spotify’s inaugural Sound Up Bootcamp. This week-long intensive workshop was designed to bring the diverse voices of women of color into the podcast world. At the end of the workshop, Shodiya was one of only three participants to be awarded a $10,000 grant to fund their pilot episode.

Finally the two women did hit “record,” and the result is a podcast full of contagious energy that invites anyone and everyone to join in the scientific investigation of the day-to-day.

For each podcast, Shodiya and Whatley tease out the science behind a topic that is trending on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or the news. They structure the podcast based on their actual experience as scientists, so each episode (or Lab) is divided into three parts: the recitation, the dissection, and the conclusion.

“Wakanda Forever”

For example, in “Wakanda Forever,” the recitation breaks down fictional material “vibranium” from the Marvel film Black Panther, with a summary from the hosts and interviews with listeners. Shodiya and Whatley also ask questions about vibranium and similar real-life materials: “Is any of this stuff possible? What are scientists doing now to push us toward Wakanda? What needs to happen to make it possible?”

In the dissection, they answer these questions by drawing on Shodiya’s background in materials science as well as tap the expertise of physics and astronomy professor James Kakalios, who wrote the book “The Physics of Superheroes.” They briefly cover how energy in materials is transferred by “good vibrations” and then describe exceptional real-world materials like graphene, a super-strong carbon-based material, and piezoelectrics, which can generate electricity with applied pressure.

In the final segment, they conclude that filmmakers and other artists can work side-by-side with scientists to push the boundaries of what is technologically possible.

Dope Labs now in its second season

Shodiya and Whatley hope to use Dope Labs to “expand people’s idea of what should be considered science, and who can be a scientist.” The podcast medium works well for them because “it’s on demand so people can listen when it’s convenient.” Also, barriers to production are relatively low in this format.

Whatley and Shodiya continue to be inspired by their listeners. According to them, the most rewarding thing about the podcast is the listeners who say things like “I hate science, but I love your show” or “I don’t listen to podcasts, but I listen to your show.”

Dope Labs just kicked off its second season. Its co-hosts continue to create a non-intimidating space for everyone to explore science in a captivating way. As they would say, “welcome to the lab!”

Listen to Dope Labs


Also available on Spotify, Apple, Stitcher, Radio Public, or Google. Episodes air every other week


Links to other references in the article James Kakalios, University of Minnesota physics professor, author of several books explaining physics principles for non-specialists

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