When Titi Shodiya and Zakiya Whatley launched the science podcast Dope Labs, they started not by talking about science, but instead by telling the story of their friendship.

“Zakiya and I met in grad school,” Shodiya Ph.D. ’15, a materials scientist and engineer, told listeners. “It was a tough time, to say the least. And in our pursuit to get the hell out of there, we became cousins. You know how Black folks do. She’s my play cousin.”

“Titi and I would set up our experiments to run overnight,” added Whatley Ph.D. ’14, a molecular biologist. “Then we’d go to the bar, cackle in those people’s faces until about 2 a.m., go home, change our lipstick to a daytime color, and head back to the lab.”

During those years at Duke, while they were out socializing, people would ask them science questions, sometimes unrelated to their areas of expertise. Shodiya and Whatley prided themselves on answering in non-technical, non-scary language. With Dope Labs, which premiered in February 2019, they planned to do the same, for a wider audience.

“This podcast ain’t for your mama,” Shodiya said. “It ain’t for your kids. We’re talking about things from TMZ, Shade Room, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the barbershop, the hair salon. We are the ‘people scientists.’ So, we’re talking about things that you and your crew are gonna be talking about in your group chats and at brunch.”

Then, because it was Valentine’s Day, the duo launched into an exploration of “cuffing season”: the period, starting as fall approaches, when single people look for romantic partners to last through the winter. This was a chance for Shodiya, who is married, to tease Whatley, who is single and said she was looking for “nothing too, too serious.”

“She has a commitment problem,” Shodiya said.

“I could go with a six-month contract,” Whatley responded. “Based on performance and option to renew.”

“That’s like a cell-phone plan,” Shodiya said.

“That’s right,” Whatley responded.

Shodiya had questions. “Is this something that is innate within all of us?” she asked. “Have we always been cuffing? Like, were Adam and Eve cuffing?”

“Do animals have a cuffing season?” Whatley added.

With those questions on the table, they brought in Alex Trillo, a behavioral ecologist who studies courtship behavior. Trillo explained the ways different animals mate: monogamously, polygamously, and sometimes in more complicated arrangements. Red foxes “cuff,” too, Trillo explained, pairing up for a single winter and then separating.

“So, the male red fox next winter might be the stepdad,” said Whatley.

“That sounds like a ‘Maury’ episode waiting to happen,” Shodiya added.

Listening to Dope Labs is like being welcomed into a conversation between best friends, squeezed into the corner booth of a familiar restaurant. It is audio candy, bright and funny.

It is also plenty serious. Shodiya and Whatley know that, as Black women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), they are demographic outliers. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the young-adult population in the United States but accounted for 2 percent of doctoral degrees in engineering and 3 percent in biological and biomedical sciences in 2018-19, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Last year, the digital magazine Undark analyzed four decades of data and found the share of undergraduate STEM degrees awarded to Black graduates peaked in the early 2000s. Even as the federal government steps up its STEM diversity initiatives, the report said, “those hard-won gains for Black representation in the sciences are quietly slipping away.”

The podcast, then, is their effort to reach people who have been excluded from academic science: Blacks, other people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, and people with disabilities. “This 100 percent shapes the format of our podcast,” says Whatley, who is also the assistant director of the University of Maryland’s Biological Sciences Graduate Program. “It shapes every word that we choose to say or choose not to say.”

Anyone who has muddled through a science journal article knows that the language is not meant to be inclusive. Jargon, boilerplate, and acronyms dissuade all but the specialists. Studies show academic writing has grown less accessible over time.

Shattering those barriers means adopting new language: in Whatley’s words, moving from the laboratory to the living room. “If I go to the lab bench, I exclude all these people who may be interested, but just don’t speak lab-bench language,” she says. “By saying, ‘I’m going to talk about this in the living- room setting and let everybody put on your sweatpants,’ I think it opens the door. Everybody can get comfortable. And everybody can start to see themselves as a scientist. We’re all wearing sweatpants.”

It also means finding topics that are on people’s minds, starting with pop culture. When rapper Nicki Minaj tweeted that she had paid for ex-boyfriend Safaree Samuels’ hair transplant, Dope Labs used the dispute to explore the biology of hair loss. When the movie Black Panther re-popularized the magical (but fictional) metal vibranium, the duo discussed rare properties of real-world materials—like sonoluminescence, in which the energy from sound waves produces super- fast light flashes. Beyoncé’s stardom sparked a lesson on actual stars.

Shodiya, Whatley, and their guests have unpacked the science behind vaccines, political ads, and the eviction crisis. They examined the link between wildfires and climate change. As supermarket shelves emptied during the COVID-19 pandemic, they explained the food supply chain. The growing Black Lives Matter movement sparked an examination of eugenics and other racist science. And as self-isolation left us feeling stressed and lonely, they responded with episodes on friendship, celebration, and burnout.

They’ve broadened the notion of “science” to include fields like economics and sociology. “People in the scientific community have been very protective of what science is. I’ve even had people say to me, ‘Well, this episode wasn’t really science,’” says Shodiya, who works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency. “But I really believe that science is in everything, and you can bring a critical and scientific mind to all things.”

Whatley describes science as a lens that can be pointed in many directions. Traditionally, a credentialed elite has determined what merits that gaze. “If you think of who’s always in charge, who’s pointing our telescope, there’s whole solar systems, collections of stars, that we haven’t seen,” she says. “We’re saying those stars are worthy of observation.”

“It happens to be that those stars may be what the majority of people are already looking at,” she adds. “But they’ve been looking with their bare eyes.”

Shodiya and Whatley met at Duke’s Bouchet Society, an organization of graduate-level STEM students from underrepresented groups. Not only did the society offer mutual support, it also got them thinking about communication. Members gave presentations, which required explaining their research across disciplines. “You’ve got to be able to communicate with other scientists who may not use the same jargon,” Whatley says, “who may not understand the same canonical frameworks for what’s happening in your field.”

The two women also mentored and gave talks to younger students. “If you’ve ever tried to explain Ph.D.-level work to fifth-graders, you better have the right words,” Whatley says.

Those experiences, plus their informal conversations with non-scientists, reinforced the importance of jargon-free communication. So did Whatley’s later experience teaching biology and seeing students move from confusion to understanding. And so did their frustration with climate denialism and other gaps in scientific literacy, which have real-world policy impacts.

After graduating, they began floating the idea of a podcast. It didn’t get traction until 2018, when Whatley sent Shodiya a link late one night. The streaming service Spotify had announced an accelerator program, called Sound Up, for women of color who wanted to start their own shows. Ten participants would travel, on Spotify’s dime, to New York for intensive training. Of those ten, the company would fund pilot development for three.

Eighteen thousand women of color applied. Shodiya’s proposal caught the judges’ attention. “She had clear, specific examples of the science and pop culture things that she wanted to put together,” says Natalie Tulloch, Sound Up’s global lead. “And it stood out. She had the details.”

As one of the selectees, Shodiya spent a week in New York. Each day, she said, she reported back to Whatley what she had learned: how to hold a microphone, how to develop a narrative throughline, how to structure a season. Together, they developed a pitch for the seed funding, which Shodiya presented to a judging panel. She won that, too.

“We took that money, and we just hit the ground running,” Shodiya says. “We bought all the tech we needed. And we’re like, let’s start, let’s go, let’s not even hesitate.”

During their second season, Shodiya and Whatley took a hard look at Thanksgiving, a holiday that, for some Americans, evokes the European genocide of indigenous people. They brought in Nicholas Reo, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a scholar who studies ecological stewardship of indigenous lands. Together, they explored how colonists altered the North American landscape: deforestation, diseases like smallpox, and invasive species like hogs.

“These things are persistent,” Shodiya said. “It’s not something that’s just in the past and we just look back on it and say, ‘Aw, man, that sucks.’ ” The legacy remains, she said, in the form of unemployment, suicide, and chronic health problems on reservations.

Diverse voices look at old stories in fresh ways. In Dope Labs’ telling, the story of European settlement does not begin with a celebration of Columbus’ voyage. “What are those three ships?” Whatley said in an interview, laughing. “The Santa Maria—I always get them wrong. The Pinto is a horse…

“We’re not going to talk about that,” she added. “Instead, we’re gonna flip the lens and say, ‘This is about conservation. This is about what our native grasses look like.’ I think there are so many opportunities to recenter the narrative, to decide who gets to be important, who gets to be the protagonist.’ ”

Whatley uses the same metaphor later while imagining Dope Labs’ future. “This is the first blade of native grass,” she says. “We are trying to build an ecosystem, and it feels like Dope Labs as a podcast is one format.” In April, she and Shodiya held a live virtual conversation, sponsored by Boston’s Museum of Science, where they jumped from the mechanics of pasta shapes to the shrimp someone allegedly found in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.

They want to keep finding new ways to popularize science. “If I could have a Dope Labs touring bus, and we went to different community centers and did live shows, I would love that,” Whatley says. “There’s no shortage of things to talk about.”

Yeoman teaches journalism at Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. He wrote about Gabriel N. Rosenberg and how livestock breeding intersected with the histories of race and sex in America in the Spring 2021 issue.

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