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The Courageous Scientists Podcast is a short-term passion project by Kate Clancy, anthropology professor, trouble-maker, and host of Period Podcast. Hear interviews with inspiring scientists who stand in their values, serve as role models, and do hard things. Remember that while some of us can do work right now, others of us are having to put it down or change direction for a time, or focus on the care of others. This is all good and important work. Music selection by Janice Collins (Ambient Technology by Alexei Anisimov), and header and icon by Carrie Templeton.

Apr 24, 2020

Join Kate Clancy as she introduces her new podcast, and answers the three questions of this pandemic passion project: what brought you to science? How do you show courage in science? What do you want others to know about what it means to be a courageous scientist? Many thanks to Carrie Templeton for the logo and Janice Collins for music selection.


Hello, this is Kate Clancy, and welcome to the Courageous Scientist Podcast! I am a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Illinois and my work focuses on reproductive justice – in particular on environmental stressors that influence the menstrual cycle. I have another podcast that you can check out, Period Podcast, if you are curious about the biology and culture of the menstrual cycle.

This podcast is a single-season sanity project that arose from the transition all of us who instruct students have had to make to online teaching during this global covid-19 pandemic. I happen to be teaching a new general education class this semester, Humanizing Science. For the final unit of the in-person course, I was going to do a series of Skype or Zoom interviews, as well as bring in local scientists, to discuss what it means to them to show courage as a scientist.

If you are a teacher or a student right now, you know that synchronous learning or watching long videos is excruciating. I can’t make them, I can’t watch them, and what my students are telling me is that they are having a really hard time living in a global pandemic, with a variety of living conditions, and somehow being expected to find long, uninterrupted periods to do deep schoolwork. I have never heard so many students tell me how much they miss their libraries.

So I thought, instead of long interviews or talks, what if I recorded short interviews with amazing, courageous scientists? And as the plans expanded, I thought, why would I keep these brilliant voices to myself and my students?

With the consent of my guests, I’m releasing short interviews with these scientists every week, for who knows how long. I’m thinking I will stop at twelve, but I may go a bit longer. I just want to put something beautiful out there, something that reminds us of our connectedness. That reminds us of the good work that is being done right now, and all the good work we will pick back up when we are able.

I ask each guest three questions: what brought you to science, how do you show courage in science, and what you want others to know about being a courageous scientist. My guests show me what it means to have clear values, to stand in them even when scared, and how to approach obstacles. That doesn’t mean all courageous scientists overcome all obstacles. It means that we know that how we come out the other side is not an indicator of our worth.

To start us off, here are my answers to these questions. I was first interested in science as a high-achieving, over-competitive student who was under the impression that being a doctor or scientist was the hardest thing you could do. I found biological anthropology as a student who loved storytelling and was captivated by the story of human evolution. Feminist approaches to science, and the women and gender studies faculty who encouraged me to find and read this work, are why I am still in science. I love nerding out on hormones and biomarkers, I think the menstrual cycle is one of the coolest processes in the body, and these are things that brought me to my field of study. But what has kept me here is the belief that this work can change lives for the better, and that our intentions, actions, framing, and interpretation of our work matter at least as much as the science.

As for how I show courage in science, I think I do this mostly through not giving a crap? Or really, I’m not sure that’s an honest answer. I’m afraid all the time, I can show you the pit stains. I think I act in spite of my fear because I carry my privilege very heavily. I’m aware of the fact that I am white and cisgender and middle class, that I’m in a heterosexual marriage. I’m aware that these privileges protect me, but that they also carry enormous responsibility. So I show courage in science by saying the thing other people are thinking but not saying, by doing the behind the scenes work to build coalitions in advance of certain meetings, by focusing on what I believe in over what I will gain… or lose. I also sometimes show courage by pausing and making sure to listen, gather all the information I need, or support privately. If I’m being totally honest, and I’m trying to be right now, I haven’t seen the consequences or retaliation be any different when I act quickly or slowly. If what I’m doing scares someone in power, it does often have some sort of consequence for me. But the consequences are never so great that I am willing to stop trying to live and act my values. And I recognize the ways that that is also a result of my privilege.

Finally, I think I show courage by acknowledging mistakes. If you have ever met me in person, you know I am far from perfect. Humility and acknowledging one’s limitations and mistakes is a sign of courage because it is in direct contradiction to the incentive structure of science. Every truly humble scientist I’ve met is a hero to me.

Ok, so the last question, what do I want other people to know about being a courageous scientist. I want you to know that it’s a decision you have to make every day, sometimes many times a day. You need to know what is important to you before you can live up to your values, so you have to do that work first. And it’s ok if you mess up, if you commit to starting over and doing better next time. If you understand true apologies and make them. And, if you balance courage with caring for yourself.

This mini podcast is my form of self-care. It was both healing and encouraging to talk to these courageous scientists, many of whom I did not know before our conversation. I hope they lift you up, too.

Please subscribe to Courageous Scientists, and make sure to check out the podcast page for show notes and to learn more about these inspiring guests. These are whole humans and amazing scholars, but these interviews only show you a slice of who they are. Make sure you learn more about them by clicking the links on the show notes.

If you like this podcast, there are a few ways you can help. You can tell your friends, especially educators and students. I will not be fundraising or seeking sponsors or advertisers for this little guy. I just want you to learn what I learned about these courageous, kind, thoughtful people who belong in science, and to help you and others see yourselves in science, too.