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The Pulse
Wednesday at 3pm

Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. The Pulse will take you behind the doors of operating rooms, into the lab with some of the world’s foremost scientists, and back in time to explore life-changing innovations. The Pulse delivers stories in ways that matter to you, and answers questions you never knew you had.

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  • If you’re training to become a physician, your first patient is usually dead. In fact, “first patient” is what med students call the human cadavers that they work on in anatomy class — when they first learn to make careful incisions, and lay eyes on the beautiful intricacies of bone, muscle, blood vessels, and organs that make our bodies work. Human cadavers have long played a crucial role in medicine and science. They not only teach generations of doctors about the human body — they allow researchers to learn valuable lessons about everything from the causes of rare diseases to the effects of how we live our lives. But how do bodies end up on dissection tables in the first place? What can they still teach us? And why do people choose to donate their remains? On this episode, we explore bodies donated to science — how they’re used, why they’re so important, and why people make this choice for their remains. We hear stories about one woman’s mission to recruit future medical cadavers, and how 19th century medical schools got involved in body snatching. We’ll take a closer look at a program that connects med students to the families of their “first patients,” and find out why one firefighter has opted for a future in the Body Worlds exhibition. Also heard on this week’s episode: Across the country — and the world — medical schools are facing a shortage of cadavers, a situation that has been worsened by the pandemic. Reporter Grant Hill explores the rules that govern donations, and one woman’s mission to recruit future donors. Reporter Elana Gordon dug into the history of medical schools and body snatching, through the tale of “One-Eyed Joe” a legendary 19th-century horse thief whose brain went missing after his body was autopsied in prison. We chat with Ernest Talarico, a researcher and anatomy professor at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, about what cadavers can teach us about rare conditions.
  • Science is all about observing the world. But how do you study something you can’t see, smell, or hear — like the tiniest particles all around us? How do you test a new energy source when it doesn’t really exist yet? These are the challenges that the world of physics often faces. You can come up with theories, using modeling and calculations, and devise some kind of experiment on paper to investigate things. But then you have to translate those ideas into tangible, real-world experiments, which is often incredibly challenging. On today’s show, we peek behind the curtain of multimillion-dollar physics experiments that are changing the way we understand our world — and hear about some of the big challenges they face. We dig into the origins of the James Webb Space Telescope, talk with xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe about some of his more outlandish — and complicated — physics calculations, and hear from accelerator physicist Suzie Sheehy about the physics experiments that changed the world. Also heard on this week’s episode: When the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were revealed just last year, they seemed to inspire a collective moment of awe. They offered stunning glimpses of deep space never before seen. We talk with astronomer and astrophysicist Garth Illingworth about the origin of the telescope, and what pushed him and his colleagues to design something they’d never even dared to imagine. Cartoonist Randall Munroe joins us to talk about his latest book “What If? 2,” in which he uses science to answer absurd questions from fans and readers. Suzie Sheehy is an experimental physicist, so she knows all about the challenges of creating places and spaces where she can test out her ideas. Her new book about famous experiments in physics is called “The Matter of Everything.” Dakotah Tyler wants to inspire the next generation of astrophysicists — and he’s taking to TikTok and Instagram to talk about space, stars, and dark matter in an approachable way.
  • In 2018, brother and sister filmmaking duo Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev traveled to a beach in the Siberian Arctic — an area in Northeast Russia. When they arrived on this beach, the sand was almost black in color, and a horrifying smell of decay filled the air. The beach looked deserted, except for a man living in a small hut nearby. His name is Maxim Chakilev. He’s a marine biologist who waits for more than 100,000 walruses to pile their massive bodies on this beach in autumn. The walruses overcrowd the beach and sometimes die due to stampedes. This coming out-of-the-water phenomenon is called a haulout, and it’s a result of climate change in the area. After witnessing a haulout with Chakilev, Arbugaeva and her brother returned to the beach in 2020 to live with the biologist for three months and film his every move. For weeks at time, the hut was completely surrounded by the animals, making it impossible to leave. They produced a documentary with The New Yorker on their findings last year called “Haulout” – and it’s nominated for an Academy Award for best Documentary Short Film this year. Filmmaker Evgenia Arbugaeva spoke to host Maiken Scott about the film. Interview highlights Why do walruses haulout on this beach? “So, in an ideal world, walruses would not come out on land at all, or they would come out in very small numbers. They’re migratory animals. And they would rest on floating ice during their migration and feeding. But because there is no ice in summer anymore, they’re just forced to come out, haulout, on land to rest. And the reason why they come out on this particular beach is because their feeding ground, which is mollusks on the bottom of the ocean, is about 200 kilometers from this beach. So, what they do, they go feed, then they come back, and they rest on the beach, and then they go back and feed, and they do it about three times.” Inside the visual experience of a haulout “I felt that I was in the film “Lord of the Rings,” and there was the army of orcs. It was scary, and it was scary because they’re not aggressive animals because especially when they’re on the beach, they’re in their unnatural environment. So, they’re really vulnerable, and actually, they’re so easily scared. So, any foreign smell or sound can scare them and kind of send this wave of panic in the whole haulout. So, we had to be really careful actually, not to scare them, not to use the stove, not to produce any smell, not to use a generator, which was quite challenging because we couldn’t use batteries, or charge our batteries. But the sound was scary because you could hear the animals struggling, you could hear some voices, like very high-pitched voices of cubs that are looking for their mothers and being separated or being squashed by these bigger animals.” Maxim Chakilev’s concerns about the walrus population and climate change Maxim Chakilev is a marine biologist who has been researching pacific walruses in the Siberian Arctic for a decade. (The New Yorker Studios) “The biggest concern, of course, is how this animal adapts to the new reality that this has been happening for a long time now. Maxim started his research 10 years ago … And unfortunately, as we know, this process is irreversible. So, there will be a possibility of a shrinking of the population of the animal. I think all biologists that are now working are concerned about the same thing really, of the disappearance of species and what can be done to protect them.” Filming during the hottest year on record in the Arctic “We were anticipating, of course, that we’ll be surrounded by walruses, but we didn’t know for how long. And that was the record. The longest time walruses were on the beach. And so, we planned only for a maximum of a week being surrounded. And we had just enough water for that time. And when we realized it will be two weeks, and it went to almost three weeks, we started to be really worried about the amount of water that we had. And we had to be very careful not to wash our hands and just keep it for drinking.” The takeaway message from the film, “Haulout” “We made this film because we wanted to show people what really is happening in the Arctic, and we wanted to make it in the way that is not heavily message-driven or narrated. We wanted people to see for themselves that this is the reality that animals in the Arctic are facing and that we just need to do something about it. We need to be realistic. I mean, there are so many ways to talk about climate change. Oftentimes, it’s stories of hope, which I also support. There has to be hope, but there also has to be some realistic understanding of what is really going on. And I hope our film will contribute to that understanding.”
  • Pests: We know them when we see them. The mice that lurk in our kitchens, the squirrels that steal our tomatoes, the mosquitoes that bite us in the summer, and the pigeons that flutter around busy city streets. And yet, in other places and times, a lot of these animals are anything but pests. They could be seen as beloved pets and important working animals, or even be revered. So what is it exactly that defines a pest? On this episode, we investigate that question, looking at animals ranging from your everyday pigeons and rats — to more exotic creatures like Burmese pythons and Bobbit worms. We talk with a science writer who’s done a deep dive into the science of pests, find out why one mosquito researcher loves the world’s most hated insect, and hear the story of one man’s epic battle against the sea’s most disturbing creature. Also heard on this week’s episode: We talk with Cornell entomologist Laura Harrington about why mosquitoes are so good at surviving — even in the winter, how they procreate, and what we can do to keep them away from our homes. Reporter Alan Yu tells the story of how entomologist Autumn Angelus — who works in mosquito control — came to love the bugs everyone else hates. We hear the epic tale of the Bobbit Worm Chronicles — one man’s harrowing journey to defend his aquarium against the ocean’s creepiest pest. Reported by Liz Tung.
  • It seems like every day, new skin care products hit the market: lotions, serums, collagen boosters, light therapy, at-home lasers — potions and procedures designed to coax our skin into peeling and healing, plumping and renewing. Their promise: wrinkle-free faces, poreless, dewy skin, and an eternally youthful glow. But there’s no one magic bullet to flawless skin. And what is this chase really about? On this episode, we get into the science of skin care, looking at what works, what doesn’t, and what dermatologists have to say about the latest frontiers in our quest for eternal youth. We hear stories about a new treatment that uses stem cells to rejuvenate skin, some shady aspects of the Botox business, and why K-beauty has taken global skin care by storm. Also heard on this week’s episode: We talk with Janiene Luke, a dermatologist at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California, about common skin concerns — from wrinkles to dryness to discoloration — along with what actually works (and doesn’t) to treat them. Luke gives skin care advice on her Instagram and TikTok. When NPR’s Elise Hu first moved to Seoul, she noticed something striking — the faces. Flawless and dewy, they beamed from skyscrapers and subway stations — monuments to one of South Korea’s most popular exports: skin care. Hu explains what exactly “K beauty” is, the cultural factors that have led to its dominance, and what it says about social pressures on women. Hu’s upcoming book is called “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K Beauty Capital.” We’ll post a longer version of our interview when the book is out — follow our podcast so you won’t miss it!
  • Dealing with a serious or chronic health condition is hard enough — but what happens when that condition comes with moral judgment? That’s the case for millions of people around the world. From obesity to lung cancer, sexually transmitted diseases to mental illness, stigmatized conditions are shrouded in shame and blame that can not only hinder treatment — but ruin lives. On this episode, we explore stigmatized health conditions — how they earn their reputations, affect the lives of patients, and complicate efforts to treat them. We hear about the flawed effort to track down the origin of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. that inadvertently introduced a new term into our language. We explore what researchers say is behind the “blame and shame” game in public health, and we find out why a man diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder says his condition isn’t always as scary as people think. Also heard on this week’s episode: Harvard obesity researcher and physician Fatima Cody Stanford talks about her campaign to change the way doctors interact — and sometimes judge — patients based on their weight. Biocultural/medical anthropologist Alex Brewis discusses her research on stigmatized health conditions — why we judge certain illnesses, what that stigma does to patients, and how it hinders global public health efforts. Brewis has co-authored a book called “Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health.” If there’s one condition that seems to deserve its bad reputation, it’s psychopathy — the turbocharged version of a personality disorder that’s associated with violent crime, manipulation, and a chilling lack of remorse. But are psychopaths really as different as we think? Reporter Liz Tung talks with “Paul,” who has been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, about his rocky life journey.
  • Health disparities between Black and white Americans run deep in the U.S. Black people are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, or asthma, and their life expectancy is shorter than that of their white peers. The causes for these inequities are far-reaching and include bias and systemic racism in health care and medical treatments, lack of access to care, and economic differences. Advocates, researchers, and health systems have been looking for ways to address these issues — chipping away at different aspects of the problem. On this episode, we’ll look at several different solutions — and meet the people who are pushing for more equitable health care for all. Also heard on this week’s episode: Journalist and author Linda Villarosa recounts how her approaches to Black health have changed over the course of her career. She started off writing lots of self help pieces, thinking that information would change outcomes, but has come to understand that the issues go far beyond that. Med student Joel Bervell talks about his mission to educate both health care providers and patients about biases that are affecting care. His viral TikTok videos reach thousands of viewers, and some of his fans have called them “life-saving.”
  • Finding the right therapist — or, sometimes, any therapist — can be a grueling process. Someone with the right expertise, who is still taking new clients, lives in your area, who accepts your insurance, or whose services you can afford. Over the past few years, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace have seen an explosion in popularity. They promise easy access — anytime you need it — and affordability. Major changes are happening in the field of mental health, as more people turn to online services — not just for counseling, but for diagnosis and prescriptions. How good are these platforms really — for clients and for therapists? And what are the larger issues they raise about the field as a whole? On this episode, we look at the rise of online mental health services. We hear stories about working for one of these apps, what clients like or dislike about them, and the unregulated world of online ADHD diagnosis. Also heard on this week’s episode: We talk with Charles Jacob, psychologist and professor at Sacred Heart University, about some of the thorny issues facing online and in-person therapy — from state licensing requirements to complaints about unprofessionalism, and how to know if a therapist is right for you. Reporter Grant Hill talks with Gabby Rogut, a Mexican high school teacher who was struggling with suicidal thoughts, about the convenience — and later the pitfalls — of online therapy.
  • When you hear the word fungi, chances are mushrooms come to mind: button mushrooms, maybe portobellos, or chanterelles. But so much of the fungi kingdom is invisible — underground — and many say underappreciated. Fungi are vital to life on the planet, but scientists are just beginning to understand their many functions and possibilities. On this episode, we explore the role of fungi in nature, in medicine, and in our lives. We’ll talk about sustainable design that utilizes mycelium, discuss how fungi form networks that communicate information, and look at an experimental and unapproved fungi-based treatment people are using to regain their sense of smell. Also heard on this week’s episode: Mycologist and mushroom entrepreneur Paul Stamets talks about growing mushrooms in your own backyard. Biologist Merlin Sheldrake discusses the important role of fungi as the planet’s “brilliant decomposers,” and explains why he loves the idea of having fungi all around us — and inside of us. We visit Vedge Restaurant in Philadelphia to get a crash course on preparing mushrooms from Chef Rich Landau (Pro tip: hold the salt until the very end!) He explains how to cook with different mushrooms, and recalls a time when portobello mushrooms were an expensive rarity. Designer Danielle Trofe talks about the lampshades she grows from mycelium. They’re light, velvety to the touch, sturdy, and yet completely biodegradable. Foraging for mushrooms was a “national sport” in the Czech Republic where Barbora Batokova grew up. Now, she brings her love of mushrooms to fans online, where she goes by “Fungiwoman.” Her sites feature beautiful photos of mushrooms that she finds in the wild, as well as explanations and tips for identification.
  • Humans have long been fascinated by the idea of communicating with other species — not just teaching animals to mimic human words, but truly understanding their calls or cries, and interpreting their meaning. In recent years, new technologies and research are getting us closer to that point. So what are scientists learning about the way animals’ minds work — what they think about, care about, and want us to understand? On this episode, we explore animal communication — from their ability to speak our language, to our ability to understand theirs. We hear stories about what viral videos of “talking” dogs and cats are teaching scientists, the hidden meanings behind whale songs and dolphin whistles, and how machine learning is decoding the oinks and squeals of pigs. Also heard on this week’s episode: Nicole Cordova says her husky Manson loves to talk — whine, argue, and yell like Chewbacca. We hear about what it’s like living with a chatty canine. In 1970, biologist Roger Payne released a haunting album called “Songs of the Humpback Whale” that left listeners spellbound. Fifty years later, what have we learned about what those songs mean? We talk with nature documentary filmmaker Tom Mustill — author of the recent book “How to Speak Whale” — about what scientists have discovered. We talk with Justin Gregg, a researcher at the Dolphin Communication Project, about what dolphin clicks and whistles mean, how their communication differs from human language, and what we’re learning about what matters to dolphins. When pigs oink, grunt, or snort, does it mean they feel good or bad? That’s the question Élodie Briefer, an animal cognition expert who teaches biology at the University of Copenhagen, is trying to answer. She tells us what machine learning is uncovering about the feelings behind these vocalizations, and how it can help livestock farmers and inspectors improve pigs’ lives.
  • It’s the goosebumps you get at the crescendo of your favorite song; the stupefying wonder that comes with witnessing a birth or a death; the astonishing mystery we feel when gazing at the vast night sky. This is awe — a complex, often overwhelming emotion that can elicit everything from pleasure and connectedness to a crawling sense of uncertainty. Moments of awe can create unforgettable memories — and they can have a lasting impact on our minds and the way we interact with others. One of the leading scientists studying awe is Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley psychologist, who’s dedicated the past 15 years to investigating the origins and effects of this emotion. On this episode, we talk with Keltner about his new book “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life.” He discusses his own, very personal experience of awe amid profound grief, the ability of awe to transform our experience of the world, and how we can cultivate awe on a daily basis. We also hear from listeners about their experiences of awe, and listen back to a story about how voyages to space change the way astronauts perceive life, their relationships, and Earth as a whole. Also heard on this week’s episode: We listen back to a story by reporter Irina Zhorov about how venturing into space transforms astronauts’ experience of Earth.
  • It’s the start of a new year — a time when lots of people are thinking about how they can improve their lives … and themselves. We make plans to get to the gym, eat healthier, sleep more, and have a better work-life balance. But despite our best intentions, these resolutions are usually short-lived, and often fizzle out by February. It’s a recipe for disappointment. Not only that — chasing the elusive, future version of ourselves can mean that we’re failing to deal with our current reality. So instead of change, we’re focusing on acceptance on this first episode of 2023 — specifically, how do we find acceptance under challenging circumstances? How do we adapt when life throws us a curveball in the form of a life-changing diagnosis? We’ll dig into those questions — ditching the New Year’s resolutions in favor of tales about making peace with where we are now. We’ll hear stories about an actor struggling with cystic fibrosis, making your life and schedule work with ADHD, living with a rare and inescapable allergy, and how one family navigated their son’s diagnosis with autism. Also heard on this week’s episode: Kirsten Michelle Cills always wanted to be an actor. She had the talent and the ambition — just one thing stood in her way: cystic fibrosis. Reporter Justin Kramon tells the story of how this life-threatening illness affected Kirsten’s dream … and eventually opened new doors. We talk with psychologist Jacqueline Mattis, who studies human well-being and positive development at Rutgers University, about ways we can find joy and meaning in what we have now — even if it’s not what we wanted. For years, Jonita Davis heard the same things over and over: that she was flaky, unreliable, forgetful — different. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Jonita finally discovered the reason — and learned to make her life work for her. Nichole Currie reports. Allergies can range from annoying to life-threatening — but usually people can find ways to avoid the things they’re allergic to. But what if you discovered you were allergic to something inescapable? Writer Alison Espach tells the story of how she discovered she was allergic to the cold. Read her essay about the experience, “I Woke Up with Cold Urticaria.” Raising a child with autism comes with unique challenges, from making friends to doing well in school — but one of the most daunting is raising them to be independent. Reporter Jad Sleiman talks with Max, along with his parents, Amy, and Tim, about his Asperger’s diagnosis, and how it transformed their expectations of who and how he would be in the world.