Episode 31 – Interview with Emily King from Voices of Academia

This week it was our huge pleasure to speak with Emily King, currently undertaking her PhD at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne. Her current project investigates whether insulin resistance develops as a result of mitochondrial dysfunction in skeletal muscle, using both mouse models and cell lines. The projected impact of these studies is to determine whether related conditions, such as Type 2 Diabetes, can be managed with novel, muscle-specific therapies.

Emily is a passionate educator, holding sessional roles as a Graduate Teaching Associate within the Faculty of Science at Monash University. Emily also produces the podcast Voices of Academia (https://anchor.fm/academicvoices), a really important project that we discussed at length.

Emily has won numerous awards & scholarships based on her communication and as you’ll hear, she’s a very gifted storyteller. She’s also volunteered for various forms of science communication/educational writing including grant writing for The National Stroke Foundation, blog writing for Franklin women, and public speaking for a Women in Science forum.

You can follow Emily and find out more about her work here:

Here are other accounts we mentioned in the podcast:

Co-founder of Voices of Academia Dr Zoë Ayres: https://twitter.com/ZJAyres
Voices of Academia Podcast: https://twitter.com/academicvoices


Jen (00:00:00)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:47)
Hello everybody, and welcome to another fine episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Jen Martin and as always, I am joined by my excellent partner in crime and friend, Michael Wheeler. Hello Michael.

Michael (00:01:03)
Hello Jen. I haven’t been described as a partner in crime before. So does this mean I have to start committing some crimes now? But it’s great to be here as always, Jen, because that means we get to chat with interesting and wonderful people.
And today’s wonderful person who’s very interesting is Emily King. And Emily is the host of Voices of Academia, a podcast dedicated to sharing the mental health journeys of academics, which I think is really such important work.
And I think it can be a big barrier to putting yourself out there when we talk about science communication and engaging with different audiences as well. But Emily and I are also friends from our time as PhD students at the Baker Institute, so it’s really great to have you on the podcast Emily. Welcome!

Emily (00:02:16)
Thanks, Michael and Jen. I’m super excited to be here. I’ve never been described as a wonderful and interesting person before, so that’s a new one for me as a podcast guest.

Michael (00:02:25)
Now Emily, we have a shared passion in science communication. And I recall having lots of great discussions with you about SciComm when we were at the Baker, getting involved in science communication from the 3MT to writing opportunities and really how to merge our areas of research interest with science communication. Which you’ve done wonderfully.
And I know you’ve won several awards for your communication. You’ve published a feature article for Lateral Magazine. And now you’ve gone on to start a podcast. So it’s so great to see that interest and how it’s developed.

Emily (00:03:01)
Have you been stalking me online?

Jen (00:03:03)
That’s what we always do, Emily.
Isn’t that what you do for your guests? Come on.

Michael (00:03:10)
I’m guilty. I’m guilty.
Maybe this is the crime you’re referring to.

Emily (00:03:13)
Oh, there you go. He found it.

Michael (00:03:23)
And Emily, we actually had a great chat before recording this podcast. I think your story is so interesting because you’ve really had such a wonderful and natural evolution from your early interests into academia and science, which then led into science communication. And then more broadly, communicating about academia and what it’s like to navigate a lot of the challenges and how to promote a supportive culture and reduce stigma in academia.
But I’d like to start from the beginning, and ask you about those early interests that lead you into science in the first place and then that led you into your PhD. Because I know it hasn’t just been science that you’ve done all the way through, that you’ve actually had some really complementary and valuable other experiences along the way.

Emily (00:04:09)
Yeah, thinking back, I’m not one of those people that sort of had like an idol from a really young age and was drawn to science in that way. I really just remember becoming really interested in the medical applications of science some time during late high school, and maybe that had to do with my dad being a vet. I used to go into the surgery room with him when I was a kid and sort of help him with sutures and that kind of thing, really just like cutting a piece of thread. But you know, it felt important.
And I don’t know. I don’t know if it was specifically science or if it was just that I have a really analytical mind. And I think I was always going to be drawn into something where I was required to ask questions. And I guess science just is, you know, the avenue that I found that fit that.
In terms of how I got into science communication. Again, I didn’t really have an idol. Like I actually, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t watch any David Attenborough documentaries until like my 20s which is kind of crazy ’cause I love them.
I’m now obsessed with Todd Sampson. He’s a fantastic science communicator, but I wasn’t aware of him you know, earlier on. At the end of my honours year, I went to this three-day conference I think it was, and I just remember, I just remember the talks being so dry and boring and hard to follow.
But I think that experience has definitely been something that shaped the way that I have chosen to communicate during my PhD. Really wanting to engage with memes and communicating a bit of my personality, even in my professional science talks.

Jen (00:05:58)
And so Emily, do you think that’s about you know, obviously what, a lot of what you do now is draw out people’s stories that you know, you’re really interested in the storytelling aspect of science.
And it sounds like part of your drive was just I don’t want to be boring, I don’t wanna be boring like those people. But when did you decide that…?

Emily (00:06:11)
It sounds horrible.

Jen (00:06:13)
Well, one of our very first episodes in, in this podcast is called “How to not be boring” so…

Emily (00:06:18)
I did see that, yeah.

Jen (00:06:20)
But at what point I guess did you sort of decide that this would really be a big part of what you do? Because there are a lot of scientists out there who have a general sense that yeah, I don’t want to be boring, I want to make my work accessible.
But you’ve really taken it to a whole another level, you know? Can you look back and see a point in time where you decide actually for me, science and storytelling are going to be inextricably linked, and I can’t do one without the other.

Emily (00:06:42)
I think it sort of just evolved really organically. I’m drawn to connecting with people. It’s something that I naturally do and something that I actually need to do, I think really to you know, be happy and survive.
I, as soon as I meet people, I go deep. And I’ve actually joked to a few people on the podcast about I, I remember having a conversation with Michael when we were out one night. And I just went deep. It was you know, probably quite a difficult conversation. But he probably didn’t want to talk about it. You know, as we are having a couple of drinks out on the town, you know. But I just, I don’t think about what I’m saying when I’m saying it and whether the context is OK. And I feel like, maybe it was just in my head, but I feel like he was like slowly backing away.

Michael (00:07:30)
I don’t mind going deep.

Emily (00:07:36)
No, but seriously I, it is something that I sort of just naturally do. I mean, if I’m being completely honest, this podcast really… the, the very short story of how it came about is that I was asked by the co-founders of Voices of Academia to come on and interview people. And initially, that was to provide transcripts of those interviews as kind of an extra on top of the blogs that they were already releasing on their website.
But one of the co-founders and myself got super excited and we were like, let’s just make a podcast. It’s not that hard, right? Like there’s not a million and one things to learn. So that’s sort of the, the short story of how I got into mental health communication.
But it was really a combination of my own experience of mental illness. So I’m quite open about the fact that during my PhD I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and treatment-resistant depression. And as a result of that, I couldn’t work for over a year. I took intermission from my PhD. And I… yeah I, I did feel really alone. And you sort of question yourself a lot and wonder you know, is this too hard for me? Am I not cut out for this? Am I too weak? There were a lot of really like negative thought spirals that sort of went through my head.
But one of the things that I did during my time off when I was recovering was to chat to other PhD and Masters students. And something that really surprised me was how many of them had struggled actually quite severely with mental illness and real crises in the middle of their graduate programs. And that’s something that I sort of hadn’t been aware of before.
When I was really struggling and I hadn’t taken intermission yet, I was – classic researcher –  I was Googling my symptoms and I was like trying to find normal to experience mental health concerns during your PhD.
So I was looking this up and I found all of the you know, statistics. And actually I knew that before going into my PhD that something like one in five PhD students will experience a mental health concern, depression. I was adamant that I didn’t want to become a statistic. But I was finding all of that as I was struggling. But I couldn’t find any real personal stories that I could relate to and see what that person was feeling and what they were thinking and how it was impacting their behaviour. It was all really just numbers.
And obviously research and statistics has its place clearly, but there just wasn’t anything to sort of help me conceptualise my experience, I suppose? So that’s been a big part of it, my drive I think to host this podcast is that I really wish something like this had existed when I was struggling.
And that’s something that a number of the guests that I’ve interviewed that are now associate professors, tenured professors, they’ve said the same thing. And so that they really think they would have benefited from something like this when they were a graduate student.

Michael (00:10:40)
Hmm yeah.

Jen (00:10:40)
That’s the, that’s the power of storytelling, isn’t it? We can, we relate to stories, we connect with stories. Numbers, I mean, that’s the whole basis of science communication, numbers don’t actually do the job.

Emily (00:10:49)
No, no.

Michael (00:10:51)
Yeah, definitely. And something you said there Emily about feeling alone when you’re doing your PhD. I think a PhD journey, and a journey in science can often seem a little bit like that, because it’s a very individual thing. People’s paths are quite different. But it is really interesting that there’s also a lot of similarities, especially in terms of some of the challenges that academics can have.
And I think there is something very powerful in being able to discuss a lot of those challenges. I’m just curious to know about, having been doing the podcast for a while now. Has it turned out the way you imagined it, or has it turned out slightly different to the way you had imagined it?

Emily (00:11:31)
I think I’ve tried to keep it pretty similar to how I originally envisioned it. I thought it was really important to cover not just the difficult parts of someone’s story, but also how they recovered from that experience.
So if you, if you listen to an episode or a couple of episodes of Voices of Academia, you’ll notice that I interview one person every month, and then I split that interview into two different episodes.
So the first episode is about their difficulties and sort of their mental health struggles during some time in academia. And then the second episode is often about the support resources that they found and how they recovered and what they do to sort of manage their mental health and their wellness.
And I have really tried to stick to that. I’ve had some people come forward and want to promote different things on the podcast. Sometimes I’ve felt like that was off message and I’ve declined. Other times I felt like it was a really interesting natural progression for the podcast.
So more recently I’ve had people coming forward that have written books. One of them that I interviewed recently has written a book about using a coaching approach within academia to sort of help people increase their productivity and maintain their wellness. It’s a really fantastic book, actually. I believe it’s called The Empowered Professor by Dana Mitra. So that was really in line with the key goals of the podcast. I asked Dana to talk a bit about her own mental health story, which she was comfortable doing.
And then we discussed sort of some elements from the book that the listeners would be able to use potentially in their own academic lives to sort of help them be bit more productive, help them negotiate some of the inherent biases of academia and help them to deal with things like impostor syndrome and the inner critic.

Jen (00:13:25)
So Emily, I think listening to you speak, it really strikes me that we’re all in the same game in the sense that we are putting a whole lot of time into podcasts where we try and normalise experiences around the challenges of sort of being authentic as a researcher, for us, in particular scientists.
And you know, I think we’re all aware that it doesn’t necessarily come easily to be open about some of the challenges. You know, when you ask people how many of you feel like you’re the only person in the room who feels like an impostor? You know, and everyone puts their hand up and kind of looks around.
And we know that you know, we know impostor syndrome is rife. We know there’s this fear of being judged, which is also rife in academia. It’s very particular structure and set of conditions I guess we all, we all work in.
But we would all agree, and I imagine everyone would agree, that the more we talk about this, that the less people feel alone and the more people can thrive in their chosen careers, which is what we all want to have happen.
So I’m sort of curious about that process of you finding researchers who want to share their stories. And I mean I’m, I’m sure you have lots of people who love your podcast and they’re desperate to be part of it. But do you think there’s also another subset of people out there who listen thinking, Well yeah, those struggles are mine too, but I’m too scared to come forward and and speak about them openly?

Emily (00:14:38)
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s one thing that makes me a little bit sad as a producer of that podcast I think is that I will never really know the true impact of the podcast. But I don’t get to engage with all of the listeners and I, I can totally understand that people would want to just listen to this and absorb the information and, and use it to help them feel less alone, which really is one of the core goals of Voices of Academia.
We are providing a platform both in blog and podcast form for people to sort of come forward and tell their story. But it’s also about building community and normalising these difficult conversations, reducing stigma, helping people feel less alone, web building community by supporting people being vulnerable and telling their stories.
And certainly for me, I really had to go through a lot of reflection when I wrote that feature article for Lateral Magazine because that was an article about my relationship with antidepressants. I really had to think about do I want to be open about this? And I think a lot of questions that run through people’s minds when they’re considering being open is like, how is this going to impact me and how is it going to impact me negatively?
Like is this going to impact my reputation? Is it going to impact my future job opportunities? And all those thoughts did run through my mind but I ultimately decided that if a future employer was going to disregard me from a position because I had struggled with mental illness, then I didn’t really want to work for them anyway.

Jen (00:16:13)
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Emily (00:16:13)
And I know that’s you know it’s, it’s such a… I’m, I’m safe because I’m within a PhD program. I have a government stipend. You know, I have money constantly coming in.
Although not very much as we know, but you know, maybe I would have approached it differently if I had been in a role that I could have been fired from, or if I was closer to the stage of seeking out permanent employment. It might have been a completely different thought process for me.
But yeah I, I have people come forward to the podcast. I don’t really feel comfortable sort of approaching people to come on the podcast.

Emily (00:16:54)
I think I could do that. But I think because of the nature of the material, it’s quite important to have people choose to come forward. And so a big part you know, the process really is voluntary.
So people that listen to the podcast know that there’s a form that they can fill out to express their interest. They can sort of contact us through Twitter. We have a really big Twitter community @academicvoices if you want to check it out, special plug.
I mean really, it’s kind of mind blowing when you think about the fact that I’ve generally never met these people before and they’re willing to be open with me and and with a global audience about some of the most difficult periods of their life.
And so I, I have put a lot of thought into how do I make guests feel comfortable and safe in doing that. I make it very clear that I’m not a trained psychologist, I’m a researcher with lived experience of mental illness. I also make it clear that I, I don’t want them to discuss anything that they don’t feel comfortable discussing. They can stop the process at any time. And I realised actually people would really benefit from a bit of a vulnerability share on my part before then connecting with many.

Jen (00:18:06)
Yeah, for sure.

Emily (00:18:18)
So about a week out from the interview, I do send an email that sort of talks about how I got into mental health communication. And we’ve mentioned the feature article that I did for Lateral Magazine.
But I was also a part of Dr Zoë Ayres’s 100 Voices Project, which is a really fantastic initiative. She’s @ZJAyres on Twitter. But she is a fantastic mental health communicator, one of the cofounders of Voices of Academia.
But that was about producing little snapshots of of researchers, with a picture, sort of couple of lines of what their research is, a couple of lines of their mental health struggle, and then a couple of lines of advice that they would give to other people.
And she started off doing 100 of those. And then I’m pretty sure she’s done like two or three rounds of that because it’s been so popular. So that’s a big part of the process as well, me sharing to allow them the space to share.

Jen (00:19:02)
And Emily, what about follow up afterwards? I’m just imagining that I, I can absolutely understand that you do an amazing job of, of sharing yourself and helping your guests to feel safe and comfortable in, in a position that they can share.
But given the kind of stigma that that we’ve been talking about, I can imagine that some people would do an interview with you and then suffer this extreme what, what we call a vulnerability hangover and think, oh my goodness, you know, what have I just shared?
And actually, do I want my colleagues to hear this? Am I going to be judged? You know, maybe the culture that I work in isn’t as supportive and and safe and kind of gentle and loving as the space Emily just made for me.
Do you ever have people come back and say, “Actually, I’m not sure that I want you to share that?”

Emily (00:19:39)
Yeah, I do. It is a really tricky thing to navigate because you’re trying to run a podcast and you’re trying to meet deadlines and this is all a volunteer project. But at the same time I absolutely feel a duty of care. It’s, it’s really important to me that I make people feel safe and comfortable throughout the whole process.
If a guest decides that they want to stop the process at some time. I’m going to, I’m going to make that happen. I do, at the end of recorded interviews have a period of time, and actually in between the two parts of the interview we have a break as well.
And I’ll often check in with the person that I’m speaking to, particularly if we’ve gone quite deep. And then in terms of after recording, it’s… I guess it’s a little bit on a case by case basis, because sometimes I can tell that someone has really done a lot of work and come to terms with their story and they’re quite comfortable with sharing it and maybe they’ve done that through a number of different avenues already.
Whereas for other people, I guess it’s a little bit more new to them. I have now developed an extra part of the process, where I’ll run the episode description by the guest before it goes live and just check that they’re comfortable with it.
Sometimes during that process they will come back to me and say, “Well, like I’m, I’m feeling a little bit worried about what I said”. Sometimes that means that we edit out certain parts of the interview.

Michael (00:21:11)
Yeah. So it sounds like quite an understanding and, and flexible approach that you, that you take. And it’s yeah, as you say it’s kind of different on a, on a case-by-case basis. I think it’s great. You know, you’ve spoken to a lot of these scientists now.
I’m really curious to know what have you learned from from those conversations in terms of what would your advice be to someone who might be listening and maybe they’re thinking of starting a PhD or a career in science. What advice would you have for them to you know, how to look after themselves in the face of the many and varied challenges of academia?

Emily (00:21:40)
Save the hardest question for last Michael. Oh my gosh.

Jen (00:21:46)
That’s our job. Only the hard-hitting questions here.

Emily (00:21:51)
That’s a big one. So I think it’s important to, to clarify that the podcast really isn’t about solving academia. I don’t feel super comfortable about sharing widespread advice for people. I think there is research that has been done that, that’s really you know, helpful in that regard, in identifying some of the key issues within academia that can impact mental health and then, you know how you can perhaps go about resolving some of that.
I guess for me it you know, it’s it’s really my opinion. And again, that’s something that I try to make clear in the podcasting, but it’s, it’s not professional advice. It’s, it’s really just a lived experience and it’s opinions. So you sort of need to take it with a grain of salt, I guess. You know, some of these things will work for you, some things won’t. And it’s different for everyone.
I mean, I would love to say to go into academia and be as open as possible. And that you will find that people share these experiences and you will get support. But I… realistically, I don’t think we’re there yet. I think there’s communities to find that support, but I think it’s quite difficult to find it face to face.
So I guess my recommendation in that respect would be to join Twitter and become familiar with the hashtags, #academicmentalhealth and some accounts like @OpenAcademics and @PhD_Balance and @DragonflyMH.
You know, there’s quite a large community of global researchers that are supportive in this mental health academic space and are willing to talk about things and will be non-judgmental.
But I think, I mean ultimately it’s about learning about yourself and taking care of yourself and waiting until you’re comfortable to share because just opening up before you’re ready can definitely be detrimental because you never know how people are going to respond and sometimes it can send you backwards and it can be damaging.
So if you haven’t sort of come to a place of understanding with that and of acceptance of saying “OK, like that’s that person’s issue. That’s that person’s problem. That has nothing to do with me.” I think that’s an area where you need to be really careful.
So I’m not sure if I fully answered your question. That was probably a little bit of a tangent, but those are some thoughts that I have.

Michael (00:24:20)
No, no, that’s great, that’s great.
And so Emily from the, from the hard hitting questions, now moving on to the, to the less hard hitting questions.

Michael (00:24:36)
We’ve got some rapid-fire questions that we’d like to ask you now. These are just lighthearted. Don’t need to think about them too quickly.
But first question off the rank, Emily. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

Emily (00:24:54)
The two that are on my mind right now are data analyst and UX researcher.

Jen (00:24:56)
I love it. I love it. Well we, we can follow your career and see which of the many multifaceted possibilities become true down the track.
But Emily so far, what has been your proudest professional moment?

Emily (00:25:09)
Oh my gosh. I have said to a few people recently and I know this sounds terrible, but I think at the end of my PhD I’m going to be more proud of this #academicmentalhealth podcast than of the, the scientific work that I have produced. I think this is something that has a lot of meaning to me. And that’s something that I was lacking with my, my PhD, so that’s probably it.

Jen (00:25:38)
Yeah well we, we talk all the time about influence and impact. And without denigrating your research or your PhD for a millisecond, you know this, this podcast has huge impact and huge reach, so I can totally understand that.

Michael (00:25:50)
Yeah, no, that’s fantastic.
Twitter or Instagram Emily and why?

Emily (00:25:55)
Ooh, look, with the audience, I would absolutely say Twitter. I would not have gotten to the level of comfort that I have with sharing my own mental health story if it wasn’t for Twitter. So that’s the one for me.

Jen (00:26:09)
Excellent. Next question.
Your favourite science-related joke or movie or book?

Emily (00:26:20)
Oh, no.

Michael (00:26:21)
And extra points if you go for the joke.

Emily (00:26:23)
I’m not a funny person. I’m a serious person. I take things way too seriously.
First thing that is coming to mind is a researcher called Ocean Ramsey. She’s an ocean conservationist. She works a lot with sharks. And she’s got a book about understanding the behaviour of sharks. She’s been working with them since she was a toddler. And she’s learnt to understand a lot of their different behaviours and how we as humans often misinterpret those behaviours, and how we can learn to actually swim safely or more safely in an environment that really belongs to sharks.
So I’m a beach bum, an absolute ocean lover. It’s my favourite place in the world. So that, that’s a really special message I think.

Michael (00:27:13)
Hmm, that’s great. It is. So Emily, last question. You’ve done a fair bit of story telling yourself and you’ve facilitated a lot of other scientists to tell stories. I’m curious to know whether you’ve got a, a top tip for storytelling.

Emily (00:27:26)
When you’re in conversation with people, I think the best way to get them to sort of share their story, aside from asking open-ended questions, I think is really just learning to be silent. And learning to listen. And create that space to allow that person to sort of open up.
So many times on the podcast I’ve asked a single question and it sort of led the guests to go back, go back many many many years. And you can sort of just tell that they’re, they’re kind of back in that moment that they were in and they’re telling their story from there because there’s no interruptions around them. I’m not prompting them with any extra questions. It’s really just flowing naturally from their memory.
So I think that’s a really good way of allowing someone a platform and space to sort of tell the story that they want to tell. And honestly, everyone has a story. So it’s yeah, it’s fascinating to see those come out.

Michael (00:28:34)
Yeah ’cause so often communication is a, is a two-way street and the listening can be just as important and sometimes forgotten. So I think that’s great advice.
Fantastic. Emily, that was wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and I think that was a really valuable discussion. So much appreciated.

Emily (00:28:49)
Thanks so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed this. I was looking forward to it and I’ve enjoyed it the whole way through. Hopefully I don’t have a vulnerability hangover afterwards.

Jen (00:29:00)
And to everyone listening, all of the various links and articles and podcasts and Twitter accounts and everything that Emily’s mentioned, we’ll obviously add to our show notes. So just head there so that you can join in this really important conversation.
Thank you for the work you do Emily. We’re big big big supporters of helping people to thrive in their chosen, chosen areas of research and study. And I think mental health is just probably the the top thing that isn’t spoken about enough. So thank you.

Michael (00:29:53)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners for your support.
If you are enjoying these episodes, you can help spread the word by telling a friend about Let’s Talk SciComm or even sharing one of our episodes.
But that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your feed next Tuesday. See you then.