Episode 43 – Interview with science educator Dr Jarrod McKenna
This week we had a lot of fun chatting with, and learning from, Dr Jarrod McKenna. Jarrod is a reproductive biologist turned zookeeper turned science educator and has had quite a mixture of jobs. As a PhD student at Monash University, he investigated early pregnancy and assisted reproduction in the world’s only known menstruating rodent: The Egyptian Spiny Mouse. He then went on to work as a zookeeper at Zoos Victoria and as the Communications Officer at the National Youth Science Forum. These days he works as an Outreach Program Coordinator in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne, working to engage early high school students in STEM. But science communication has always been at the heart of his work – whether he knew it or not – which led him down an incredibly rewarding track celebrating science and encouraging others to see how amazing and fun science can be.
You can follow Jarrod and learn more about his work here:
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.
Hello everybody. I am so pleased to welcome you to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm and of course I am so pleased as always to be joined by you Michael. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m doing good today. Very excited for today’s episode.
Well we’ve got another huge treat in store. I’m super excited to introduce you to today’s guest. There are many ways I could introduce today’s guest. We were just talking before we started recording about donkey IVF but we’ll come to that soon.
Dr Jarrod McKenna is a reproductive biologist, a STEM educator, a science communicator. And we’ve known of each other for a long time. We’ve interacted online, I’ve been admiring Jarrod’s SciComm work from, from a bit of a distance for a while now. But we finally got to meet in person a few weeks ago and I’m really thrilled that as a result I’ve been able to entice you to come onto the podcast Jarrod. So thank you and welcome.
Thank you for inviting me. It’s, I’ve been a long time listener, first time guest. So happy to be here.
No, it’s great to have you, Jarrod and I, we were just saying before we started recording that I feel like I know you already just through admiring you from a distance. So now I’m admiring you up close.
Not that that’s creepy…
In a non creepy way of course.
I don’t want to make you nervous.
You haven’t been watching me from a distance. Yeah.
I feel like there’s some definite creepiness going on here but we’ll, we’ll move right along shall we?
So Jarrod you’ve already had a really very diverse career which is one of the reasons we’re so excited to speak with you. You’ve had lots of experience communicating different kinds of science to all different kinds of people and I know that like me you’ve had a passion for animals and nature that started very very early.
I also discovered in my sleuthing that you’re a big fan of the Magic School Bus so hello to all the fellow Miss Frizzle fans out there. You know if you know right?
So Jarrod’s worked in zoos both here in Melbourne and also in Singapore and for many years he dreamed of being a bit of a cross between Bill Nye and David Attenborough. So I think the vision was him traveling around the world saving animals all while wearing a bow tie.
And Jarrod I know along the way you did a PhD looking at the reproductive biology of the world’s only menstruating rodent. Who knew? The Egyptian spiny mouse.
So obviously we’re going to come back to some of this Jarrod. But I guess in a story that’s extremely familiar to me over time, you kind of realize that actually, you didn’t necessarily want to be the scientist in the lab doing the work. What you loved most was communicating that science to other people.
So for our listeners, you may have heard Jarrod on the radio or on a number of different podcasts. You might have seen him on TV or read his writing. One of the easiest ways to catch up on his work is to go to thesimplescience.com.
And Jarrod, I was having a good look through your website yesterday and one of the things that you say there which I really liked and it really rang true to me was “I’m not here to toot my own horn. I’m here to toot the horn of others and celebrate the amazing scientific discoveries that are being made every day but that aren’t being communicated well enough or at all”. And I just thought you know, hear hear. You’re talking my language.
Yes, I mean SciComm is such an amazing thing that so many researchers and scientists aren’t taught how to do or aren’t encouraged to do in different methods or through different media.
So it’s a passion of mine to yeah, toot the horn of others, you know, that can’t toot it for themselves or for other people that haven’t heard about their work which is fascinating and I believe that they should hear about it.
The more research that comes out the more I want to talk about it. So hopefully this is going to be a long lasting career of mine.
I don’t think the science itself is ever going to run out so I think you’re probably pretty safe. But look, we know that you have listened to our podcast before. We’re super grateful for your support so you’re not going to be at all surprised then that we are keen to hear a little bit about your early days.
You know, you’ve talked about this love of nature and animals and how that led you into doing your own research in that field. But we’d love to hear a bit about some of the experiences that led you into science in the first place.
So I lived in New Zealand until I was nine years old and then moved to Singapore in that same year and I actually spent more time in Singapore than I did in New Zealand. So nine years in New Zealand and ten years in Singapore.
So I’m a bit of a phony. But yes, Singapore was, was incredible. And like you said, I’ve always had that fascination for nature and particularly for animals. Always wanted to be a vet. Every opportunity that I got, I wanted to work with animals.
And it was definitely the end goal. You know, I did all the subjects that I could in high school to get me into a science degree so that I could become the vet. I could become Chris Brown or David Attenborough or a combination of everybody you know, throw Bill Nye in there.
At uni at the, in my undergrad at Melbourne Uni I sort of discovered along the way that other areas of science are also incredibly interesting. It’s not just veterinary science. I can be other things.
So I told myself to be more open minded and that’s what led me to changing my major four times which you know, has pros and cons of course. I’m not going to encourage everybody to change their major as much as I do but I will encourage you to shop around.
You’re going to have to tell us what the four majors were now. You can’t just throw that out there.
So,I started with the veterinary bioscience and then it went to anatomy and then two different physiology majors essentially, or one physiology and one that was sort of tangentially related to that that was going to lead me to physio and then neuroscience. So completely out of left field neuroscience, completely unrelated to the other three but I loved it and it was really really exciting to me. And yeah, so that was my undergrad experience anyway.
And then of course if I changed four times during my undergrad I had to change again during my postgrad. So it’s only natural of course for me not to make up my mind. But anyway, I took a breadth subject and I believe it was called Sex: Science and the Community and it was absolutely fascinating, how sex and sexuality interacted with what are the science field but also in society and how the two combined and how we look at it, how we teach it, how it’s framed.
I found that absolutely incredible, which led me then to jump ship from Melbourne Uni to go to Monash University. And did a graduate diploma in reproductive sciences which basically locked me into this field.
So no more neuroscience, no more physiology, no more anatomy, no more vet science. So I’ve locked in, I finally made my decision. It took me five years but I got there. And that is sort of where I embellished that love for reproduction and reproductive biology essentially so…
Jarrod, I’m curious. I’m always curious actually to ask about how people land on a specific PhD topic because a lot of the time PhD topics can be really specific but sometimes they can also be specific and a little bit bizarre as well. And I think that is really interesting.
And so in your case your PhD you focused on studying the Egyptian spiny mouse which is the only menstruating mouse I believe. So yeah, I mean, there’s actually so many questions I want to ask you about this menstruating mouse.
But how did you decide to dedicate four years of your life to studying this?
An incredible, incredible species. And yes, they’re the only menstruating rodent that we know of in the world. So incredibly rare, incredible species that we have at our hands.
So the way that I sort of stumbled upon that was… It was actually very fortuitous that our lab, students in our lab, I think she was only a year or two ahead of me actually discovered this, doing her own PhD.
And I did actually go to my supervisor at the time. I actually pitched a completely different idea. I was actually going to do surrogacy in wombats. That was the original plan. And he said, “OK, that sounds great, but how about this?”
And then I was like, “Oh wow. OK, that’s pretty amazing. That’s pretty incredible. I could probably see myself doing that”. Learning a little bit more about it, just basically locked it in there. I love the idea of it. I loved its potential. And, and yeah, it’s sort of fascinating. So I decided to lock in four years of my life to learn a little bit more about them.
But tell us, for anyone who doesn’t have any biology background or reproductive biology background why is it so special and interesting and useful to study a menstruating rodent. ‘Cause someone’s like, an Egyptian spiny mouse, who cares? They live in Egypt, what’s the point?
Well believe it or not menstruation in nature is incredibly incredibly rare. So less than two percent of all mammals in the world which are about five and a half thousand give or take ten or so.
And the majority of those species are the higher order primates. And by that I mean gorillas, humans, baboons and really large difficult animals to work with essentially.
So discovering that now we have this mouse that has a menstrual cycle, we can take those benefits of running a mouse colony. You know, they’re cheap and easy to use and easier to work with than a gorilla believe it or not, who would have thought?
That we can actually now learn a lot more hopefully about menstruation and human-like menstruation I should say as well because a lot of the species that do have a menstrual cycle isn’t exactly human-like. They have their sort of own version of it.
So of course we can take a lot of learnings from that. But because this mouse also hasa human-like menstruation, it’s even more rare and even more valuable to us. So we’ve gota cheap small animal model of female reproduction at our fingertips here. So incredibly valuable.
Well, well explained Jarrod. Now we’re like Oh yeah, we get it. We should all care about Egyptian spiny mice. That’s excellent.
And they’re adorable as well.
Well, that always helps. So Jarrod, you said that one of your favourite parts of science communication is seeing that lightbulb moment when somebody just suddenly understands something completely new, particularly if that was something that was really foreign to them prior to understanding it.
Can you remember the first time you ever had that experience as a communicator of thinking Wow, I’ve really helped, helped somebody to see the world differently?
Ah, my goodness, the first time? First time would be tricky to identify but it happened… But I definitely remember a lot during my time at Melbourne Zoo that I can remember because working with primates was my sort of area that I worked at at the zoo.
So a lot of people had a lot of questions about how related we are to the gorillas that we worked with. Telling people that we have shared 98 or, to 99% of our DNA with gorillas and you know, just one and a bit percent makes us a gorilla is incredible.
And you could even go the other way, other end of it and say that we share 50% of our DNA with bananas. So genetics is very interesting. How can half of us be a banana is something that a lot of people go away with their heads scratching.
But along that conversation that we, we you know, I talk about you know, how those genes are expressed and why we shared some of that same DNA. So that’s something that kind of sticks out in my mind. You know similarities between us and bananas and gorillas is something that I often brought up when I’m talking to the guests.
I feel like I shouldn’t have that banana for lunch now. I feel, it feels wrong.
Too related now.
There was another time that I can vividly remember that… It’s a lot, a lot of animal-based facts. You know, this is, this is my passion right? This is, this is something I spoke about a lot.
A lot of the lemur facts that that we spoke about. You know, they’ve got two tongues. Why would an animal have two tongues? One for grooming and one for eating. One small…
Yep, they’ve got two tongues. One is a bit more like a shovel, like a spade. So that it can scoop up all the, all the, all the good bugs and insects that are on their fur and eat them. And the other one is…
What if it forgets and it uses the wrong tongue?
There’s… I just… So many complications with this. I had no idea.
That’s a good question, actually. I’ve never been asked that one.
Ahh, good question Michael.
If I had two tongues, yeah I’d probably get mixed up. You know, especially if it was before coffee.
I’d use my, I’d use my insect tongue for my banana and it’d be ruined.
Yes, only a couple sips into the coffee and using the wrong tongue. Yep, yep, now I can see that happening. But yeah, I mean talking about the menstruating mouse, that’s something that almost everybody can understand and relate to.
You know, a lot of people think that their dog has a menstrual cycle because they see their dog when they come on heat they, they often bleed from their vulva. So explaining that that’s not a menstrual cycle and explaining that this is what one is actually and how rare and how important the spiny mouse is.
You know, I’ve tooted, that’s, that’s when I toot my own horn a little bit and toot my own research research horn. So that is, that is definitely one that I’ve spoken about a lot and gets the most sort of Wow you know, light bulb moments I think.
I really want to ask you about what it’s, what your experience has been like explaining about these facts about menstruation because it’s not a taboo topic but it’s not something that we often talk about.
And you know, I’m just imagining I guess everyone gets asked this question you know, when you’re at a barbecue or a social gathering. “So what do you do?” and you know, naturally you’ve probably spoken about menstruation.
Yeah, what’s that experience like? I mean, is it a bit challenging and and what, what’s it especially like being a, a man talking about this kind of stuff?
Yeah, it is something that I have thought a lot about myself ’cause I don’t want to come in there and and mansplain something to people. You know, obviously, I don’t, I don’t experience this. I don’t have a menstrual cycle.
But going in there and explaining menstrual cycles to people that do have them can be a little bit tricky to do and, and can be I… If I don’t do it correctly, it can be seen in the wrong way and I can deliver it the wrong way.
Yes, it does come up at barbecues. It does come up at New Year’s Eve parties. I have been, have been known to bring it up in weird situations like that. But yeah, I mean, that’s where those science communication skills come in really, really handy.
Because after doing it for so long and practicing it outside of doing things like academic conferences and actually talking to normal people that don’t do science, using those skills that I’ve developed becomes a lot easier. And I can sort of tailor the content and tailor how much information I give and to what detail to my audience, which is really really important, especially with something like menstruation, when it’s something that I don’t experience and don’t understand firsthand.
So there, there have been times where it has been taken badly because probably I’ve delivered it badly. But generally I find that people are quite receptive because it is so interesting when you, when you do explain things like It is this rare and this is why we can’t study it. And this was why we’ve got the spiny mouse now.
You know, if you build a narrative and build a story, it’s a lot easier to be understood, and it’s a lot easier for people to be receptive to it in that way I think.
Yeah. Yeah and I guess it’s the, the same things that maybe make it a little bit challenging to communicate about that, the same things that just make it so fascinating to actually study.
And you know, you’re obviously an expert on it. So and you do a very good job. I’m… there’s so many more questions I want to ask you about that. I just think it’s great.
Can’t remember at the time if it was, I wrote it first or my friend wrote their first, I think it was them. But they wrote a piece for The Conversation. And and so did I about the menstruating mouse after one of my papers.
And that sort of kickstarted that love for condensing that complex, really really complex scientific techniques and understandings and results to a more wider audience. That was, that sort of kick started me for my writing, anyway. And once I started writing, I started exploring everything else. The podcast, the radio, the TV. Here I am now so… Here we are.
So I’m really interested to, to pursue that more, Jarrod. So once you’d sort of made that decision, that switch if you like and said “Nah, the communications where my heart is rather than being the researcher”. What are some of the ways that you did develop your skills?
Because, I mean, you’ve worked with lots of different organisations. I know you were the communication officer for the National Youth Science Forum. You’ve done a lot of work with Pint of Science. There’s a whole lot of organisations. You’ve done freelance communication work.
You know, once you sort of made that switch, obviously you already knew you had an interest. You’d already identified that you had some skills. But did you sort of proactively go out and say, “Ooh, if I want to be a science communicator, I better learn how to do X”? Or did you just kind of do fun stuff and pick things up along the way?
Bit of column A, bit of column B. So it was one of those things where I had to be proactive and I just had to sort of start doing it myself. I just reached out to blogs. I think my first blog piece was for Remember the Wild. And and yep, and they are fantastic. And I wrote about koalas and IVF and how it can help after the bushfires and things like that.
I did have to be proactive and look for different areas to sort of grow my skills. And after writing for a couple of blogs, I decided to make my own blog, my website, where I could collect everything together and I could sort of hone in on my writing technique and sort of understand or define the audience that I’m, that I’m after, what my audience was. So my blog I think really helped with that.
And I also at the same time wanted to explore different, different media of communication. So I explored podcasts and that was fantastic as well. I love, love podcasts, which is you know, part of the reason why I’m here as well.
So Jarrod, what’s your favourite medium of communication then? Do you have, do you have a favourite?
Oh I mean, favourite would be hard to lock down. I mean, I do definitely want to do more TV sort of stuff now I’ve, now I’ve scratched that itch, right? Like now I, now I want to open more TV doors.
But I do really love podcast and radio. I love actually talking about the science. I feel like it’s a bit more personal. And I feel like I can just explain it better when I’m either talking to someone or I’m looking at someone, interacting with them. I feel like I can get through to them.
Well, you’re definitely getting through to us. Isn’t he Michael? So you know, clearly winning.
When you’re communicating about something that you’re really passionate about, but you’re also educating students and getting them passionate about it. You know that’s, that is a wonderful experience.
You know, so you, you’re obviously well placed to give great advice. If you were able to go back in time, and if you were to go back in time and talk to yourself as an undergrad student with everything that you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
What advice would that I give myself? The old time machine question. It would definitely be to look into science communication more. I think starting earlier would have helped me as well. You know, maybe I would have been able to hone my craft a little bit more early, a little bit earlier, but also to try and encourage others to do the same thing.
Because I do do a little bit of that in my day job. You know, I feel like I’ve got the science communication skills, that I can help them develop themselves as well. So if I started earlier, I think I could help more people, help others. So I can sort of be the first step in that, in that training, training block I guess.
I would say drop anatomy as well. Anatomy was very hard. Liked it but very hard. But I think it would be start writing and start talking to people even earlier. You don’t have to be an absolute professor, expert in a field to talk about science. You just need to be able to research it correctly and be able to talk about it effectively as well. So I think maybe look into science communication education a bit earlier was, is what I would tell young Jarrod.
Yeah, oh that’s, that’s great advice. And you know, sometimes you do have to try things before you realise that maybe it’s not for me and that anatomy… I mean, it sounds fascinating, but I can imagine it’s very difficult as well.
Now, I’m sorry to let you know, but there’s something that’s going to be even more difficult than anatomy coming up next. These are our rapid fire questions, Jarrod.
So you know, the pressure is on.
We have come to that time in the podcast. So what I would like to ask first is if you have to pick an alternative career trajectory to the one you’ve just described, what would it be?
Well, I think I would be a science teacher. I think I would love it. Yeah, I think if I got a Masters in Teaching or whatever it is, then I think that would be a great career for me too.
It’s never too late Jarrod. Never too late.
Never too late. There’s a lot of things on my radar.
OK, question number 2. What is your proudest professional moment?
Proudest moment would probably be seeing the culmination of all of my science communication end up with me being on TV. I think that was, that was really really awesome. I loved it. Want to do more of it and really proud of the work that I, that I laid down to, to get me there.
Yeah. Well, what a great experience as well. You know, that’s… it’s probably something that a lot of people find daunting. But great that you’ve gotten that experience and you’re hungry for more.
Yes, definitely hungry for more. So if anybody’s listening…
All the A list celebs who listen to our podcast. They’ll, they’ll, they’ll be coming, running towards you now.
Yeah. And we were saying at the start of the episode Jarrod that I do feel like I know you from social media, particularly Twitter. And I’m curious to know whether you actually prefer Twitter or Instagram and why?
Yes it, it depends on what audience I’m trying to reach. So…
Ooh, that’s a good answer.
That’s… Yeah, I mean at Twitter and Instagram have very different audiences. Twitter, I am sort of preaching to the choir a little bit. I’m preaching to academics that are already within the field.
But if I’m trying to reach you know, non academics, non scientists, then I’m definitely going for, for Instagram. So depending on the audience, depending on the day.
Spoken as a true communication expert, “it depends”.
It depends, no direct answer.
OK Jarrod, what’s your favourite science related movie or book or joke?
Movie, gotta be Interstellar.
Oh yeah. Great movie.
I think that movie was fantastic, fantastic and very, very well researched as well. They had a great team of academics and scientists behind them the entire way. So everything that was in that movie was basically the pinnacle of you know, physics understanding at that time. So Interstellar.
What a great choice.
Everything I know about physics came from that movie.
I know nothing about physics except what I learned in Interstellar. So lucky it’s accurate.
Yes, yes. Thankfully it is that scene. You know, going into the black hole. And once that, once he’s in the black hole. You know, that is absolutely a potential thing that could happen based on what we know. So incredible. Yeah.
It’s really important for me to you know that, that movies are either realistic, like this could actually happen or if they’re not going to be realistic, I want it to be like just completely false and ridiculous. So it’s either one end of the spectrum or the other. You don’t want something that’s a bit you know, wishy washy in between, so…
Yes, exactly. And a close second would be Don’t Look Up with, with DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.
It’s a satirical take on science communication, yeah.
Oh yeah, yeah. Have you seen that movie, Jen? That’s, that’s a, that’s a yeah, that’s a really interesting movie from a science communication perspective.
Yeah. It’s pretty, pretty depressing really.
Depressing but realistic as well.
100%, which is why it’s depressing, because it’s realistic.
Which is why it’s depressing, yes.
So Jarrod, you probably know that the last question I’m going to ask you is what is your top tip for effective science communication? A real tough one, so I’m sorry about that.
Yes, so many tips to give but I mean, I sort of alluded to it throughout this I think. It’s you’ve got to know your audience. Because that is going to be so critical and pivotal into what you’re going to communicate and how you’re going to communicate it.
So you know, on Twitter, you can use those, those bigger words and you can provide a link, direct links to research papers that people can read themselves. But if I am going to a platform like Facebook or Instagram where the, the audience is so much more broad and diverse, you’ve really got to tailor your content to that audience and what they, what they want and what they’re actually going to be able to understand and take away.
You know, how does this affect my life? Often we forget that in academia. You know, here’s a paper. We are done. And here’s the results. There’s a lot of missed implications and future implications and future work to be done.
Whereas I feel like the general, I say the general public. What is the general public? But the non, the non-academics generally want to know what’s the point in this? You know, why do I need to know? Why has there been money that’s put into this? So very important to know your audience. I think that would be my top tip.
Couldn’t agree more. I think today Jarrod, you’ve given heaps of useful advice and it’s been really interesting to hear about your journey.
And I hope that the other piece of advice you would have given your undergraduate self as we handed you a, the key to our time machine would be you know just, just keep following your passion. It’s fine to jump around. Just keep following what it is that, that really makes you get out, up out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step because you will eventually get to the place where you just love what you do.
And, and look at you now. You found those things and you wouldn’t be such a good science communicator had you not had that diverse background. I think those two things actually go really well together.
Yep, absolutely, absolutely. I gave a talk to the NYSF cohort this year that was titled Take the Windy Path. So exactly that. Yes, follow your passions and eventually you will find what you love.
Yeah, good advice.
Well, I’m very glad your windy path brought you to us today Jarrod.
It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you.
Our, our Twitter friend who now we can claim is our real life friend Michael.
We’ve got a new friend. Yay!
Blossomed into a real friendship. How about that?
Yeah. So great to have you on the podcast Jarrod. And I am going to go down a rabbit hole or maybe I should call it a mouse hole and I’m going to be looking up more about this spiny Egyptian mouse, the Egyptian spiny mouse after this. So I’ll have plenty of questions for you when, next time I see you.
I’ll be here.
Thanks, Jarrod. See ya.
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