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Only Human

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Podcast Overview

Only Human is a show about health that we all can relate to. Because every body has a story.

Podcast Episodes

The Birth of Climate Change Denial

In this special episode of Only Human, we partnered with the folks at WNYC's podcast The United States of Anxiety, hosted by Kai Wright.

Starting with the 1925 Scopes Trial — also known as the "trial of the century" — we look at one of the most controversial topics in our time: the debate over evolution versus a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

It started with a substitute teacher in Tennessee who taught evolution in the classroom. What followed was a fiery debate that rocketed around the world.

The Scopes Trial reminds us that science has often upset the establishment. 

Attorney William Jennings Bryan sits behind the microphone, in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, during a radio broadcast of the landmark "Monkey Trial" of John Thomas Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., July 15, 1925. The controversial trial between religion and state determined how evolution would be taught in schools. Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined.
(Associated Press)

Then we turn to another controversy: doubt around the whole idea of climate change. And we go to that day in 1988 when NASA scientist James Hansen warned a congressional committee that climate change was real. Back then, Republican President George H.W. Bush touted himself as being pro-environment.

“I’m an environmentalist... And I always will be," he said. "And that is not inconsistent with being a businessman. Nor is it with being a conservative.” 

Today, President Donald Trump considers climate change a "hoax" and is considering withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. It's a radical change in 25 years. We'll tell you how we got there.

Episode Contributors:

Kai Wright

Amanda Aronczyk

Elaine Chen

Karen Frillmann

Jillian Weinberger

Subscribe to the United States of Anxiety podcast on iTunes.

“I Got Indian in My Family”: An Another Round Takeover

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Tracy Clayton always heard that her ancestors were, in her mother's words, "black, white and American Indian." Like many black Americans, her immediate family didn't have exact information on their roots — that heritage is difficult to trace through ancestors forced into the American slave trade. What little information Tracy's family might have had was lost in a courthouse fire.

Tracy says she didn't think about her ancestry very often until she moved to New York City, where she's the co-host, with Heben Nigatu, of the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round. New Yorkers, Tracy noticed, take pride in their ethnic identity. A number of her friends hang flags in their window, or march in pride parades based on their country of origin.

"Which parade do I go to? What flag do I put in my window?" she wondered. She enlisted Only Human to help her figure it out.

With the help of DNA ancestry tests and experts on DNA and race, Tracy explores her own ethnic background. She accidentally upends her family lore — it turns out her she has very little Native American ancestry — and she also discovers why the mix of "black, white and American Indian" is such a common heritage myth among black Americans.

In the end, Tracy finds her flag, and discovers that her ethnic identity is more complex than she originally thought. The data revealed by DNA ancestry tests complicates the way she thinks about herself and her family's history, but she also realizes that these tests don't hold all the secrets to understanding ourselves and our heritage. The stories passed down over generations can be just as integral to the way we think about ourselves in the modern world.

Trans Kids Update: Dating, PMS, And, Yeah, Bathrooms

Last year, North Carolina passed HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill,” banning anyone from using a public restroom that didn’t match up with his or her biological sex.  

After the law passed, we went to North Carolina to visit one of the few gender clinics for kids in the South, at Duke University's Children's Hospital. We spent a day-in-the-life there, learning how patients and doctors juggle big physical changes and political changes too.

Since our story last August, things have not calmed down. President Trump has canceled some key protections for trans students. This year, sixteen more states including Texas have introduced their own bathroom bills. And in a controversial decision last week, North Carolina lawmakers revoked HB2 — though trans activists called their replacement bill a bad deal.

So with all this happening, we decided to catch up with the three kids we met last summer — Drew, Martin, and Jaye — and see how their lives and their bodies have changed. We start by going back to our first episode, when each of them was just beginning hormone therapy prescribed by Dr. Deanna Adkins, the pediatric endocrinologist who started Duke’s transgender clinic two years ago.

Then, we reconnect with Drew, Jaye, and Martin one more time. We talk about the joys (and pitfalls) of dating online, how their bodies are changing, and how they’re doing under President Trump.

Jaye (at left) and some Instagram posts from Drew Adams, pictured with his partner, CJ. (Courtesy of Jaye and Drew Adams)

 

Flu-dunnit?

Last fall, a bunch of us got sick at the same time, and it seemed likely that the virus spread at the workplace. The question came up: who came to work sick? Or to put it another way: who was to blame for this office outbreak?

To find out, we partnered with NYU Tandon School of Engineering Assistant Professor, Rumi Chunara, who runs the goVIRAL research project, and Jeffrey Shaman, an expert in flu forecasting at Columbia University. His group is currently working on an extensive respiratory virus sampling project in New York entitled "The Virome of Manhattan" with the American Museum of Natural History.

They helped us design a project looking at how respiratory illnesses spread in our workplace community. Once a week for ten weeks we swabbed our noses and sent the samples to a lab at Columbia where they could determine (if we were sick) what kind of respiratory infection we had caught.

We also filled in bi-weekly symptom reports. Some of the questions were benign: do you have a fever? Others were more accusatory: who do you think got you sick?  

The entire experiment was a whodunnit. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a flu-dunnit. But sometimes messing with what usually lies below the surface can have unexpected side effects. Flu-dunnit changed our office dynamic. Accusations started to fly, as our scientist sleuths discovered who were the victims -- and who was the perpetrator.

Just Put Some Vicks On It

When scientist Rachel Herz decided to study the connection between smell and memory, she chose five products emblematic of childhood: Coppertone suntan lotion, Crayola crayons, Play-Doh, Johnson & Johnson baby powder and Vicks Vaporub.

She studies the science of what’s called the Proustian phenomenon. The French novelist Marcel Proust writes about dipping a madeleine cookie into a cup of linden tea and the aroma immediately bringing him back to a long-lost memory.

Producer Julia Longoria has always had that relationship with Vicks Vaporub — the scent transports her right back to childhood, to days in bed with the flu at her grandmother’s house in South Florida. Julia and her cousins all knew not to tell grandma when they were sick, or they’d risk being slathered with "Vickicito".

Julia never had a reason to wonder why grandma loved Vicks so much, but this week’s episode reveals grandma’s love for the product is deeper than Julia imagined. And while investigating grandma’s (and the world’s) Vicks obsession, Julia is pulled into her family’s past, back to Cuba, before the Revolution.

A Three Year-Old Girl, a Colony of Dogs, and One Very Rare Side Effect

When Mathilda Crisp was about three years-old, she stopped sleeping through the night. But during the day, she would fall asleep without warning — during a swim lesson, in the middle of her cereal bowl at breakfast.

Then other, stranger symptoms started materializing: when she got happy or emotional, she would suddenly collapse. (Her brother and sister started carrying her around the house on a chair so she could keep playing in their games.) She would thrust her tongue around her mouth. She couldn’t seem to walk in a straight line.

At first her doctors were sure she had a brain tumor. But her scans were negative. They tested her for leukemia, Lyme disease. Nothing. But when one doctor finally did diagnose Mathilda, it turned out to be just the beginning of an even bigger mystery: of why this little girl — and a handful of other kids in Northern Europe — had suddenly been struck ill. Trying to solve it has become one doctor’s life’s work.

Also check out:

  • Mathilda’s mom has written a book about her experience. You can read an exclusive excerpt from it, or check it out on Kindle.
  • Dr. Emmanuel Mignot is a key player in this story. He first got media attention for his colony of narcoleptic dogs. Check them out.
  • While researching this story, Mary learned a lot about the flu vaccine. Here are her top five takeaways. 

The Woman Behind a Secret Grey's Anatomy Experiment

About nine years ago, 17.5 million people tuned into an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that, on the surface, appeared like any other — high-stakes surgery, high-drama love triangles. What those millions of Grey’s viewers didn’t know was that they were guinea pigs for a massive, secret experiment.

That experiment was arguably a referendum about a single woman: Jennifer Jako, and her decision to become a mother.

In 1991, at the age of 18, Jako had a one night stand with a high-school friend. It was the only time she’d ever had sex without a condom. She contracted HIV and spent years trying to debunk misconceptions: producing a documentary that aired on MTV, speaking at college campuses and on talk shows.

Over time, the country’s view of HIV evolved. As people started living longer, stigma decreased. People generally understood that the infection wasn’t a death sentence any longer.

But there was one area people couldn’t seem to understand: Pregnancy. Studies showed the general public simply didn’t know — or didn’t believe — that an HIV-positive woman, with the right treatment, had a tremendously low chance of passing the virus onto her baby — less than 2-percent at the time.

Jennifer Jako got a cruel lesson in where the public stood when she appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, six months pregnant.

Later, as an experiment, the Kaiser Family Foundation decided to see if they could move the needle by trying something totally different: product placement of medical information in a Grey’s Anatomy episode.

In this episode of Only Human we tell the epic story of Jennifer Jako and how she managed to sneak into our livings rooms and, possibly, change public opinion forever.

The Crowd Made You Do It

*** Check out the results from our Group Think survey here ***

Who knew counting a crowd would be so… political? If the election felt contentious, the inauguration seemed to make the country even more divided, between "us" and "them."

After crowds gathered on the Washington Mall for President Trump's inauguration and the Women’s March the following day, Only Human looks at what happens to us as individuals when we become part of a crowd. We look at the crowd psychology behind Donald Trump’s rallies, the crowd dynamics in anti-Trump protests, and ways to stay safe in a crowd.

Here's a video of tips from a crowd management expert we spoke to, Paul Wertheimer.

 

 Animation by Nate Milton

We're Back!

Only Human is working on an episode about the psychology of crowds. We're looking at what happens to us as individuals when we join a rally, a ceremony or a protest -- such as inauguration, or the Women’s March on Washington.

And we need your help!

This survey will help us understand what kind of effect these events might have on us, whether you're attending in person or watching from home. It should just take a couple minutes. Thank you!

Please Spit in This Tube: An Election Experiment

Every day another article comes out about how voters are stressed by this election. But we wanted to know: what is the election doing to our biology?

The American Psychological Association recently found that more than half of all Americans — 52 percent — say this year’s presidential election is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress in their lives. The survey was self-reported, meaning respondents answered a few questions online and the APA took their self-assessments at face value. Anecdotally, those assessments probably ring true for many of us, but it turns out there’s a way to measure the physiological effects of election stress.  

Over the last few years, a group of neuroscientists and political scientists have pioneered a new field called biopolitics, the study of biology and political behavior. Professor Kevin Smith is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of the book, "Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.” He often collaborates with Dr. Jeffrey French, who runs a lab at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and studies cortisol, a hormone we release when we’re stressed.  

One of Smith and French’s recent studies looked at stress and voting. They wanted to know if cortisol levels influence whether people vote. The easiest way to test cortisol is through saliva, so they collected spit samples from a bunch of participants and got their official voting records for the past six elections.

The researchers found that people with higher cortisol levels vote less. And that finding correlates with another one of their studies, which found that people who voted absentee experienced less stress than people who went to the polls.

So we asked French and Smith to help us design an experiment of sorts. We’d use the presidential debates as a proxy for the election. Our team would go to debate watch parties and collect saliva samples from viewers to measure their cortisol levels. We’d also ask the participants to fill out a survey about themselves: their party affiliation, age and self-reported stress level. And we’d see who had the biggest changes in their cortisol over the course of the debate.

During the first two presidential debates, we went to watch parties in Times Square, Midtown Manhattan and Northern New Jersey. Participants spat three times into tiny tubes: before the debate, to get a baseline sample, midway through the debate and after the debate.

We over-nighted the samples to Omaha, where Dr. French processed them in his lab. A few weeks later, he had the results.

We all agreed that the debate watch parties seemed stressful. At a bar in Times Square, we talked to young Republicans unhappy with their nominee and worried about their party’s future. Others were terrified at the prospect of a Clinton presidency. In Midtown, a group of Democrats had gathered to watch at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank. A few of them brought their own alcohol, to temper their anxiety (French and Smith took alcohol and caffeine intake into account in their analysis) and a number of them worried about Trump’s popularity.

But the results surprised us: cortisol levels stayed close to normal levels throughout the debates. Clinton supporters had a small spike at the midway point, but not by much. Overall, the stress levels for liberals and conservatives didn’t really change — with one exception.

The researchers looked at cortisol levels based on whether participants had someone close to them who planned to vote for the opposing candidate. And for Trump supporters who had a conflict with a person close to them — a parent, a sibling, a spouse — cortisol levels actually went up after the debate. They probably found the debate more stressful.

French and Smith warned us that this wasn’t a pristine study. In fact, both professors laughed when we asked if they’d submit our work to a peer-reviewed journal. But they agreed that this finding was statistically significant. And they didn’t find it for Clinton supporters, or voters who supported a third party candidate.

The other significant finding related to baseline cortisol levels — the participants’ stress level before the debate. The researchers found that Trump supporters had much higher baseline levels compared to Clinton voters.

Smith, the political scientist, couldn’t tell us why Trump voters had two times as much cortisol in their saliva compared to Clinton supporters. But he did say that our experiment served as an interesting pilot study — one that made him think differently about what he hopes to study next: tolerance.

Here, Smith made a comparison to same-sex marriage. Opposition to it shifted when researchers found some biological or genetic basis for being gay — when it started to be considered innate. Smith wonders if the same is true for political difference. As he told one of our reporters, “If you're a liberal and I'm a conservative and I believe you're a liberal because you're genetically predisposed to be, then am I more tolerant of you or less tolerant of you?”

In other words, if political difference is related to our biology, maybe we’ll be more tolerant of each other. And therefore less stressed. And therefore more likely to vote. At least, that’s the hope.

In the spirit of encouraging less stressful conversations with the other side, here's a video with some tips for talking politics with your loved one — who's wrong about everything. 

 

Thanks to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism students who helped out: Vicki Adame, Priscilla Alabi, Gregory Alcala, Christina Dabney, Jesenia De Moya, Robert Exley, Jeremy Ibarra, Meeran Karim, Alix Langone, Pauliina Siniauer, Anuz Thapa, Maritza Villela and Katherine Warren.

And special thanks to the Young Republicans of New York City, The Roosevelt Institute, the Union County Young Republicans and the Montclair Republicans Club for allowing us to attend their debate watch parties!

 

We've been on hiatus, working on some new stories. If you're joining us for the first time, here are some of our favorite past episodes:

Keep the Baby, Get the Chemo

Your Sanity or Your Kidneys

Patients and Doctors Fess Up

Who Are You Calling 'Inspiring'?

Your Brain on Sound

Bacon, Booze and the Search for the Fountain of Youth

How to Stop an Outbreak

A Doctor's Love Affair with Vicodin

The Robot Ate My Pancreas

I'd Rather have a Living Son than a Dead Daughter

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