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The Pulse

Listen to full episodes of WHYY’s health, science and innovation program, The Pulse.

Weekly hand curated podcast episodes for learning

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The Lessons of 9/11

The passing of 20 years since the 9/11 terror attacks has meant that some of the wounds cut by that day have closed — others have not. Thousands of families lost loved ones in the attacks, and their grief became part of a national tragedy. Many more have since gotten sick or even died from illnesses related to exposure to dust and debris. The attacks changed how we think about the long-lasting impact of environmental hazards, what we know about grief and trauma, and how we build. On this episode, we explore some of the lasting effects of the 9/11 attacks, and what we’ve learned from them. Also heard on this week’s episode: When we think of who suffered the greatest health effects of 9/11, most of us think of first responders — the brave police officers, firemen, and volunteers who risked their lives rushing into Ground Zero. In the years since, many of those first responders have become sick and died from illnesses related to the toxic dust and debris. Stories of their heroism and sacrifice helped fuel the creation of a victims’ compensation fund to help with medical costs. But as it turns out, first responders weren’t the only ones affected — scores of others in Lower Manhattan have also suffered consequences, ranging from cancer to autoimmune diseases. Alan Yu reports on their fight for recognition — and access to government help. Trauma can change our bodies and minds, and those changes can even be passed on to the next generation. Columbia University neuroscientist Bianca Jones Marlin is trying to figure out what is passed on, and how. Journalist Tim Lambert’s professional life became intertwined with the story of Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers and crew attempted to take back control. His family owned part of the land where Flight 93 crashed before it became a national memorial. He joins us to discuss his connection to the land and to the family members of Flight 93, and how they have grieved over the years. Lambert and NPR reporter Scott Detrow have produced an audio documentary for the 20th anniversary called Sacred Ground.


10 Sep 2021

Rank #1

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The Evolving Nature of Work

Sometimes, work can feel like Groundhog Day — different variations of the same thing, day after day. Same commute, same hours, same people, same conversations, same cubicle, same complaints. But then, everything changed because of COVID-19. The pandemic disrupted the way we do our jobs, whether you work at a cubicle, a diner, or a hospital. Many workers were laid off. Others started working from home instead of the office. Some realized they hated their jobs and quit. People learned new skills and found new passions. We started doing things differently, thinking differently — and it has had an impact on our work culture overall. On this Labor Day edition of The Pulse, we look into the evolving nature of work. We dig into some of the big changes that are happening right now, and ask what might follow over the next few years. We hear about the challenges of staying focused on the job and the case for a four-day workweek. Also heard on this week’s episode: Staying focused can be hard in the best of times — but thanks to our omnipresent devices, it can feel downright impossible when we’re at work. We talk with psychologist Larry Rosen about the neuroscience of distraction, and strategies we can try to fight against it.


3 Sep 2021

Rank #2

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The Magic of Energy

Energy fuels our lives in ways that seem almost magical. It can transform darkness into light, cold into warmth, water into ice. Of course, it’s science — not magic — but like magic, there are rules that must be followed. One of the fundamental laws of physics is that energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. On this episode, we explore what these rules mean for our quest to create new power sources, and for life on earth. We hear stories about what makes batteries a feat of engineering — and sometimes its Achilles’ heel. We also hear about the ongoing quest to create “fusion energy,” and the roadblocks standing in the way. Also heard on this week’s episode: Esther Takeuchi — one of the world’s top energy storage scientists — explains the science behind medical batteries. Takeuchi holds a joint appointment at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Clifford Johnson, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Southern California, explains the framework that defines and limits our quest for energy sources. Check out his graphic novel about science called The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe.


27 Aug 2021

Rank #3

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The Pulse Presents: Half Vaxxed — The Rise and Fall of Philly Fighting COVID

This is Episode One: “Shooting for the Heavens.” It’s part of a five-part series about a 22-year-old with no health care experience who talked his way into a COVID-19 vaccine distribution deal he thought would make him millions — only to have his company implode as thousands of people awaited vaccinations. How did he end up with so much power? Was he a grifter, or just an opportunist working the American health care system the way it’s designed? The first episode looks at the promise of the nimble, young startup that pledged to vaccinate Philadelphia. To hear the full series, check out Half Vaxxed.


25 Aug 2021

Rank #4

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Kids and Mental Health

We’ve heard it again and again — kids are resilient. But they’re also sensitive, with social and emotional needs every bit as complex as adults’. They’re still figuring out how the world works, and they depend on structure and stability — along with love and support — to feel safe and confident as they learn to navigate the world. Which is why the pandemic and the lockdowns have been especially tough for many kids, taking a major toll on their mental health. On this episode, we look at kids and mental health, asking how they’ve made it through the past year-and-a-half, and what lessons they’ve learned. We hear stories about dealing with the grief of losing loved ones, how virtual school is affecting kids’ social development, and why we’re seeing a rising suicide rate among Black children. Also heard on this week’s episode: Kids don’t just learn academic skills in school— it’s a place for them to develop social skills and a sense of how the world works. Reporter Jad Sleiman explores how remote learning could be affecting kids’ social development. WHYY student reporters Trinity Hunt and Mya Blackwood get the lowdown on why 70% of teens aren’t getting enough sleep. We talk with psychologist Teresa Hsu-Walklet about how the pandemic has affected children’s mental health. Hsu-Walklet is the Assistant Director for pediatric behavioral health at the Montefiore Medical Group in the Bronx, in New York City. This episode was produced in collaboration with students from WHYY’s Pathways to Media Careers, Youth Employment Program. Our student reporters were Mya Blackwood, Trinity Hunt, Ana Mercado, and Jacob Smollen. Special thanks to WHYY Media Lab instructor Gabriel Perez Setright and youth employment specialist Colleen Cassidy.


20 Aug 2021

Rank #5

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Changing Appearances

We’ve all heard the saying: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The problem is that’s not how the world works. Just about everything, from the way people treat us, to the opportunities we have in life, is affected in some way by our appearance. That’s especially true when it comes to how we feel about ourselves. When we look good, we feel good. When we don’t — all bets are off. Appearance can be an anchor for our sense of self, or a catalyst for transformation. It can make us love ourselves, hate ourselves, find ourselves, and lose ourselves. On today’s episode, we explore changing appearances, and the many ways they affect people’s lives. We hear stories about the psychological effects of losing weight, gaining muscle mass, dealing with alopecia, and how age affects women’s feelings about their bodies. Also heard on this week’s episode: When Marta Rusek shed 80 pounds, it felt like a huge victory — but Shai Ben Yaacov reports she didn’t anticipate how it would affect the way people treated her. We chat with Shane Duquette about his transformation from beanpole to beefcake. Shane’s website, which is aimed at helping skinny guys gain muscle mass, is called Bony to Beastly. Psychotherapist Edie Weinstein explains how she helps women reframe the way they feel about aging and how they view their bodies. We spend so much time, energy, effort and sometimes money on our appearance. What’s driving us to do this? We put that question to David Puts, a biological anthropologist at Penn State, who looks at the world through the lens of evolution.


13 Aug 2021

Rank #6

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Who We Are at Core

Who are you? There are dozens of ways to answer that question, from your name and nationality, to your relationships and job, all the way down to the nature of your soul. But the more we zoom in, the more the self can feel like an impressionist painting — from afar, you see distinct shapes, but the closer you look, the more it dissolves into a million tiny pieces. So what is the self really? What is it that makes us who we are? On this week’s episode, we explore what scientists are learning about the concept of the “self,” and how deep it truly runs. We hear stories about the eroding effects of Alzheimer’s — and whether our memories make us who we are; what diaries can tell us about our best and worst selves; and what it really means to be self-aware. Also heard on this week’s episode: Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and researcher, found that although 95 percent of people believe that they are self-aware, only about 10-15 percent really are. We talk with Eurich about why self-awareness is beneficial, and how to gain more. Once a bully, always a bully — or maybe not. We talk with reformed bully Brittany Brady about how she came to realize she’d been a bully, and how that shadow version of herself affects her life now. We chat with Iris Berent, a cognitive psychologist at Northeastern University, who studies human nature, and the moral implications of our “true selves.” Read the full episode transcript.


6 Aug 2021

Rank #7

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The Role of Race and Ethnicity in Medicine

Every time you go to see a new doctor, you have to fill out forms that ask your name, your age, your family history — and your race and ethnicity. You have to check a box — pick a category. Less than 100 years ago, mainstream scientists believed that race was a biological fact — one that determined everything from pain tolerance to disease susceptibility. Today, most scientists agree that those ideas were dead wrong — that race isn’t a biomedical category, but a social construct. So why do we still ask about race and ethnicity in medicine and research? When and where does it matter — and how should this information be used? On this episode, we dive into the changing conversation about race and ethnicity in medicine. We hear stories about why it’s harder for Black Americans to get kidney transplants, why “Asian” is too broad of a category when it comes to public health, and how we could collect better, more meaningful data. Also heard on this week’s episode: Johns Hopkins oncologist and researcher Otis Brawley explains why race shouldn’t matter in medicine. In a recent study, Jaya Aysola, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, made a startling finding — that even now, medical education often discusses race as a biological category rather than a social construct. We talk with Aysola about using information on race and ethnicity in meaningful ways. Aysola is the founder and director of Penn Medicine’s Center for Health Equity Advancement. We hear from NYU Langone epidemiologist Stella Yi about getting more accurate data on people’s race and ethnicity, and why it matters for public health. As a Black man, poet and playwright John Johnson had always been skeptical of doctors and medical institutions — then he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He tells the story of how his relationship with one doctor helped save his life.


30 Jul 2021

Rank #8

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The Building Blocks of Language

Language is how we connect — to each other, to the past, to the future — how we create culture, communicate ideas, and make decisions. Scientists are keen to discover more about how language works, and how we actually learn to talk. On this episode — why do some species have language, and others don’t? What can bird whistles teach us about the mechanics of language? What happens when the ability to communicate is disrupted? Also, a look at language itself, and how the internet is changing the way we communicate. Also heard on this week’s episode: We listen back to a story about aphasia reported by Elana Gordon. The neuroscientist she interviewed, Roy Hamilton, is currently studying the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to help people with post-stroke aphasia. This is a large, clinical trial supported by the NIH. You can find more information here. Language is changing faster and faster thanks to the internet. We talk with linguist Gretchen McCulloch about how those changes are happening, and how she keeps up. Gretchen is the author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.” Erich Jarvis studies how language works in human and other species. He joins us to talk about everything from regional “dialects” in some birds, to the relationship between dance and language.


23 Jul 2021

Rank #9

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New Developments in Cancer Treatment

It seems like every week, we hear about new breakthroughs in cancer treatment — new discoveries, new medications, new hopes for a cure. The war on cancer has been a slow and steady grind, with incremental progress that’s been built one study, one breakthrough at a time. Behind each of those small but meaningful victories are years of unseen work — lifetimes spent studying specific cells, protein structures, gene mutations, and more. On this episode, we take a look at some of the latest breakthroughs in cancer treatment, and the personal stories behind them. We hear about the tradeoffs with new lung cancer screenings, find out how immunotherapy is advancing, and talk with a veteran of cancer research about the big wins and grating frustrations. Also heard on this week’s episode: Veteran oncologist and researcher Otis Brawley offers an overview of America’s war on cancer. Brawley, a ​​professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explains where we’ve made progress — and where we haven’t. Screening people who are at high risk for lung cancer can lead to earlier detection, and much better outcomes. Dan Gorenstein from the podcast Tradeoffs looks into why not enough people are getting screened, and what doctors are doing to change that.


16 Jul 2021

Rank #10