The hosts of Gastropod on their podcasting process and how the Burroughs Wellcome Fund makes it all possible
In an age when our next meal is often only a few taps away, it’s easy to forget that food actually comes from somewhere. Farmers grow ingredients. Cultures create recipes. And science shapes everything from cookware to culinary techniques to consumer packaging and delivery. Wrapping all these elements together is a tapestry of stories, and discovering these stories is the mission of the award-winning Gastropod podcast—a mission made possible by support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
To learn more about Gastropod and how the Burroughs Wellcome Fund empowers their work, here’s our conversation with hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley.
There are lots and lots of podcasts, and many are science-driven. What does it take to make a great science-driven podcast that stands out?
Cynthia: The hosts, the reporters, and the producers have to have a lot of innate curiosity. And when it comes to transmitting that curiosity to an audience, you also want enthusiasm from the people who are doing the reporting, as well as real clarity. That’s what we try to do on Gastropod. Nicky and I are really curious and want to really understand things. Good science podcasts assume their audiences are interested but don’t know anything necessarily about the topic. So they try to anticipate the questions as they come and hold hands with the audience in a friendly way in this process of discovery.
Nicola: Food has been such a great lens for us to bring people into questions and interests they might not have realized they had. Not everyone out there has burning science questions, but once you speak to them through their plate, that can change. Another key thing is the voices we bring to talk about these subjects. As Cynthia said, the hosts are important, but you also really need to bring new, enthusiastic, and exciting voices to the audience. And we’ve put so much work into finding actually not just the best voices, but also traditionally underrepresented voices who bring a perspective and a freshness that you might not otherwise hear.
Cynthia: It’s really a privilege to hear the diverse stories in the places that Nicky and I have been able to travel to and help underrepresented voices share their stories with a bigger audience. For instance, we did a story in Minnesota on Native American foodways. There are so many ways to think about Native American history, science, and knowledge. And being able to let locals tell their stories and their science and their history through food is really something that’s fun, exciting, and a privilege.
Where do your ideas for episodes come from, and how do you narrow them down?
Nicola: We both are coming up with ideas all the time, like when things come up in the news and in new studies, and listeners write in and request things. We try to keep a balance between more down-to-earth and more abstract ones. For example, one episode we just released is about food texture. That’s something that I’ve been interested in for a while, but the texture is an abstract idea. How do you measure it? Does everyone feel it the same way? What is going on in our mouths when we feel a food texture? Why do different foods have different textures? So we like to pair it with something that is like, “Oh, this is an actual food that you can think about and touch and go out and taste.” So keeping that mix is important.
We’ve also been analyzing how we were doing on the representation of diverse voices on the show, which is really important to us. An effective way to do this is to find scientists of color who are doing interesting work and then build the episode around them.
Cynthia: For example, we heard a really amazing material scientist of color, Ainissa Ramirez, speak at MIT and I said, “We should see if there’s anything in her book that is related to food because she’s really interesting and a great speaker.” Then we found this chapter about glass and Corning and Pyrex. And that sparked our glass episode, which ended up being super fun and super interesting while featuring a fascinating person from an underrepresented community.
Because podcasting is not a visual medium, it’s not easy to see all it takes to make a great episode. Can you give me a rough idea of the work required to produce a Gastropod episode?
Cynthia: First, there’s the normal process of being a journalist. We go out and do research. We find books on the topic, we find scientific papers. If we’re talking to a particular person about a particular area of science, we’ll just figure out how many papers, books or articles we need to read to feel prepared. Sometimes we’re interviewing an author, so we’re obviously going to read the whole book, usually multiple times.
Nicola: Each story is the equivalent of a long-form magazine feature. You’re doing a lot of prep work, such as finding sources and wrangling sources and making sure the sources sound good. There are sound checks, recording the interviews, then going through the transcripts of the interviews, then shaping, editing, and mixing the episode to make everyone sound good. And don’t forget fact-checking. It’s all the stuff that goes into getting the episode out into the world that means we work full-time in a very, very full-time way.
We also, thank heavens, have a half-time producer now, Claudia Geib, who’s amazing. This is where funding has been so important, as it allows us to finally get a bit ahead and pursue more ambitious ideas like our Colorado River episode. And another thing that’s funny is we’ll listen to the credits for other shows of similar levels of research and production and they have a lot more staff members.
Cynthia: We’re a great investment if you’re thinking about bang for the buck, lots of other podcasts have 10 people on staff. Radiolab has 22!
Let’s talk about Gastropod’s collaboration with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. What is your partnership like?
Cynthia: The synergy between BWF and Gastropod might seem like an odd fit, since on the surface, we’re a food podcast. But go deeper, and we’re a podcast about curiosity and science, and history and food is our lens for telling these stories. We tell stories that are so tightly related to health and biomedical research. It’s a way of getting those complicated science stories to people who might not search out such high-quality science journalism about these topics: you do it through food.
Nicola: The great thing about the BWF is they really recognize the importance of science communication. Naturally, you have to fund research for it to happen. That’s incredibly important. But what we really appreciate about the BWF is that they also recognize the communication side that we do is just as important, that your investment in the research also has to be matched with an investment in the communication. The BWF sees us as part of a thriving ecosystem of science reporters telling these stories in nuanced ways. That’s beneficial and important to them and worth investing in. That’s what’s made it such a great partnership.
How has funding from the BWF helped advance Gastropod’s work and mission?
Cynthia: BWF support was really critical for us to be able to bring on our part-time producer, Claudia. It’s been important to the BWF to invest in the future of science journalists. We helped train our previous fellow who then went on to become a producer for us and then moved on and up in the world of podcasting. We’re also mentoring Claudia, who’s growing into an incredible science journalist in her own right.
Another critical part of our BWF support is how we have the ability to pivot quickly and cover current topics like the formula shortage from last summer. We can really investigate questions like “What is breast milk? What is formula? What’s the science and history behind them? Where did this shortage come from?”
Nicola: Agreed. BWF support enables us to take on something dominating in the news, so we can really dig in and actually uncover the science behind it: what we know and what we don’t know yet and how we know what we know. The BWF support helps us think in a targeted way and find some of our best stories. These episodes cover the overlaps between food, biomedical science and health, which then end up being consistently among our most popular episodes. Listeners love them.
Cynthia: We did one this year about doctors approaching food as medicine. This is something that nonprofits have been working on. And now state Medicare and Medi-Cal in California are funding and saying food can actually be medicine, especially with chronically-ill populations, to not only keep them from getting sicker and having to use the hospital system more, but also help them improve.
Nicola: Like it’s actually a treatment with dosage. You can prescribe it.
Cynthia: Yes, depending on what your dietary needs are. To be able to really go to the people who are doing this and studying it and advancing it, as well as the people who are participating in these programs and need these meals, was just really amazing. These are complicated stories, but they end up being some of our most valuable reporting.
At this point, Gastropod is number one in the food and science podcast category. You’ve earned a ton of positive press, a large audience, and several awards. Are there any of those achievements that you’re most proud of?
Cynthia: Yeah, the fact that we’re still around. The awards are amazing. The listener emails are amazing. But just still being here and doing it is what I’m most grateful for.
Nicola: Agree. Doing this for eight and a half years, that’s what we’re most proud of. And we couldn’t have done that without the investment of the BWF. They’re a part of what has made this possible. Very, very few independent journalistic podcasts have this level of success and longevity. Yes, a lot of that is from our hard work, but it’s also organizations like the BWF recognizing that and investing in it.
So what’s next for Gastropod? Are there any forthcoming episodes you’re especially excited about?
Nicola: We have a lot of fun stuff coming out, but there’s one BWF-supported episode in particular that I think listeners will be really excited about, which is to do with the biomedical basis of hunger and hunger regulation. This came because we were brainstorming new episodes for the year, and we realized with all the news around these new diabetes drugs that are being used as anti-obesity drugs, or if you’re a celebrity, just as a quick way to lose weight. We realized this is an opportunity for us to do a Gastropod look at this and say, “Okay, let’s look at this question of hunger. What is it? How does it work biologically? What do we know? What do we not know? How do we know what we know? What happens when these very complicated, intertwined regulatory systems get realigned somehow? And how do these new drugs fit in?”
Cynthia: Right. We did an episode on the calorie, and we did an episode on the history of and science of diets, but this episode Nicky just introduced is really about hunger. And that to us is what’s so interesting and powerful, when you hear from people who have never been able to control their hunger, and that this shifted their entire relationship to food. It really helps you reframe this question of these systems in our body and how they work—not looking at it from this question of weight loss, but the real complexity of the system of hunger itself.
Nicola: Asking these kinds of questions is why Gastropod is so much fun for us to make because we are curious about all these things and then we’re not satisfied. We still have questions, and we get to go out and answer our questions and then figure out how to make it all interesting to our listeners. It’s because of BWF support that we were able to say, “Okay, here is a really complicated topic, but we know we have the time and resources to dive in and do it right, so let’s do it.”