Episode 8: Charissa Sedor and Ralph Crewe of Carnegie Science Center

And Hosts of the Science News and Qs Podcast

Ralph, Charissa and radio host in a studio with a SNaQ banner behind them
Screengrab from: https://youtu.be/ldqv6Y2myKI

Charissa Sedor and Ralph Crew host Science News and Qs, also known as SNaQ, for the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. They combine their curiosity about science with the intimacy of podcasting to help the Science Center reach people in its own community and around the world.

Each new episode is not only fun and informative, but it also extends the Science Center’s mission to delight — as you’ll hear, they’re definitely delightful — educate — they know what they’re talking about and are great at explaining it — and inspire. And if you’ve ever considered starting a podcast for your museum, hopefully, they’ll inspire you to finally do it.


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On. I’m Nick Faber, Director of Content Strategy at Cuberis. My guests today are Charissa Sedor and Ralph Crewe of the Carnegie Science Center.

If you’re listening to this episode right now, I don’t have to tell you what a podcast is. But I would like to tell you why I like them so much.

I grew up listening to talk radio, and not just for the news. I especially loved the shows where it was just one or two people in a studio, talking about current events, sharing stories from their lives, making jokes. Just… talking. It felt like a constant companion in my life, like a reliable, funny friend, who was always ready to hang out.

When podcasts became more accessible, I started listening to those. And I sought out shows that reminded me of the radio shows that I loved. And the best part was, I didn’t have wait to tune in at a certain time, I could just listen whenever I wanted to.

As podcasting grew in popularity, something really great happened. They started getting really, really specific. Now there are podcasts about board games, podcasts about a single band or movie, podcasts about other podcasts. It seems like there’s a podcast for every niche.

When I work with museums on developing content strategies, one of the exercises we work through is figuring out their unique positioning. Basically, who are you, who do you serve, and what do you do for them? In other words, what’s your niche and what sort of content can you create to own it?

My guests today have become experts at using the intimacy and immediacy of podcasting to help their institution serve its audience of science-curious folks in their own community and around the world. Charissa Sedor and Ralph Crew host Science News and Qs, also known as SNaQ, for the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

Each new episode is not only fun and informative, but it also extends the Science Center’s mission to delight — as you’ll hear, they’re definitely delightful — educate — they know what they’re talking about and are great at explaining it — and inspire. And if you’ve ever considered starting a podcast for your museum, hopefully, they’ll inspire you to finally do it.

Charissa and Ralph joined me over Skype. I asked them where the idea for SNaQ came from, and that’s where we’ll pick up the conversation.

RALPH: About… what, a year and a half, two years ago, I started talking about doing a podcast. I’m lucky that I get to make new programs at the Science Center. My title is Program Development Coordinator. And I share an office with Charissa. And Charissa and I have been working together for years, and we’ve done live planetarium programs and other things for a long time.

And I just basically– I listen to a ton of podcasts, and thought, why can’t the Science Center have a podcast? So we started working together and brainstorming. We put together a little miniature episode about bees.

CHARISSA: Yes, our two-minute pilot.

RALPH: And showed it to the directors, and were like, hey look, we can make this kind of content and they bought it. And they were like, yeah, let’s do it.

CHARISSA: It stemmed from– There wasn’t anything like this coming from our organization yet, and there wasn’t anything like this coming from our city that we were aware of. And at the Science Center, we like to be that community voice for science, and people come to us and ask us all these questions on a daily basis. So we just wanted to have some kind of answer for that that’s on a regular schedule and something that’s accessible for a lot of people.

NICK: So yeah, can you guys talk a little bit about what you guys do at the Carnegie Science Center and how it might relate to…? Like, why do you guys sit in the same office, for instance? It sounds like you do pretty different things, but it sounds like you do actually work together.

RALPH: Well, why don’t you go ahead, Charissa?

CHARISSA: Yeah, so my title is Producer, so I’m the planetarium producer, and it kind of goes with everyone here. We all wear a billion hats. So mainly I’m 100% planetarium, except for this podcast. So I am in charge of creating shows in the planetarium, I do all of the coding and take care of all of the equipment, so if something breaks I have to fix it. I’m like the tech person in there, I guess, but I also help write shows and present. I present a lot. We also do a lot of stuff in our observatory, so I’m kind of all over the place. Most of the time, I’m behind the scenes, but every so often I’m also out in front giving presentations, doing shows, doing demos in our lobby, whatever the need is that day.

I’ve been in the planetarium for — gosh, this is my ninth year here now. That’s a very long time. So yeah, most of the time I’m behind the scenes, working code, and writing scripts, and stuff like that.

RALPH: Now my role is somewhat in the planetarium as well, which is why we share an office. So I help develop programming, I help run our observatory for a program, which is great. If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, come see SkyWatch. We have telescopes on our roof. So we’ll start out in the planetarium and do a star show, and then go and see the real thing. We have a large research-grade telescope upstairs. A lot of people haven’t been up there and it’s really neat.

But I also do a variety of things. I host the podcast with Charissa, I host a science lecture series, where I get real scientists to come to the Science Center and talk about their work. It’s called Cafe Sci. And that’s a ton of fun. And I do a lot of program development for both the planetarium and for Science on the Road, which is our outreach program. We send science shows to schools and libraries and stuff like that all over the country. We make these big shows. Each show has its own van, and a big stage setup that goes in it, and it goes across the country. The most recent one we put out is Science Takes Flight, which was sponsored by PPG. And that show, I know, has played as far away as Los Angeles. If you’re in Pittsburgh, that’s a long van drive.

CHARISSA: Yeah, they drove the whole way there.

NICK: Wow. That’s dedication. And so, the two of you have been working together for a while, and you had this rapport already, and I think that really comes through in the podcast. Was it a conscious choice, like the format you guys have, of just sort of having a conversation about topics, or has that evolved over time?

CHARISSA: I mean, we kind of went into it from the get-go with a few different goals in mind. We knew we wanted to talk about science news, and we knew we wanted to have certain topics that we would really dive into. And we knew we wanted an interactive element to allow people to reach out to us. We always knew we wanted it to be conversational, because that’s what we do.

RALPH: Yeah, and I think that’s what people respond to the most, too. People can tell when you’re reading a script and it just sounds boring. And I think it’s also evolved a bit. If you listen to our earlier episodes, we’re a little stiffer, a little more like we’re reading news stories. And now we’ve really settled into a groove where we talk about what’s going on in a more– You know, I like to think of it like the listener is a third person in the conversation that’s just not talking very much right now. I find that that’s also fun to make a podcast that way. It just feels natural.

CHARISSA: Yeah, it’s fun, too, because there are some topics that maybe I don’t know as much about, like biology stuff. Because I studied physics and astronomy. So there are genuine times when we’re doing the podcast, when we’re recording that I’m hearing stuff for the first time, and I don’t know as much about the subject, and it’s really exciting because I’m actively learning it along with a listener, who also hasn’t heard about this as much. So it’s a fun kind of– it’s exploratory for both of us, I think. It’s very much a natural conversation.

RALPH: Yeah, and one thing I think we’ve started doing more and more is, we’ll split up the news and I’ll write half the stories and Charissa writes half the stories, and we actually talk about it ahead of time a lot less than we used to. So that I can actually be experiencing the story as Charissa is literally telling it to me. And I’ll be like, wow, that’s neat! And I can ask genuine questions. Like, if you hear one of us interject in a news story and ask a question, that’s a real question that we’re actually curious about.

NICK: When I was hearing you talk about, like Charissa, you might know more about something and Ralph, you’re kind of learning through the episode, how do you guys pick your stories? Do they come from research that comes out of your science center? Or are they things that you just come across that you think are cool? How do you prepare?

RALPH: We just look on the Internet for what’s going on in science. There are various science websites that we’ll check. Honestly, Reddit’s a pretty good goldmine for what’s interesting in science.

CHARISSA: It’s also a really good goldmine for what people want to hear about because it kind of self-selects. The more interesting stories tend to get to the top.

RALPH: Yeah, and the Science Center is a science education resource. We’re not like a university, although we have done tons of work with various universities like Carnegie Melon, and the University of Pittsburgh, but we don’t have a research division here that’s actually doing research. We focus on communication of science more than anything.

But we do get to work with a lot of scientists who do do research. Actually, our natural history division, which is in another museum, they actually have quite a lot of researchers, including some that we visited on the show. If you listen to our fossils episode, that’s in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Bone Rooms. We got to talk to various paleontologists, we got to see dinosaur bones. It was really amazing. Everything on display there is maybe 5% of their collection, and we got to go underneath where they keep the Ark of the Covenent-looking rooms. And see all these amazing dinosaur bones, and even fossil frogs, little things that you wouldn’t even think are that interesting, and they are just totally stunning.

CHARISSA: Yeah, we try to get inspiration from literally everywhere. For the news stories, it can be anything that’s a really big story that maybe everyone has heard, but we still want to talk about it because it’s really important, or maybe it’s a big story that is kind of a niche subject. Like we talked a lot about CRISPR, which is a gene editing tool that not a lot of people know or understand, but it’s still really cool, amazing breaking news science that’s happening.

So we try to span what we’re talking about and I tend to lean more towards the space stuff, so Ralph keeps me in check…

RALPH: Well, I love space, too!

CHARISSA: But we try to keep it across the board. Anything big in science that’s happening.

NICK: Well, I listened to the episode that you put out yesterday, and I think the first story was about octopi taking Ecstacy…

CHARISSA: That was a big story!

RALPH: It was a big story!

NICK: …which is really interesting, but it’s also sort of quirky. Do you find that you tend to look for quirkier things, or do think is science just in its nature a little out there. No pun intended.

RALPH: Absolutely. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Ig Nobel Prize, like there’s a whole bunch of researchers out there who do– I mean, I’ve heard of research on whether or not ponytails look like rabbits to hawks. Which, they do, apparently. So be careful out there.

But yeah, I think anything can be an interesting story and you can have fun with it. Science isn’t just about huge questions, it’s about curiosity in general, which can be like, why is my toenail shaped like that? Or how did the universe start? Or anywhere in between.

CHARISSA: It’s also giving people an understanding of the quirkier stories might spark their interest in a subject that they would not have gone past the front door. Once they understand, hey this weird stuff is happening, what else is happening that I don’t know about?

It also depends on, you know, maybe there’s a week where there’s not really anything funny/quirky going on, there’s just some papers that were released, and these stories, and the cure for this diseases… Every story is important, every story is being reported on for a reason. Whether or not we’re encoding GIFs into DNA, or we’re giving octopi Ecstacy.

RALPH: I also still, I want to know what it was like when the researcher came up with this idea. At one point, there was somebody who was like, you know what we should do? We should give Ecstacy to this octopus here. I mean, how did that happen?

But from there, we learned that the nervous system of an octopus, which is very different than the vertebrate nervous systems that we have, has similar reactions to psychoactive drugs, which is surprising. When we share an ancestor with an octopus, you have to go back…

CHARISSA: 500 million years.

RALPH: Yeah, before vertebrates even existed. I think that tells us an insight into the larger evolution of life on Earth story. We have more in common with an octopus than you might think, and even more than you might realize on the surface. And doing research that, on its surface, might seem silly, like giving a drugs to an octopus, that gives us insights into these bigger interesting stories as well. So you never know.

CHARISSA: Yeah, there’s always more questions behind any quirky story.

NICK: Well, speaking of questions, that’s a big part of your show, is taking listener questions…

RALPH: Yeah, so we get questions in a variety of ways. People can call in, people can email. One of my favorite ways that we’ve gotten questions is, sometimes Charissa and I will be out in the Science Center live, and people will just walk up, and we’ll record questions that way.

We also recorded questions at a bar nearby, just from random people, and I think it’s really fascinating to see the curiousity that people have and get a chance to ask a science question. Also, it’s interesting: A lot of people, they say I have tons of questions but I just can’t think of any right now! It’s funny to see how I have to draw curiousity out of them.

CHARISSA: But once you do, they can’t stop asking questions.

NICK: Cool. Can you remember any favorite questions that have come up?

RALPH: Well, one that was asked on our most recent show was a question about why, if we’re inside the Milky Way, why do we see it the way it looks in the sky? It’s the object that looks like it’s beyond us, it looks like this stripe across the sky, but why if we’re inside it, why is it like that? I thought that, on its face it’s a simple question, but it opens up this whole contemplation about the way galaxies are shaped and what it’s like to observe a structure that you’re within. From the plane of our solar system out to the Milky Way, and I thought that was really thought-provoking from just a simple question. Getting to think about the density of stars in the galaxy. Once stars are far enough away, they start to blend into that milky patch, and there’s just a whole lot more of them in that direction. But we’re within something that would look like that from far away. It’s just that the stars in the neighborhood are far apart. I don’t know, it’s just really fascinating to start thinking about stuff like that.

Also, I really enjoy astronomy and seeing the Milky Way. I don’t know if you’ve ever been able to get to a dark sky area where you can see it. That’s a really special experience, and I encourage our listeners and anybody to get a chance to go see. Because it’s beautiful, it’s really special.

NICK: So, when you take people on top of the building to look through your telescopes, you’re in a city…

RALPH: Yeah, a very light-polluted area.

NICK: Yeah, so does that mean that the experience is somehow less when you’re in a city or can a telescope somehow see beyond the light pollution?

CHARISSA: As far as what we can do here, I don’t think it lessens the experience. I think people understand that you’re in a city. But we still can see a lot, and there’s still a lot you can see with a telescope from here. With our telescopes, even as close to the city as we are, we’re still able to see a ton of dark sky objects. We’re able to look at the Orion nebula, we’re able to look at the Andromeda galaxy. And these are things that people would not see if they don’t have a telescope at home, they wouldn’t have access to that type of thing. So even with our light-polluted sky, we’re still able to give people that opportunity to see things they normally wouldn’t. Obviously, the light pollution doesn’t help, but we can still see…

RALPH: There are objects that are too dim to observe in our light-polluted skies…

CHARISSA: But we can still see a lot.

RALPH: Many of the most exciting things, like the rings of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter, are things that are actually quite bright and easy to observe in the city. A telescope is very valuable, even in a light-polluted area, because not all celestial targets are extremely dim. Some are. So like that Whirlpool Galaxy, we’ll never get from the roof of the Science Center. We would if we were out in the middle of nowhere. Our telescopes do go out on the road sometimes, so we have been to do that.

When you come to the Science Center, you get to see a really high resolution, large, beautiful telescope take a look at Saturn. It’s pretty special stuff. I’ve seen a lot of people’s jaw drop when they look at it. Saturn, in particular, changes people’s lives when they look at it, and the view of that from the Science Center is great.

CHARISSA: I think it just comes down to, the main point of Skywatch is just to give people that first-hand experience with the universe — sorry I keep sounding like a bumper sticker. It’s a matter of, you can read about how you can see Mars in the sky, but going somewhere and meeting someone who has studied the stuff, knows the stuff, and says, yes that is a planet, people’s minds are blown. We are bridging that gap for them and really helping them connect with it in a personal way. It’s really similar, I guess, to what we do with the podcast. It’s just trying to connect with as many people as we possibly can and making them feel welcome to it.

NICK: Yeah, I was just thinking that. The way you were describing the experience of Skywatch sounds very much like what you do with SNaQ. So this is probably, at this pont, a bit of a softball question, but how would you say that the podcast helps support and extend the mission of the Science Center?

RALPH: Well, it does certain things really well, like it does science news, right? One of the things that the Science Center is amazing at is exhibits, but we can’t build a new exhibit gallery every time a piece of news comes out. And we can make a new episode of a podcast. And that, I think, is really awesome, this abilility to have cutting edge science content all the time. We are always within two weeks of the news of science. And it’s often the day of. Some of the stories we report are hours old. And that’s really cool, and also the Science Center can go beyond — you, it’s the 21st Century — we can expand beyond just our walls.

We are a huge, established brick and mortar institution, but we’re also more than that. And people experience the world digitally so much now. And a podcast like SNaQ is a great opportunity, and it’s also something like– we’re a nonprofit, our budget is somewhat limited at times, but we’re doing well. But we can make tons of content with relatively little investment with a podcast. And that’s been really satisfying. If we were making videos, we would only be able to make a tiny fraction of what we make with the show.

CHARISSA: And also, the Science Center itself, we really try to establish ourself as a community square. People from all over can come to us for reliable information and that happens all the time. If there’s a breaking news story, you’ll probably see one of us on the news. Quite frequently we do stuff with news stations, so people come to us for reliable information, so having this podcast is kind of a way to spread that beyond maybe our local area.

RALPH: Right. We’ve been downloaded in, I think, 50 different countries.

CHARISSA: It has a good reach, but still helps establish the Science Center as, you know, this is a place you can come to if you have questions about anything or if you want to hear what’s going on in science lately, I know where I’m gonna turn. So we just wanted to continue being a reliable source for that.

RALPH: Yeah, and I also think that that expands our audience. As Charissa was mentioning earlier, we see a lot of families here, which is awesome, but sometimes young adults might feel like maybe this isn’t the place for them. And that’s just not right. There is a ton of stuff here that’s great for them. And podcasts, I find… Our podcast is for everybody, but it’s something that I know a lot of professionals listen to on their way to work, or sitting on the bus on your way to CMU or Pitt here in Pittsburgh, you listen to podcasts. And so we’re able to reach an audience that maybe wouldn’t, at least not at first, walk in our front door.

NICK: That’s awesome, guys. So, was there anything else that, before we started talking, you were thinking would be nice to share?

RALPH: Well, I would just like to encourage anyone who’s listening to your show to also maybe consider listening to our show, of course. And also encourage people to call or ask questions. If you’re feeling curious, but you’re nervous, send us an email, ask a question, and participate.

CHARISSA: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be a phone call.

RALPH: I don’t know, I just encourage people to keep on talking to us because we like talking to them, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it.

CHARISSA: And stay hungry for science.

RALPH: Yeah, and stay hungry for science.

NICK: And get ready for a SNaQ.

RALPH: That’s right.

NICK: That was Charissa Sedor and Ralph Crew of the Carnegie Science Center. You can find Science News and Qs or SNaQ (S-N-A-Q) on iTunes, or any of your favorite podcast services. Or you can just go to sciencenewsandqs.com, where they’ve made it really easy to find.

I want to thank Charissa and Ralph for joining me today, and as always, I want to thank you for listening. If you’d like to be a guest on my show or know someone who would be perfect, feel free to send me an email. It’s nick@cuberis.com. Also, if you want to find the full archives of this show, go to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On.”

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?