April 7, 2021

Order in a Time of Chaos: The Women Bringing Sense to Pandemic Nonsense

Get up close and personal with the phenomenal women behind The Unbiased Science Podcast: Your trusted source for no nonsense— just science.

Order in a Time of Chaos: The Women Bringing Sense to Pandemic Nonsense

This article is part of the Public Health People series where I meet with different public health professionals from all around the globe. Join me in exploring the greatest insights from their fields, their passion projects and their principles for both work and life.

Love at First Listen

I listened to my first episode of the Unbiased Science Podcast during a regular walk from my university campus to the train station. On my first listen, I was hooked. I found myself nodding along, enthralled as the hosts broke down complex topics on how the human body's immune system worked and why we experience side effects after getting a vaccine. The episode lasted less than an hour- even shorter if I had listened at 1.2 x or 1.5x speed. I often paused midway through my walks to excitedly jot down notes on my phone. For example, I learned that what we might typically understand as "side effects" to a vaccine, such as a fever and pain at the site of injection, can simply be understood as our body’s immune response to the virus protein contained inside the vaccine.

Every episode thus far has been a delight. The best teachers ignite interest, re-package the complex into digestible chunks and by the end of class, leave you thinking, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to share what I learned today!" That is exactly what the hosts, Jessica (Jess) and Andrea, do for me.

The podcast’s tagline is, “Your trusted source for no nonsense— just science.” Indeed, the Unbiased Science Podcast’s social media pages have become a one-stop site for COVID-19 information. Ever since their first post in August 2020, the initiative has secured itself as a bastion of evidence-based-only information. The wildfire that is COVID-19 misinformation might have found its firefighters amidst a pair of zealous and charismatic scientists aiming to “bring scientific method to the madness.”

What is more impressive is their dedication to engaging with both timely and timeless information.

Vaccines prevent diseases. It is so much easier to measure the presence, not absence of disease. This is why we say that vaccines are victims of their own success. - A quote from Is This The Real Life Or Is This Just Fallacy: Vaccine Myths Part 2

For those feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19 information, the podcast provides a generous offering of equally, if not more, enticing listens for the knowledge-hungry. Some of their episodes include whether genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are good for you, another on whether organic foods are truly more nutritious, and one on whether detox diets and cleanses really work.

The hallmark of their work?

Everything that they share is grounded in scientific evidence.

I had reached out to them for some advice because I loved their work so much. What I did not expect was such a thorough response from them. I am including their response here should you be interested in the same questions I was.

My email to Jess and Andrea in Jan 2021
Their reply in Jan 2021

I could not be more excited when they so kindly agreed to an interview for this article. During our Zoom call, Jess and Andrea received me with exceeding warmth. While they spoke with their characteristic sharpness and acuity that defined their evidence-first approach to science, their responses were cushioned by their inviting laughter and sincere reflection.

Neither of them were afraid to be vulnerable either--something I found deeply humbling because that set an intimate stage for the heartfelt conversation we shared, albeit a short 50 minute one. Talking to them was like being in the classroom with your favourite teachers, those that would stop at nothing to ensure you get the help you need, making sure to throw some of their life experiences into the mix.

The Women Behind The Unbiased Science Podcast: Andrea (left) and Jess (right)

Please, grab a cup of coffee and join me in learning about the impact Jess and Andrea are making, the story behind the podcast, the secrets of their success, their struggles with self-care and the work-life juggle, as well as their vision for science communication. From here, the Unbiased Science Podcast (US) will be referred to as Jess and Andrea’s science communication initiatives on social media and the podcast.

The Podcast That Is Transforming COVID-19 Vaccine Sentiment

If US has a distinctive style, it would be their easily digestible explanations that remain faithful to scientific evidence. In an era where science has become heavily politicised, US has served as a lifeline for those who are seeking scientists with whom they can trust and form a profound connection.

"Thanks for all the help you've given and continue to give! I seriously come here when I want facts." - Zoe Hill on the Unbiased Science Podcast Facebook Page
"Love your podcast. As a doctor, your busting of several vaccine myths and your COVID vaccine explanations have been particularly useful in my addressing patients concerns about COVID vaccine. Also, particularly enjoyed your telling of the story of gentleman Wakefield. If you do another old wives tale episode, please address echinacea, zicam, and if you haven’t already, if letting your fever ride out when sick actually gives you a significantly boosted immune response and allows you to heal from cold/flu faster making the added discomfort worthwhile. - been arguing this one with my mom for years.” - Dan Levinsohn on the Unbiased Science Podcast Facebook Page
“Can’t thank you both enough for all the wonderful work that you do via this page to spread good information, augment hope through actual science, and eliminate the anxiety that comes with having to ask “wait is this article true or is this just bad info being circulated?” ✊😌❤️” - @uncleabe on the Unbiased Science Podcast Instagram Page

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. They have recently been awarded as the winner of the Data Hero Awards under their most prestigious category: The Provocateurs. As the winners, they are recognised for “advocating for data access and transparency even when it was difficult and even dangerous.” Their win reflects another breakthrough achievement: in a culture that tends to sensationalise the individual, their nomination as the sole team amidst other candidates highlights the often overlooked fact that individual success often arises from the joint effort of a group of people.

Who makes the formidable pair behind the podcast?

US is co-hosted by Dr. Jessica Steier and Dr. Andrea Love.

Jess has a doctorate  in public health (DrPH) with a specialisation in health policy evaluation. She's also the co-founder and CEO of a public health data analytics firm called Vital Statistics Consulting (VSC). VSC’s bread and butter lies in designing and executing health policy and health program evaluations.

The firm currently collaborates with the largest federally-qualified health system in New York State as its research and evaluation team. Prior to starting VSC, Jess worked as a professor teaching biostatistics, epidemiology and evidence-based medicine to physician assistant students at Hofstra University in New York. She continues to do so at Marist College today.

Where Jess works with statisticians, health economists, epidemiologists and the like, Andrea works with researchers across the fields of immunology, infectious diseases, vaccine research, cancer immunotherapy and gene therapy. With a PhD in immunology and microbiology, Andrea previously worked in academic research, with a focus on infectious disease immunology: in particular, how pathogens that cause disease in humans interact with the immune system and lead to illness. .

Andrea currently works at Nexcelom Bioscience, a biotechnology company that develops instrumentation and assay technologies for biomedical research. She also serves as an Immunology Consultant for VSC. Recently, she wrapped up an immunotherapy research project on using CAR T-Cells for HIV immunotherapy, a project she has been involved in for the past couple of years.

The diversity of their backgrounds enliven their discussions, adding a multidisciplinary richness that gives the podcast its unique edge over the rest.

From getting kicked out of an anti-vax group to starting an evidence-based revolution

Jess and Andrea were certainly busy enough with their full-time jobs, so why did they start US? For one, scientific misinformation had long provoked a righteous wrath in both of them. “We frequently commiserate over our frustration with the anti-vax movement,” Jess said on an interview on The Vaccination Station. “Social media has given people a platform to spread unsubstantiated information, and it's just always mind-blowing to us how pseudoscience is so readily gobbled up by the public.”

She recounts the story of being kicked out of a mothers-only Facebook group for being too "militantly pro-vaccine" and "for weaponizing [her] credentials as a public health scientist." Her removal from the group was evidence for the distrust in science the pair had so accurately diagnosed.

When the pandemic hit, the duo felt that they could wait no longer. Remaining silent was as good as being complicit in exacerbating the public health crisis that fake news was wrecking. "Andrea and I strongly feel that we have a responsibility as scientists to debunk myths and communicate them to the general public,” Jess says. “And with that, US was born to translate science and research for the layperson.” Here’s a quote they said underpins what US stands for:

Science is not finished until it is communicated. The communication to wider audiences is part of the job of being a scientist, and so how you communicate is absolutely vital.- Sir Mark Walport, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser

What you will not find on their page are misleading and clickbait-y titles. What you will get instead are the straight up, stone-cold facts.

Jess and Andrea in their respective home offices, about to record the first episode of the podcast in September 2020.

Why did they decide to start a podcast, since they were already circulating infographics on other social media? Well, given the rapidly declining attention spans on social media, words and captions can only do so much in conveying the complexities behind scientific research. Turning to podcasting gave them the platform for communicating effective yet nuanced scientific discussion.

For more than just practical reasons, “On the podcast, we can really be ourselves. It lets our personalities shine through and play off each other. We're less constrained and have more freedom,” the pair shares during an interview with The Entrepreneur Doctor. Still, they remain active across Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to deliver accessible and accurate science to as wide an audience as possible.

Growing the podcast and community

Like many great teachers that came before them, Jess and Andrea make sure to place their students at the centre of their work. As part of their 'Heard from the Herd' initiative, their Instagram followers are encouraged to submit questions every Monday. They then compile many of these questions into a list before addressing them via Instagram posts, stories or a future podcast episode.

They also consistently chronicle the astonishing impact science has had on human history. Just recently, they have crowned COVID-19 vaccines as science's gifts to humanity.

Andrea fighting vaccine hesitancy by sharing her experience getting her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine
Jess and Andrea lauding COVID-19 vaccines as the breathing testaments to human ingenuity and perseverance they are. 

The quality of their work also appears to be on an ever-upward trajectory. Instagram, where most of their followers are, is not made for sharing dense chunks of information.

But they have made it work. Over time, the pair seemed to have honed in on a format that works for them: condense the science and locate it within a single infographic. That way, readers can easily screenshot the post for future reference. More recently, they have been using more eye-catching colours, with deliberate bolding of keywords and including at least one picture so that their posts avoid getting too heavy on the eyes. Using only one infographic also ensures that their audience misses nothing should they forget to swipe on Instagram carousel posts (posts that contain multiple pictures).

A post in August 2020 vs one in March 2020

The secrets of their success: a flaming chemistry built on 15 years of friendship and more

One of the things that struck me when I was listening to the podcast for the first time was the effortless chemistry between both hosts. And if I thought their camaraderie was great on audio, it was jumping off the screen during our Zoom call.

One might describe Jess’s conversational style as that of a storyteller, painting the arcs of the plot of the day. Andrea then comes in to fill out the details of the story. Between them was a natural and seamless turn-taking. They often finish each other’s sentences, one filling in for the other without hesitation. Listening to them teach is akin to having two parents patiently walk you through a complex topic, with the promise of understanding on the other side.

Jess communicates with her entire body. Being a visual thinker, as Jess speaks she constantly points at things in the air and draws circles and boxes in an effort to materialise her thoughts. Her speech follows the same illustrious patterns--giving rise to the characteristic way she engages the audience so well.

After Jess draws you in with her vibrant energy, Andrea proceeds to ground you with her trademark steadiness. Often responding with little hesitation, her sentences cut a straight and concise path to her arguments. Andrea’s no-nonsense approach subtracts from the noise to give you nothing but the facts, throwing in the perfect analogy here and there to concretise your understanding. Unlike Jess and ultimately reflective of her own teaching style, Andrea is judicious with her gestures, using them only when necessary to illustrate a point.

Their advantage in being a team lies in that they each attract different audiences. Some gravitate towards Jess's more exuberant, open-ended style. Others perk their ears to listen when Andrea hunkers down on the details of whatever evidence she's dishing out. If you’re like me, I enjoy the synergy of both styles. I often have pen and paper at the ready whenever it’s Andrea’s turn to speak, and rely on Jess’s summaries to tie my notes together.

Alongside their shared love for teaching and passion for science communication, they attribute their natural chemistry to their decade-long friendship. Fifteen years ago, the universe conspired for them to meet at Stonybrook University. Fast forward to today, they would reflect on the gift that is an unyielding, supportive partnership, built on the backs of joint ambition and purpose.

Jess and Andrea at a college party at Stony Brook University circa 2006.

One of their secrets to building a great rapport with each other is simply openness and honesty. In the early days of the podcast, tensions were high as they were still figuring out the frequency of posting. "We had an incident of miscommunication early on,” Andrea says. They did not provide the details, but in an effort to resolve the issue, “Jess had stepped forward to say, ‘Listen, I need to clear the air- what you said had hurt my feelings.' I was like, oh my gosh, I'm an idiot-- I did not mean that at all.” And Andrea stepped up to clarify, “This was what I actually meant."

That incident set the basis for the transparency and honesty that marked their interactions-- the same principles that catapulted the entire US endeavour into success. "Andrea and I are obviously different people, with different political views and different opinions on things. So we've learned to read each other's triggers and moods," Jess says.

Beyond their friendship lies yet another critical factor: an intrinsic respect and genuine admiration for the other. As a team, they are each other’s biggest supporters. For example, when I asked how they personally thought their strengths and weaknesses complement each other, they wasted no time running a list of the other’s best traits.

"During meetings, when there's a lot of heated discussion and disagreement, Jess just comes in and just, like smoothes the waters," Andreas spreads her palms outwards, as though smoothing out the surface of an imaginary lake. "She just has this very calming presence and this mediating type personality." As Andrea spoke, I couldn’t help but notice how Jess had her chin propped beneath her wrist, wearing a shy but growing grin on her face as Andrea sung her praises.

"As for me, I'm very stubborn. I'm very data-driven,” Andrea continues, “Sometimes we'll get a message from someone, and I'm like, ‘Oh my goodness, I am going to rip this person a new one!’ And Jess will go, "Alright, calm down. Let's be a little more diplomatic about it." At this point, Andrea shoots Jess a knowing look.

Once Andrea is done, Jess starts by saying, “It’s just everything!” Her eyebrows crinkling as she contemplates the interactions between them that came to them as naturally as breathing. "Andrea is very outdoorsy and athletic. She's a marathon runner and she does Judo. She's just-" Jess pauses, bringing out both her hands to gesture at Andrea, going speechless for a while. “I look at her as just this, stunningly beautiful, athletic, amazing- I don't know- Amazonian woman!" As Jess nods in satisfaction at having found the right words, a small smile graces Andrea’s lips as she basks in Jess’s compliments. "I'm like a couch potato, a homebody, you know. I'm not outdoorsy or athletic,” Jess finishes with a sheepish grin. Andrea, as Jess testifies, “is the total package. She knows her stuff and just delivers it all in such a beautiful way."

How do they feel about their partnership, one year on?

"It's been really gratifying and really great. I feel very fortunate. You know, I think Jess is probably one of the most important people in my life these days," Andrea says while Jess nods in agreement.

The work-life juggle

At the start of our Zoom call, Jess’s three year old daughter had climbed onto her mother’s lap, asking to be carried. Andrea had waved her usual "Hi, Sophia!" before Jess muted her microphone and excused herself to get her daughter settled in. As I saw Jess' article on jobs.mom come to life in front of me, I wondered how the two spectacular ladies managed to wrestle with the demands of both their personal and professional lives.

The answer seems to be: “We’re still learning.”

Unsurprisingly, their full-time jobs take first priority. On a typical day at work, Jess manages her teams at her firm and finds herself in and out of meetings with clients. Andrea alternates between running assays at the lab and doing data analysis from home. Given the multitude of responsibilities both women juggle, "It's often very chaotic and every day is slightly different," Andrea says. "It becomes an exercise in really being very self-disciplined and organized."

When does the pair find time to work on US?

While the answer can easily be, “all the time,” US typically consumes all of their attention in the evening, after the flurry of the workday is over. They typically delegate the work between themselves before the week starts, taking turns researching, designing and posting the infographics you see on their social media channels. If Andrea is caught in the lab the entire day, Jess fills in for her and vice versa.

In preparation for their episode releases, both of them drop notes and references in a shared Google Doc throughout the week. When Friday arrives, they have an outline and all the references ready for recording. The audio is then sent for editing over the weekend and ready for release by Monday.

When the sanctity of their personal time is weighed against the responsibility they have chosen to shoulder, the latter almost always wins out. "We are, probably to our own detriment, always on our phones and on Facebook and Instagram,” Jess says. “Honestly, we get a lot of nasty and accusatory messages, but we also get a lot of genuine inquiries from people who want more information," Jess says.

That is why, Andrea adds, “We make a point to respond to every message because we feel this obligation and we're very passionate about it.” Andrea might slip in time during her lunch break to respond to messages, or in between lab sessions when test samples are incubating. They know that their decision to publish a social media graphic that night might make a critical difference for someone choosing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, or masking up before leaving the house.

"Yeah, it's just chaos all the time," Jess gestures at her own top, tugging at her collar before raising her hands in mock surrender. "I haven't showered and I'm wearing the same clothes as yesterday!" Andrea shakes her head, laughing in agreement. "But we just work all the time. And we love it."

The self-care struggle

The pair is unabashed about sharing their struggles online--an act of vulnerability I deeply respect. Knowing each other’s workaholic tendencies, "we try and send reminders to each other, you know, don't forget to take this evening off, or go relax,” Andrea says, raising her brows at Jess through the screen. “Or even eat! Have a sip of water!” Jess jokes.

Previously, they were churning out two posts on social media a day. That expectation, on top of their own professional and personal lives, "was completely untenable," Andrea says. "Before long, we decided that we needed to preserve our own mental health and sanity.” Now, they produce at least one social media post every weekday and release a podcast episode every Monday.

Jess and Andrea keeping a COVID-safe distance at Jupiter Beach, FL in January 2021.

They were both frank about still being on the early end of the learning curve when it comes to self-care. "I was worried you're gonna ask me what I do to relieve stress," Jess admits. "My answer is usually just to sit on the couch and let my brain relax. But that doesn't ever really happen. I'm always kind of still going. So I have to figure that out. I haven't mastered that yet."

Andrea shares that she struggles with self-care too. During the pandemic, “We're working more. We're taking on extra projects. We're stressed and anxious because people are not listening to science," Andrea says. "So you know, let's be realistic, right? Some days, you're just surviving-- and that’s okay. I think people need to be honest about that, too."

Would they ever do science communication full time?

“I can't tell you how many people have said, 'Oh, I was on the fence about the vaccine. But because of your podcast, I signed up and I convinced my whole family to get it.'" Jess says. US has her feeling like a doctor, but for a wider population. For Jess, science communication has been nothing but incredibly rewarding.

Being able to see their work have an immediate impact on people's lives, has similarly been life-changing for Andrea too. "As a bench scientist, unless you're working on translational research projects, you don't always get to see your work make a tangible difference." Being in constant back-and-forth with their audience, Andrea says that "it is nice to see that we are making a difference to people."

Pursuing science communication full time might mean giving up their current jobs--a decision they are currently reluctant to make. The both of them believe that their careers as full-time scientists lends credibility to their work at the podcast.

That aside, both of them simply love research. Andrea finds deep satisfaction in the rituals of working in the laboratory, conducting her experiments on the bench and being at the cutting-edge of the latest research. As for Jess, diving into troves of raw data, extracting key insights from them and weaving them all into a story that can later be translated into policy underpins her passion at her consulting firm. Furthermore, being an expert in your field cuts through all the time spent needed for "expert clearance" to get your message out to the public.

So what is the verdict? "We're really enjoying the podcast. So I guess we'll see how things play out eventually," Andrea says.

If you’re passionate about science, communicate science to the masses.

At US, their mission goes beyond simply dispelling misinformation. "For us, it's really about growing a community of like-minded people who care about scientific evidence,” Jess says. We are arming them to spot pseudoscience and to say, 'Okay this is clearly not credible.' For them, success would mean growing the community to spread the commitment to science and evidence-based medicine.

Through US, the duo hopes to reach other scientists, the media and governments to emphasise the critical nature of science communication. "We have some of the most brilliant scientists in the world but they're unable to communicate effectively with the general public either because they’ve never received formal training or because it’s outside their comfort zones,” Andrea says.

They do have some tips for aspiring science communicators.

First and most importantly, practice teaching others. “While we don't have actual formal training in science communication per se, both of us have expertise in educating people on how to understand complicated topics," Andrea says.

Second, pretend that you are communicating to your most difficult audience. “I am aware of certain triggers that will automatically turn people off to the post,” Jess says. “So I’ll avoid certain types of language, really try to simplify the way that I'm presenting the information and avoid technical jargon.”

Third, take some science communications courses. In an age where scientists have to wear lots of hats, “I would encourage young scientists and students to take a public speaking course, or some sort of media communications course,” Andrea says. Both of them had to pick up graphic design skills “on the fly,” fervently agreeing that they would have signed up for such courses back in their university days if they could.

Lastly, try your best to remain apolitical and unbiased. "Obviously, we have our own personal political views, but we really keep those at the door,” Jess says. “And we do have some followers who hold very different political views. And that's a huge win for us.”

Their gift to the world

As I wrote this piece, I realised that Jess and Andrea have provided me with a gift no words can fully capture.

I learned that you can feel stretched beyond belief, with life's obligations pulling you apart at the seams, but still love every moment of your work because you believe and see its potential for good. I learned that you can protect and uplift others with gifts and love for one of humanity's greatest endeavours: science.

Perhaps most importantly, I realised that you don't need to have it all together to do something good for the world, as long as you remain steadfast to your principles and dedicated to your cause.

For me, they have enlarged the very realm of possibilities for what scientists can achieve.

PS: The Unbiased Science Podcast relies on its listeners for support. If you wish to support Jess and Andrea’s commitment to democratising access to accurate and reliable science, do consider supporting them by either sharing their work on social media, purchasing some of their merch, or even better- becoming a communicator of unbiased science yourself.

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