The Pulse Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
The Pulse

The Pulse


Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Most Recent Episodes

Nurses Taking Charge

Nurses have been a part of every aspect of care with the coronavirus pandemic — taking care of patients, communicating with families, writing health guidelines, spreading public health messages, and even advising public officials as they open or close businesses and schools. This is a reflection of the changing roles of nurses. Today, nurses are highly specialized, they have branched out into new areas of medicine and health care leadership. Still, nurses remain on the front lines of patient care. They communicate with doctors, relay patient wishes, and address family concerns. On this episode, we look into how nursing is changing, and how that's affecting patient care. Also heard on this week's episode: Sexual assault examinations are crucial for criminal prosecutions — but not all ER nurses know how to do them. Reporter Stephanie Marudas heads to one hospital in rural Pennsylvania that's using technology to connect forensic nurses with expert practitioners who can walk them through the process. Nursing historian Patricia D'Antonio of the University of Pennsylvania discusses nurses' role in advocating for public health reforms. An average day in the emergency room is never easy, and during a pandemic, the stakes are even higher — with more patients needing critical care. ER nurse and audio producer Kate O'Connell shares what it's like working on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak in the Transom series "Pandemic ER: Notes From A Nurse In Queens." When long-time nurse and former hospital CEO Sandra Gomberg got the call to build a coronavirus surge facility at Temple University's Liacouras Center, she knew she had to step up. We talk with Gomberg about how her background as a nurse helped her lead this effort.

Beauty and Health

Health and beauty may go together in the drugstore — but in real life, the two aren't always so simpatico. From excessive dieting to plastic surgery and chemical peels, looking good comes at a cost — to our wallets, our health, and our overall well-being. But in recent years, more people are starting to rethink mainstream beauty standards. Where did they come from? Who do they hurt? And what are we willing to risk to meet them? On this episode of The Pulse, we investigate our own ideas of beauty, and how they relate to health. We hear stories about the potential dangers of hair dye, the bane of "maskne," and why more men are opting for nips and tucks. Also heard on this week's episode: More men than ever are getting cosmetic surgery — reporter Liz Tung looks at what they're getting done, and why. What is maskne, and what can we do about it? We check in with University of Texas dermatologist Anisha Patel. Writer Kiese Laymon talks about what it means to be black, male and overweight, and how his relationship with his body changed along with his size. His 2018 memoir is called "Heavy." We talk with Dr. Christine Martey-Ochola — a scientist and cancer researcher who parlayed her biochemistry chops into a different business: hair care products. Martey-Ochola talks about how she learned to embrace her natural locks, and the potential dangers of chemicals like sulfates and parabens. Her company is called Nuele.

How Tech is Changing the Way We Talk

Technology isn't just changing our world — it's changing the words we use to describe it. Language is evolving at breakneck speed, thanks to the internet and social media, which allow people from around the world to connect, and spread new words and ideas. But technology and language influence each other in ways beyond the internet. On this episode of the Pulse, we explore how technology and language shape each other. We hear stories about the invention of talking computers, the quest for nuance in online communications, and an unexpected culprit changing the way Scottish teens talk. Also heard on this week's episode: Host Maiken Scott makes a copy of her own voice using a program called Overdub, and then talks voice synthesis with one of the program's makers, developer Kundan Kumar. Reporter Todd Bookman investigates the origins of how we made machines and eventually computers talk like humans. 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." A few years ago, British sociolinguist Jane Stuart-Smith noticed something strange — teens in Glasgow, Scotland using a Cockney pronunciation. Her research uncovered an unlikely culprit: an English soap opera called EastEnders. Jad Sleiman reports.

The Future of Trees

Humans have a close relationship with trees. We plant and cultivate them for food and shelter. Trees offer protection from the rays of the sun. We relax and seem to breathe more deeply in their presence. And of course, we couldn't breathe at all without trees — since they act as the "lungs of the earth," converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. On this episode, we explore our relationship with trees, and the shifting give-and-take in a changing world. We hear stories about how climate change is affecting our forests; what it's like to live in a tree; and how science is trying to bring a near-extinct tree back to life. Also heard on this week's episode: How is climate change affecting trees? Unlike animals, they can't migrate when the going gets tough — which is why reporter Alan Yu says some humans are giving trees a hand at moving house. For more than a century, American chestnut trees have teetered on the edge of extinction, due to a disease called the "chestnut blight." But now, after decades of work, scientists have come up with a solution — a genetically engineered chestnut tree that's resistant to the blight. Supporters say it could revive the species — so why are some critics saying it could destroy America's forests? Liz Tung reports. What's it like living in a tree? We find out from Nate Madsen, a lawyer and environmental activist. In the late 90s, he spent two years living in a redwood tree to save it from loggers. Air pollution from highways can affect people's health. Could trees help? WABE reporter Molly Samuel talks with a researcher who's studying which trees are best at blocking pollution. California forest fires seem to get bigger and more destructive every year. But climate change isn't the only culprit — 150 years of bad forest management have changed the very structure of the wildlands, and not for the better. According to scientists, what they actually need is more fire and maybe a little help from some forest-loving lumberjacks. Daniel Merino reports.

Do Less Harm

In sharp contrast to abstinence-only education or "Just Say No," America has been moving toward a public health approach that doesn't hinge on moral absolutes. It's called harm reduction, an approach that prioritizes safety, care, and meeting people where they are. The resulting policies can be controversial — from supervised injection sites to needle exchanges, or safe sex education for teenagers — but they can also save lives. On this episode of The Pulse, we trace the growth of harm reduction, from its scrappy roots into its blossoming present. We hear stories about bringing practicality to the fight against COVID-19, lessons learned from Canada's safe injection sites, and one woman's mission to get naloxone into the hands of everybody — even those selling drugs. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk to Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, about his "targeted" proposal for fighting COVID-19 — and why it ruffled so many feathers. Epidemiologist Ellie Murray explains how the pandemic is helping to illustrate harm reduction in real time. Imagine needing surgery, and having your doctor turn you down — because of your belly fat. That's what happened to Lenée Voss. She talks to reporter Alan Yu about her experience, and how it continues to affect her relationship with doctors. We also hear from sociologist Sabrina Strings, historian Hanne Blank, and physician Fatima Stanford. Reporter Travis Lupick covers the opioid epidemic in Vancouver, where, for the last five years, he's lived across the street from a supervised injection site. As the U.S. considers its own injection sites, Lupick offers some of the lessons he's learned — including the importance of community input. Lupick's book is called "Fighting For Space."

How Movies Move Us

Movies may not be real — but in a lot of ways, they're real to us. Great films help us understand the world, history, and one another. They have the ability to reach a level of truth that we can feel in our bones. When a great actor delivers a line, we believe them. When a beloved character dies, we mourn them. When danger approaches, our hair stands on end. What creates these strong reactions — and makes the illusion so compelling? On this episode, we look to science to explain how movie magic works in our brains and plays out in our emotions. We hear stories about the creation of movie sounds, method acting for dogs, whether you can really trust an actor, and how we draw the line between onscreen romance and real-life love. Also heard on this week's episode: Reporter Ari Saperstein takes us inside the world of Foley artists, who recreate everyday sounds for movies, from walking to eating to sneezing. Alan Yu reports on our obsession with on-screen couples, and explores whether acting in love can lead to real romance. For a lot of actors, embodying someone else can take a toll on your psyche. Barton Goldsmith talks about his work as an on-set film therapist, and how it can lead to a more productive movie making experience. We talk with Cornell psychology professor James Cutting about how and why films capture our attention.

What's Here to Stay or Gone Forever?

COVID-19 hasn't just changed the world — it's transformed the way we live. On a national scale, it has upended politics and flattened our economy. On a human level, we've lost loved ones and livelihoods. But the pandemic has also led to unexpected changes for the better — it's accelerated innovation, revealed new truths, and pushed us to find new ways of doing things. On this episode of The Pulse, we look into some of those lessons. What will the world look like after COVID-19 — what's here to stay, and what may be gone forever? We hear stories about the benefits of working from home, how the pandemic has affected romantic relationships, and why more scientific conferences may be moving online for good. Also heard on this week's episode: For a lot of scientists, academic conferences are the biggest event of the year — a chance for them to network, present their research, and catch up on the latest in their field. This year, however, the pandemic forced most conferences online. Reporter Alan Yu explains why this stopgap solution might turn into the new normal, even after COVID-19 subsides. Germ expert Connie Steed from The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology offers her predictions about what we can expect from our new reality, from tech innovations to how we travel. Will the pandemic accelerate efforts to bring hospital care to people's homes? We hear an excerpt from the health care podcast "Tradeoffs" that digs into that issue. We talk with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher about love and dating in the midst of COVID-19 — she explains how couples are dealing with being cooped up together, and why the pandemic may lead to more meaningful relationships.

Social Media's 'Infodemic'

Thanks to COVID-19, social media has never been more important — or more dangerous. Information — good or bad — spreads at lightning speed, including viral rumors, conspiracy theories, and "cures" that can kill. In fact, the spread of misinformation on social media has become such a threat to public health that it's earned its own name: "infodemic." On this episode, we track the spread of viral messaging on social media, and its implications for our health. We hear stories about the origins of the "infodemic," and how researchers are fighting back; why posting on TikTok could be an "ethical gray zone" for doctors; and how researchers are using what we share about ourselves on social media to better understand our mental health. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk with public health researcher Timothy Caulfield about how and why social media has become a vector for the spread of health-related misinformation — along with what we can do to the fight the ongoing COVID-related "infodemic." Medical ethicist Dominic Sisti explains why social media is valuable for health care providers, but can also be an "ethical gray zone" for Tweet-happy doctors that could ultimately harm the profession. Gastroenterologist Earl Campbell adds his perspective about why doctors can — and should — be active on social media to help combat prevalent misinformation. Sometimes it feels like we're being inundated with conflicting messages about the coronavirus. So how do we sort what's true from what isn't? Enter "Nerdy Girls," an all-female team of researchers and clinicians who've made it their mission to spread accurate and up-to-date information on social media. We chat with one of their members, Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the behavioral aspects of preventing infectious diseases. Researchers are mining our social media posts for information on our moods and well-being. We hear from University of Pennsylvania emergency medicine physician and digital health expert Raina Merchant, and Chris Danforth from the Computational Story Lab team at the University of Vermont. Footage of police brutality — most notably, the recent murder of George Floyd — has sparked a nationwide movement for justice. But what is the psychic cost of watching these horrific videos? We talk with adolescent and child psychiatrist Karriem Salaam about the impact these images have on mental health, especially for Black and brown adolescents.

Fake vs. Real — And When It Matters

There was a time when seeing was believing — but that's changing, thanks to new technology that's elevating fakery to a whole new level. In an ever-growing world of synthesized realities, how do we tell what's real from what's fake? And when and why does it matter? We explore that question on this episode, with stories about deepfakes — a new kind of fake video, powered by artificial intelligence; lab-grown meat in our pets' food; and fake laughter. Also heard on this week's episode: Reporter Susie Armitage explores fake laughter in its natural habitat — comedy open mics. We hear about how up-and-coming comics learn to tell real laughter from fake, and how our evolutionary past explains that ability... along with our tendency to chuckle when things aren't remotely funny. What happens when a piece of information shatters everything we believe to be true? Reporter Molly Schwartz explores that question with the story of Austin Lane Howard, a devout Jehovah's Witness whose doubt eventually pulled him away from the church. We talk with Lydia Pyne, author of "Genuine Fakes," about everything from lab-grown diamonds to replicas of famous historical sites.

The Impact of Police Violence on Health

The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis has sparked another wave of national outrage over police brutality and violence. Protesters have taken to the streets, demanding an end to police violence, and some are even asking for police departments to be defunded or abolished altogether. On this episode, we explore what better policing could look like, and what role research and science might play in serious reform. We talk with experts about the effects police violence is having on Black Americans' health — both mental and physical. It's not only the actual violence — it's also the constant fear of violence, and the fear of being stopped and arrested that's causing stress and anxiety. We hear ideas for reform, along with how we can improve, or even reinvent, American policing. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk to Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, about his experiences with police, and his essay "Bad apples come from rotten trees in policing." He is also a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Harvard University public health researcher David Williams and Bay Area pediatrician and community health advocate Rhea Boyd discuss the health impact of police violence on communities of color. The threat of violence can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance. Rohini Haar, an emergency medicine physician in Oakland, California, and medical expert for Physicians for Human Rights, explains the health effects of tear gas, which can include permanent injury and even death. We talk to Karen Quigley, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, about how more factors than we might think affect police officers' decision-making. Judith Andersen, a health psychologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga, then weighs in on how better, science-based training could help officers overcome their fight-or-flight response in the midst of stressful situations. Tracey Meares — a law professor at Yale Law School, and founding director of The Justice Collaboratory — discusses her research on how to improve the relationship between police and the public, which she says involves a fundamental reframing of how we think about police.

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