Sarah Nyakeri is a Kenyan Scientist, Informal science communicator, hiker and host for The Vulnerable Scientist Podcast. She is currently doing her MSc fellowship at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya where she is looking for new vaccine candidates for Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia.

Personal profiles

Website: Sarah Nyanchera Nyakeri 

Twitter: @TheSarahNyakeri 

Linkedin: Sarah Nyakeri 

Instagram: @newbiochemist


Image Credit: Sarah N Nyakeri
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) shown in her laboratory in 1947.jpg
Barbara McClintock shown in her laboratory.
Scrambled eggs with managu ugali

Which researcher – dead or alive – do you find inspiring? Barbara McClintock 

Name your (current) favorite song and interpret/group. 

Thokoza (I pray for you) about the support from people around us. 

What is your favorite dish/meal? Ugali + managu + eggs + amaruranu – 


Jo: Karibuni sana dear listeners to Kenyan episode of Access 2 Perspectives Conversation, today. We’re here with Sarah Nyanchera, who also has her own podcast called The Vulnerable Scientist. And yeah. Welcome. Karibu Sana, Sarah. 

Sarah:  Asante Sana

Jo: Please introduce yourself as we get to talk about your podcast and how that started and the kinds of stories you share in interviews you do. What brought you here? What is your journey so far? I hear you’re also a researcher yourself, so that’s where the connection comes from. Yeah. 

Sarah: Okay. My name is Sarah Nyanchera Nyakeri. I am an MSC fellow at ILRI, International Livestock Research Institute where I am studying vaccines. I’m looking for new vaccines for pleural pneumonia that affects cows caused by macro plasma. I’m also a student attached to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. I’m also a podcaster. Four months into podcasting and I’m loving it. I’ve been thinking this is the path that I want to take. I’m not sure yet, but I’m loving it so far. 

Jo: Anything science communication, I guess. 

Sarah: Yes, informal science communication. 

Jo: And why do you think that’s important? What’s so exciting about it?

Sarah: I think it’s important to communicate what we do in the closed spaces of the labs. I think it’s important for scientists to communicate that to people around them. Most of the time you find that sisters or family members don’t know what their family member is doing in the lab. Those conversations don’t really happen unless it’s just by the way, or unless Corona has come. And that’s the time people actually are interested to know, okay. Or they have a question related to maybe a medical thing and they want an answer to that. That’s when they have those conversations. But a day to day activity of telling people what you actually do, people don’t really understand. At the same time, scientists are not as comfortable. Most scientists are not as comfortable doing that. So if it’s so difficult to have conversations about science with people who you are close to, how about the public? How about the other people who we are doing science for? We are doing science for farmers. We’re doing science for people looking for new vaccines or diagnostics, but we don’t tell them this is what you’re doing. And when you finally come up with a technology, you want people to understand what you’ve done and what this technology brought up will help them and how it will help them. It’s hard if you haven’t taken them through that journey and let them understand what this thing is. And for me, that is why I try to help first scientists to communicate their own science through the different mediums that I use. And also I’m very passionate about telling the public what is happening in the science spectrum. 

Jo: And then your area of research, like with research topics around cow or cattle diseases, your stakeholders will be farmers and cattle breeders also masai because they’re known to be custodians of the cattle. That eventually in Kenya also provides for a percentage of the meat industry, right? 

Sarah: Yes. I’ve actually been thinking recently, honestly, no, this is just being honest. I’ve been thinking recently I need to talk to someone who is in the farming of cows and things related to that. I have friends who do that, but we don’t really and we have conversations. Of course, I always talk about what I’m doing to anyone who’s interested to hear what I have to say. But I would like to come into contact with the big farmers when it comes to livestock. And I think that would be a great motivation for me, especially when I come across hurdles through my research. It would be a great motivation for me. But again, I have colleagues who have family members who are big farmers in terms of livestock, and there are certain diseases, especially goats and cows. This person is farming. I wouldn’t say the specifics. You’ll find that they’re having trouble, their business is going down, and you’ll find that this person is stressed. And if your brother is stressed about something and they know you’re actually in that spectrum of looking for new vaccines, they will always have those conversations and it will trouble you. Right. And that troubles everybody across. So apart from it being about looking for new solutions to problems, it is also a personal issue to other people or to most people, like they want to find a new solution for something.

 When it came to this project, I saw this project being advertised and I thought to myself, ‘you mean that there’s no vaccine for this disease?’ That is like, you could see the map of Africa. It is capturing a very huge percentage of Africa, sub Saharan Africa. It is endemic in twelve countries and it’s majorly just Africa, and it’s an African problem. And I was like, seriously, there’s no vaccine for this? And I was like, I need to be part of that. It’s amazing to do something and you know that the result will nicely or positively affect someone. It’s a nice thing to be part of. Of course, it is a vaccine, it’s not as effective. It’s very low efficacy. Sometimes it becomes virulent. And farmers are not happy about that. But I got emotional about it. It became a personal problem for me. So that’s why I do what I’m currently doing. And that’s the motivation that I have to do the project that I’m doing. Though it’s tough. 

Jo: Yeah, I know, it’s a great motivation to have. I think many of us researchers have or see a purpose or at least develop a purpose with the work that we do at some point. Sometimes we can’t see it from the beginning, but then the more we dig into the topic, we see how things are connected and interconnected. And now we can actually have an impact by providing puzzle pieces to the bigger picture. It’s funny because I actually have a Kenyan friend, but she lives in the Masa Mara, and she’s also from a cattle herder Masai tribe. And she told me that I’m asking if this is the same disease she’s been talking about because it turns out that some other species or the Wildebeests rather, well camels are not native to Kenya, but Wildebeests. I think the Wildebeests are also cattle-like, and they seem to be immune to that virus. Well, the virus that they’re struggling with, maybe it’s the same. So whenever positive other way around or when theWildebeests comes and they don’t get infected, but then they can transfer the virus to the cattletle. I think that was the issue. And then the cattle ith the Masaiof the Masai are roaming free, so they’re not fenced and they can’t and don’t want to fence thetle cattle, but that’s an extra threat. And they were also hoping for somebody to develop a vaccine so that they wouldn’t lose so many of their livestock. And the virus spreads like twice a year and only when theWildebeests Wildebeests call around that time. That’s when they’re transferred. But maybe we’re talking about a different virus there, but I’ll introduce you, and then you can do your expertise exchange.


Sarah: I love that. Whatever I’m working with is a bacterial disease, and it’s the only bacterial disease that is notifiable if it occurs somewhere like you have to notify the international space, and you can see what that does to business. If people are afraid to deal with because I have this disease in my farm or in my country, then trade is impossible. And doing trading between countries, like in terms of beef and anything related to cattle or produce, then the farmer suffers. There’s an economic stream there, yJo: Hou know.

 Jo So, how did you get to…….ok, basically you you already told us how you’re interested in this kind of research. What was your journey towards that master’s program now now? 

Sarah: WSarah When I was younger, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But there was a time when I was in high school, I had a list. And in that list, I had a very huge list. But in that list, I remember I wrote somewhere I would like to be a scientist. There’s a scientist, , Journalist, architecture, and other things that are a very long list of the careers that I was interested in. And I remember I didn’t know anyone who was in science, but I was really interested in being a scientist. And when I got into University, I really didn’t know that the career that I chose would make me a scientist. I just knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor and I wanted to be an architect, but I wasn’t chosen for that. So when I was chosen for biochemistry and I was like, okay, so what do you do with this career? What do you do with this biochemistry thing? That’s when I started being curious and started going into labs and trying to see. Ok, so how can I use the skills that I’m learning in school or what are the practical aspects of it? And when I did that, I was in a kind of educational system. I was first interned in an educational system where I was just the lab assistant helping with the practicals of pharmacy students. But there was this student who was doing her master’s and she was busy with other stuff. She was a teaching assistant, but she would come and she would leave me with some responsibility to do with her research. And she was doing something to do with how to use bacteria to clean the oceans from oil, like if there’s a spillage and all that, and using oil as a carbon source. So I find that exciting, like you’re doing research that will actually help. And that’s I think the first interaction that I had, one of the first interactions that I had with research. And there’s this other research where someone was doing their PhD research in my institution and they were doing research on Cart. I don’t know if you know Mira.

Jo: Yeah, well, I know, but maybe we should explain to some of the listeners. 

Sarah: Okay. Oh, you want to explain?

Jo: Is it a herb? Like a plant you can chew and also get some… Is it really psychedelic? Is it a little bit or more like caffeine? So it keeps you awake and excited and people can stay awake. Well, it keeps you awake and up and running. So people have to work a lot and long hours or want to be in a good mood. They chew it.

Sarah: Yeah. It’s pretty bitter stuff, I hear. Jo: Never tried it, of course. 

Sarah: Yeah, I never tried it. I was curious, but I’ve never tried it. So there’s this guy who was doing research related to that, and he was trying to find out its effects on the kidneys and the brain and all that. And I helped him for a while. He was doing that, the study on mice, and I was helping with giving the mice the cart, processing the cart, then giving the mice the cart. 

Jo: But they were injected. They didn’t chew it right.

Sarah:  No. I used to make it into a juice. Yeah. Then you change the ratio depending on the animal, and now you give it. So every single time you give it because it’s oral, normally people take it orally, so you have to give it orally or introduce it orally. And at first, of course, the mice were annoyed, but after some time, they came to like it. Anyway, I never stayed on to find out more of what he did. But when I went home, because I come from the kind of ghetto side of Kenya, when I went home, I would interact with my friends who I started primary school with, who most of them went into doing business and all that. But there’s a chunk of people who are doing drugs, and one of the legal drugs that they were doing was this cart. And they would ask me, what are you doing now since you used to be bright? No. What are you doing with that brightness? I’m like, actually, I’m in the lab right now, and I’m doing this and this, and you’re just talking about it. And they were so curious to know. Okay, so what have you found out? Seeing how impactful the research that I had been involved with was having an impact, a potential impact to the people around me or the community at large made me want to be part of research. And seeing that you’re not doing necessarily the same thing every day made me more excited. I was very inclined to diagnostics at first, and when I was trying to look for opportunities, I couldn’t get that then. I’m thankful that I wasn’t able to get that because most diagnostic work was just routine lab work. But I saw how I can actually look for diagnostics, for African infrastructure, like diagnostics that can be applied in the African infrastructure. And that’s what made me now start to look for research opportunities. And while going round and round looking for different things, what are people doing? How can I get myself involved? And this is what I’m. I was very specific about wanting to be involved in diagnostics, and it was hard to get a position in that. And someone told me, you can learn these other skills that you can apply to steal the diagnostic research that you’re so passionate about. And that’s how I got myself into vaccine research actually. I saw this advertisement, I was like, I really need to be part of that because I really need to grow my skills. At the end of the day, I want to be into independent research rather than institutional kind of research because I want to drive my own agenda that affects me and my community.

Yeah. So yes, I am in vaccine research, but my target goal is to go into diagnostics. So I have been in various placements. I think the only close diagnostic research institution that I was in was HIV Drug Resistance Diagnostics, where they were looking for patients who had developed resistance to certain ARV drugs in terms of HIV. But the rest were different kinds of research. I think that’s the basic journey into my research.

Jo: That’s an extensive journey and quite some rich experience in various laboratories. Okay, so how did the idea for running your own podcast show spark?

Sarah: It started with this current research actually. When I was introduced to the ILRI research environment, I was very excited. Of course, I was anxious because I wasn’t sure because I was coming to this big research institution and I’m not sure if I’ll do my best. I don’t know. I was just a bit anxious, but I was excited. I was very excited because I knew the kind of labs that they had. I had a tour before. I knew the kind of labs they had, and I knew the kind of resources that they have and the kind of training, soft skills training that they had. And I was like, I really need to be part of this. And I’m so excited about that.

Jo: Can you explain what ILRI is? 

Sarah: So ILRI is the International Livestock Research Institute, where they concentrate on doing mostly livestock related research, though they are moving into one health kind of research where they Covid 19 research and all that, like antibiotic resistance, things that relate to animals and humans. But basically it is a Livestock Research Institute where they study…some of the things that they study are diseases, like the virus that you mentioned. Probably it’s part of it. I don’t know which virus that is actually. But, yeah. Looking for new interventions like vaccines, looking for new farm practices, trying to help with reserving the genetic resources and all that. It’s just anything livestock, all kinds of livestock. That’s the research that they do, the work that they do. 

Jo: Sorry, I was just going to ask if it is an international Institute, or it’s globally connected and based in Nairobi, Kenya. Sarah: Yes. So it is part of the CGIR umbrella where they do food security related research. They see where they do the potato and all that. But now this is the umbrella that does the livestock and headquarters are in Kenya and Ethiopia. Yeah. That’s how I found myself there.

Jo: Okay. 

Sarah: Thank you.

Jo: Okay. And out there, how did you come up with an idea for a podcast? 

Sarah: Yeah. So while I was there, I was in spaces where I could see people walking around because there are people from different backgrounds, doing different kinds of research. And since it’s a campus, it has also hosted other institutions. So they’re very different people who look very serious and they look like they know what they’re doing. And I was like, I’m so small here, but I was like, okay, I think I know what I’m doing. I think I’ve had very short experience in different institutions, so I can figure myself out here. So the first time I was trying to. So just a brief. I’m trying to create a mutant library for Mycoplasma, specifically mycoplasma code substance, Mycodes, which affects cattle. And we’re trying to understand the different functions of genes and also how the pathogens interact with the host. And we’re trying to look for the virulent genes that cause this disease and see how we can use them as new vaccine candidates. So when I was creating the first part where I was creating the mutants, since it’s a very complicated bacteria that is a bit different from the normal bacteria in terms of how it looks and it’s made, there are very few genetic tools for it and the fewest that have been worked on before being successful, though not always reproducible or the use of transposomes. So when I first did my first trial with creating my first transformation, it worked. Then the second time it was better. Way better. Like it was way better. The third time I tried it, it was okay. I thought it was okay, but it wasn’t. I just realized later. Then the fourth time I tried it, it didn’t work. Nothing. Fifth, nothing. 6th nothing. I was just like, oh my goodness, time is going. I felt like I didn’t belong here. Imposter symbol just became amplified.

There’s something wrong with me. I really thought that there’s something wrong with me. And I started having conversations with you because people see me come so early and leave late and they’ll be like, oh, okay. So it looks like your research is going well. How is your research?

Jo: And you’re like, no, don’t mention it. 

Sarah: And I’ll be like don’t even ask that question.

Jo: Can we just press the problem here? Every single researcher on this planet fits that way most of the time. I would bet like $10,000 on that statement. But nobody thinks other people would possibly have similar thoughts like us. 

Sarah: I actually started thinking about the other person, the other people who interviewed with me, I didn’t know them, of course, but I was like, if they could have picked the other person, then maybe they would have had an easier time. They will not have been wasting money on me because I am wasting money because you’re just thinking about money. The money that is going down because of the failed experiments. And that really ate me. And when people started asking me those questions, I found myself saying a lot. I found myself just talking about it. And if they have time to listen, they will give their feedback and they will tell me, you know, sometimes my things don’t work. Sometimes I have to repeat something and I have to repeat something and they’re like, if you’re doing something and it works, then…

Jo: There’s something wrong.

Sarah:  It’s not even research.

Jo:  Seriously, can you replace sometimes with ‘normally, things don’t work’ as expected in the laboratory and we just focus somewhere up on the wall. 

Sarah: Yeah, and having those conversations with them. And when I first interacted with the first two people who are open enough to talk about their research and how sometimes you run a PCR and it’s just a mess or you see someone just casting out and be like, oh my goodness. And you’re like, okay, so I am actually not alone here. And when you started going for lunch, actually I thought, I won’t die, I won’t kill myself. Let me  interact with people. I started going for lunch and just talking to people like going for lunch when people are actually going for lunch. I heard of talking to people and they were like, also we tried this and we tried this and this has worked. Sometimes things actually work. Just hope that things… people started being positive, people started sharing their stories, people started being vulnerable, in short. But it’s not a word that people say. It’s just that that’s the state of conversations. And I thought from there on, my life started being better, especially mentally. Not that my experience started working or something, but my life started becoming better and especially mentally. And I was like, I even started going back to hiking. I was like, okay, so life actually has to continue. If something doesn’t work, go to the bar and drink or go to your home and talk to your kids or go hike or just do your stuff. Don’t stop your life thinking that the more you do it, the more it will work. No, just go back and reflect. And I think my supervisor is one of the main steerers to that. She was like, just go and just do something else, like refreshing your mind and all that. So I thought, this is a conversation that is not openly talked about. People don’t see how things sometimes just don’t work. And they don’t talk about the low side of research. They don’t talk about the low side of science. They only talk about the publications they’ve had, the success of this, but they don’t talk about how long it took for them to get there. They don’t talk about it. And I think at that time that’s when I saw this documentary, I think it was then, the documentary where these German researchers.  The Covid 19 vaccines. The couple…

Jo: Like the BioNTech.

Sarah:  Yeah, the BioNTech. Pfizer, I think it’s Pfizer, right.

Jo: BioNTech is the German one.

Sarah: They were talking about the low points, although it was not really highlighted. But I loved the way they talked about their journey. And you see how it came to be like, it’s just something that they’re working on something else then they transfer the technology to actually use it for Covid. Like, yes, they were not as happy, but it actually came to work for everyone, like, for the whole world. So it’s like if you could have this kind of conversation and just talk about sometimes it’s not always a good walk in the park. There are laws that happen, and it affects us as human beings because we’re actually humans who are doing science. And I thought I wish people were more vulnerable. And I thought, why don’t we have a space where these vulnerable scientists are just talking? And that’s how I actually named the podcast the Vulnerable scientist. And when I talked to different people who are not in science, not different. Not so many people, just a few, actually, two. They were like, that’s an interesting idea. I like it. If I had these vulnerable scientists, I’d be interested to hear what we have to say. And when I asked a few of the scientists, they were like, vulnerable. If you’re vulnerable, you perish. It can’t be vulnerable and survive. I was like, oh, my goodness. It crushed me. And I was like, I don’t think I have scientists who I can interview for that. But then one day, I had a tough day, and I was trying to get this microscope to work. I wasn’t having mutants for so long that I even forgot how the microscope, the fluorescent microscope was working and trying to figure it out and trying to find…and the people who knew weren’t around or they were busy or there’s just something happening. And I was so frustrated, that I couldn’t get to change the microscope to show the GFP. Okay, the green fluorescence. I couldn’t find out which button it was. And it frustrated me, and it spoiled my day. It really spoiled the rest of my day. I sat in that dark room, and I just didn’t go for lunch. I just listened to YouTube. I just went away, and the whole day was ruined, and I went back home. And before I got home, I started crying on the road. And when I got home, I took my mic. At that time, I already had a mic. I took my mic. My phone was off. I didn’t want to have a conversation with anyone. And I just spoke into their mic. And I felt so much better after that. And I thought, I wish other people could just come and talk and just talk and just say what you’re currently going through. And I thought, how can I have a place where we can just say, how are you? And answer that question in a very vulnerable way. But I didn’t know who, and I didn’t want to ask my friends, and I didn’t want them to feel like they had to come to be vulnerable. So I posted it, and one person came and was like, oh, I want to be on your podcast, and I want to be vulnerable also. And another asked me, what is this that you’re doing? I would like to be vulnerable. And I thought, okay, so scientists are actually willing to be vulnerable. So I started reaching out to other people who I was interested to talk to, and step by step. That’s how there’s an episode after episode of that podcast.

Jo: Thank you. That’s impressive. So now you’re counting 76 episodes in just four months. What’s your frequency? How often do you record? And, like, seriously, that’s a lot of output in a short time. 

Sarah: Oh, my goodness. It was supposed to be a daily podcast. The intention was for me to just talk about my days so that I can be better. It was a very selfish podcast. Then I think so far I’ve published, like, two or three that are actually personal podcasts. The rest have been,…it’s nice to listen to people. It’s nice to listen to what people are going through. It feels like you’re the one who’s talking. And that’s the whole idea of the podcast for other scientists to just listen to someone else talk about their challenges. Of course, also their highest because that’s also being vulnerable. But hearing someone else talk, even if you never want to be vulnerable on the show, you feel better. You feel like you’re the one who’s talking. Someone has told your story in some different kind of way. And since I was publishing people’s stories, there’s the editing, there’s the looking for the guests. There’s a lot that comes with editing a podcast. And sometimes you’re having a very bad day or you’re so busy or just tired or you just don’t want to listen to a very emotional story. Maybe you’re just not in that space. There’s this podcast that I took so much time to edit because I didn’t have the energy at that time to edit that podcast. So the frequency for now, it was supposed to be a daily podcast, but the frequency for now is when I am ready to edit. So far, it’s at least every single day. But I tried to do that, but it has never been perfect. But it’s a lot of podcasts, like 15 podcasts per month so far. That’s the average that I’ve had so far or less or more, depending.

Jo: Yeah. That’s still a high output and highly valuable information to share with research around the world. Really? Can you share with us, like one or two of the most compelling stories? You can also mention the speakers by name or what are stories or situations that were shared with you in your podcast where people that were compelling to you were like, oh, I want to mention this here to also suggest our listeners to look into your podcast or listen into whether this is one episode that comes to mind, I’m sure it’s difficult to pick one of them. 

Sarah: Yeah, it’s hard to say which, because I love all these conversations that I’ve had that I’ve posted. I love those conversations. Of course, I’ve not posted everything because sometimes someone can come and be so vulnerable that they’re like, okay, I need to redo this when I’m not so vulnerable like this because they share a lot. But one of the podcasts, I think that stood out that I think I really connected with was with Faith Zablom. She had a very weird experience coming from doing a Masters outside, then coming to Kenya and trying to get an opportunity. And for over nine years, you’re still looking for an opportunity, but you’re mentoring students to get the opportunities out there or they get their PhD, but you’re still looking for a PhD or you’re still looking for a space in the research community and you can’t get that you’re qualified. And one of the reasons is because you’re a woman.

It was very emotional for me. It’s still a story that I still remember. And there’s so much this male called story to kind of the same story but a different context.

Oh, my God. I think one of the early stories was very impactful. I also loved the recent stories. Like, Vera Nara story. She went into her PhD out of spite. Someone told her it’s like, you can’t do it. What are you doing here? And she’s like, I can prove to you that I am actually fit to do this. And she applied for a PhD just for that. Just to prove that I’m not just here to be pretty. I actually have brains and I can do this.

There are so many stories. I loved Fred, my biggest story. I think that’s the last time I mentioned so that people don’t think I’m being choosy about my guests. But I love Fred’s story. I love the man that came in and became vulnerable. Because in the general society we view men not being able to be vulnerable, especially in the African setup, people don’t believe that men should be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is being weak. People think that. But I love that this man came and even talked about even the moment they cried, when things were not working for them. And I loved that he was very specific in terms of the struggles that come with being a black researcher and the things that come with it. I really loved the way he was very honest about that. Because as much as some of my guests are very nice and they want to be as vulnerable as possible, they’re not in a position to, like, in their current probably they’re not in a position to do that and mention names out loud. But someone being confident and saying something, that is the truth, but it can be painful to other people. Like, it can damage someone’s reputation or something, but it is the truth and it’s something that needs to be known. I respect that. Like, it takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of courage, and I really respect that. I respect every single guest who’s come to my show and became vulnerable, and I salute them for that.      Jo: Advocate for the class, how being vulnerable actually makes us stronger. I might have heard and known this before, but only now it really clicks in and I’m working really hard on making myself vulnerable, showing my weak points and then realizing actually that’s a strength and people admire us for it. And you get respect when you show that we’re human. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just being human.

Sarah: Yeah. You’re just not someone who’s creating weird stuff in the laboratory. It’s the authenticity and the honesty that I love that drives me, actually. I have a personality where I’m still looking to find a way how I can deal with dishonesty because the world is full of a lot of dishonesty around us, so I’m still struggling with that. So I’m driven by honesty and I love that. And it’s one of the drivers of this podcast. Just being honest, true self and just bearing, just letting yourself out and just talk about things as they come because just so you know that I don’t ask questions before. I don’t send questions. There are no questions that I sent to my guests before. Most of the time I don’t even know those. I’ve never interacted with the guests before. It’s just an honest conversation that I just have with the guests. And it’s just the most I love that my Jo: It goes natural.

Sarah: Yes. It’s not the common media way of doing this, but it’s what I love. And I’m sure that there are listeners who love that.

Jo: Have there been people who regretted having been on record with making themselves vulnerable and asking not to publish it.

Sarah: Yes, I’ll just say yes. Yeah.

Jo:  No, that’s okay. I don’t want to dig any further. And it’s good that it’s possible. I mean, it’s not that they signed a contract, whatever they say. 

Sarah: No. Sometimes for me, it’s important. I don’t get annoyed that you’ve wasted my time, because sometimes just having that conversation, there’s so much to learn from people’s stories and what they have to share. And that’s enough for me. And since I’m not selfish, that’s why I actually share it. But that’s usually enough and it’s actually good for them. The guests who come in and just share the stories and answer the questions that no one sometimes has ever asked them about. They just ask them about their research. And what is this that you’re doing? They don’t really care about the story. So them coming in and answering questions that they never even thought about sometimes is a good thing. I always ask every single guest, off or on record, how do you feel after having this conversation? That’s a very common question that I ask. 

Jo: An important one also. 

Sarah: Yes, a very important one. Because you don’t want to leave someone worse than you left them. You want to leave someone better. It’s all like you just took and took. You want to give. So I love the responses. I really love the responses that we have. And I respect when someone says, can we repeat that? And I know that probably they got to a point where they felt, oh, my goodness, that’s a lot.

Jo:  Because I get that all the time, like give me a break myself.

Sarah: Yeah. They’re like, I think I need to because not everybody’s ready for their story to be public about certain things that they share. And sometimes I get people who’d say, sometimes someone will ask me to send them the recording so that I can edit a part that they would like out. Or I can edit a name, just a name of something, but maintain the story. I get that. And I respect that. It’s okay for someone to say at this moment, I don’t want this to be out yet. And there’s nothing dishonest about that. It’s just their choosing. 

Jo: But there’s still the option of sending an email at some point saying, Sarah, what we recorded last year, now is the time. Let it fly. 

Sarah: Before I started this podcast. I had tried another podcast. That’s why I had the mic. And it was just a chat with a young scientist. I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. I just wanted to have conversations with people and write about them or post them. I hadn’t thought it through, actually. I had a lot of conversations that I really never put out there. And I was still trying to figure out how to ask questions. What kind of stories are relevant? I discovered all of them are relevant, actually. And one of them, I really love the story. And I posted it. It was one of the stories that I posted and the things that they talked about mentioning things, data related stuff that they mentioned. Someone came to them. One of the bosses and like, you need to delete this pattern. You shouldn’t have talked about this. And I had to, since deleting the parts that she had said were not I don’t know. At that time, I didn’t have that energy to just delete the important parts of the story and remain with the other part. I was like, okay, let’s just redo this. Actually, we’ve tried to redo it, but it just never worked. But that has happened before. Just to see that has happened. Not on the Vulnerable Scientist podcast, but that has happened before where someone mentioned something and they need that to be taken down. And I took it down. But when you share something online, it remains online in some sort of way.

Jo: Also the other way. When somebody said, can you not yet release this? But maybe next year when I’m done with my thesis, I’m not talking about somebody wanting to blackmail somebody else, but just because they’re still in the middle of it and they didn’t process it. So they need some distance. 

Sarah: Yeah, okay. So that has never happened so far. But what has happened is when I approach someone and they’re like, I’m not in the right, I would really love to do that. And you’ll see that they really want to. But not now. Maybe in terms of where they’re working or what they’re currently going through or they’re busy or what they’re currently working on, they don’t want to talk about it. It has happened before. It has never happened after someone told me to postpone. 

Jo: Yeah. I also get the response, oh, yeah, let’s do a podcast. Just not now, because I have so much work or something. I’m not ready or I don’t have a topic to talk about. Yeah, great. Is there anything else that you would like to share about the work that you do and maybe to conclude with what’s next? Do you have a threshold to hit 100 episodes and then off to the next topic or after a new chapter, or is the Vulnerable Scientist going to stay with us for some time and people can sign up to be interviewed by you. 

Sarah: That’s a good question.I used to think I was alone, but I get to a point where I’m like, why am I doing this? I should quit. I feel like I’m quitting. I should just leave this thing alone. And I actually realized just a few hours ago that I am actually not alone in that. There are podcasters who are very passionate about what they do in science communication. But sometimes you get those moments. Yes, I’ve had those moments. And no, I’m not planning to quit. I still want to do this for as long as I live or as long as I have energy to do that, because there’s so much energy that listening to people can take from you. And that’s why it’s hard to always record. I want to talk and listen, but sometimes you’re not in a third space to listen to a story. You’re not mentally in that space. The initial idea of the vulnerable scientist podcast was to have ‘a how are you?’ podcast or episodes where people can just come in and just talk about the day and that’s it. But asking someone how are you? People always say good things. When you probe further they still say yeah, I’m good. It’s still the same answer. Jo: Let me Intervene here and say if you ask a German, how are you? You will get the full answer and impress yourself for a minute because you get the full picture of what’s going on in their life.

Sarah: But it’s different here.

Jo: Really? Because when I got to Kenya and you were in line for the cashier in the supermarket, people had conversations, usually starting with Bariako, how are you? And then the whole family story is like, oh, and this niece got married and this happened. And then that …

Sarah: At least those people know each other, they have a base to talk about. But for someone to just meet me as a stranger, it’s very hard for them to just give that answer. And most people actually don’t know how to give that answer because no one has ever. Most people don’t really ask that question with the intention of really knowing. How are you? It is just a greeting. Habariaco? This is a normal greeting. Let me first get acquainted with these different people by knowing the stories. And that is just having an issue of just talking about the highs and lows, only just talking about what are the things that you’ve experienced through the journey, the highs and the lows. Because as much as we talk about the lows vulnerability, for me, I believe is also talking about the highs, like talking about the joys, taking about the emotions that come with everything to do with your career and all emotions, the sadness, the anxiety, the happiness, excitement, the joy, everything, everything that comes with it. So for me that is what I believe being vulnerable means, the highs and the lows. But now I am moving to an episode where now I can bring in the previous guest or the few guests who I have gotten who are able to answer that question. And I put it as a season. How are you just talking about a day and just talking about what has happened? And that’s it.

That’s the next phase of the interview, the interview of the podcast that I am working on right now.

Jo: Because of the reality of research. 

Sarah: Yes. Just talking about. No need to explain anything. No need to explain what is gyms. Just come and just talk. When I was starting to have deeper mental issues when it came to my research, I tried to reach out to a therapist. And when lamenting about all these things, they really didn’t understand what I was saying. And I felt misunderstood. It’s not like I’m discouraging anyone from visiting a therapist because there’s so many things you can talk about. And there are other therapists who can actually understand what you say. Actually people who are not in science who actually understand. They take their time to understand. But my first encounter was not, of course, but I don’t know how therapy is. But for me, I don’t know what I was expecting. That’s what I was expecting in my head, like just talk to someone who is not necessarily my friend, who will not necessarily cover. Who would just listen. And I couldn’t find that. And I think I would like people to do that either offline or online on the podcast. I think one of the services that I want. I’m not a therapist, but I would like just to listen and just say nothing, but just hear someone just lament about the day and. Yeah. Feel good after that. I always feel good after ranting. So I’m assuming a lot of people feel good after ranting. 

Jo: Exactly. I think you’re feeling a void here. Maybe that’s what some scientists manage to do during lunch breaks. I don’t see many. As you said earlier, usually it’s about success stories, maybe some little struggle, but they certainly don’t lift the lid to the dark episode of everybody’s experiences. Yeah, I’ve come across also I’ve had previous episodes two by now. One is to be released soon, will be released by the time that one is released with friend and colleague Joyce Wangari. And she’s also into mental health and academia. She’s also a researcher and psychologist, and she specializes in all kinds of working groups and organizations, associations for mental health and for researchers. I’ve also had my depressive episode and my anxiety moment, like many of us do. And I’ve discovered Remo is also research for mental health organization or research for mental health organization.

Luckily, there’s an increasing amount of conversations around mental health issues and mental health, like how to preserve mental health as a researcher. It’s sad that we have to talk about this, but maybe it’s also about, like I said, I think you’re filling a void because what we need to have is more honest conversations about what it means to do research. That is quite frustrating. Most of the time some people joke about it, but then to actually walk through it as another story. 

Sarah: Yeah. 

Jo: I think it can prevent a lot of people having to go and see a therapist to very unlikely understand what we are working through and experiencing the intent with the pressure and expectation by ourselves. I think that’s what put most pressure on me was my own expectations.

Yeah. And that’s also what happened when I realized that the other PhD students in my program have the same fears, they have the same thoughts, they have the same soft doubts. And whereas coming together and finally towards the end of my PhD, speaking up, what’s happening when we were like, what? Oh, it’s not so bad after all, like what you explained earlier. So yeah, please continue having these conversations with the guests. And I think it will inspire many other young and also senior researchers.

Sarah: You know, what people don’t know is that, when I have the conversations on record, if it’s 2 hours, there’s probably 3 hours that are not put up there because it was off record. Like it was intentionally off record. Maybe before starting your podcast, you just have a conversation which is very rare. But after finishing the conversation, we talked a lot and talked and talked. And people feel good after that. And I think I have come to recognize that. I think I’m a good listener. I was a perfect listener, but I think I’m a good listener.

Jo:  I could judge you. Why not say not perfect? Nobody’s judging.

Sarah: I am a good listener. And I thought, why don’t I use that gift to help someone? Because sometimes people want to talk, they want to talk, but they’re not ready to talk on record. So why don’t I always open that door? Like just come, let’s just talk. Do you want to talk? Let’s just talk. Because I feel like you want to talk, but not now on record. But let’s just talk. Or maybe you never want to talk on record. Let’s talk. That happens too. Like you really don’t want to be on record, but they want to talk and I love it. 

Jo: That is a great final statement. Please continue with the great work you’re doing. Well, sure you will. So forget what I ask. I’m looking forward to the next episode coming up on your show. We put the link in the show notes podcast, all in one word. And that way currently 76 by the time we hear this probably up to 100, maybe close to, explore, listen in. And thanks for being on the show. 

Sarah: I want to add something. 

Jo: Sure, go ahead. 

Sarah: I’m thinking of adding a website where all the information that has been on the podcast can be either written or posted there or any other services that will be offered in relation to the podcast will also be posted there or kind of database of the scientist and what they are doing and profiles of the scientists that I have interviewed will be there.

Jo: Cool and also some of the resources that are being shared during the conversation, right? Sarah: Yes. 

Jo: Excellent. Yeah. I think this is a huge resource of knowledge and also to seek assistance. If some of us feel low sometimes there’s always a hand to reach out to pull you up again, Asante Sana, speak to you  soon. 

Sarah: Thank you so much.

References (related research articles)

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Categories: Open Science


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