Written By: Samyukta Iyer
For most people, terms like “molecular biologist” and “mechanical engineer” are distant scientific occupations, and for budding female scientists, they all too often seem like out of reach possibilities. But Dr. Titi Shodiya and Dr. Zakiya Whatley are on a mission to change that and show that science is for everybody.
Shodiya and Whatley are the co-hosts of the award-winning science podcast Dope Labs, where they explain how STEM is behind vibranium, friendships, and everything in between. As female scientists and PhDs, both women have extensive scientific prowess, but their critical pairing of academia and popular understanding is what makes the podcast stand out. Simply put, they “capitalize on curiosity.”
Dr. Shodiya attended Penn State for her undergraduate degree, where she struggled to adjust to her new environment. She went from a “high school with less than 100 people to one of the largest schools in the country.” However, this struggle catalyzed a sense of strength and resilience within her, and she went on to pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke University.
Dr. Whatley’s interest in molecular biology originated early in college. She reflected on one of her pivotal choices: “I was the person who tried everything, so when I saw a flyer for a research program at Brown University that wasn’t for my class, I asked for an exception. That changed my whole trajectory.” Molecular biology struck a chord, and she also pursued her Ph.D. at Duke, where the two science powerhouses met.
The idea for Dope Labs emerged from a realization that most people of non-scientific backgrounds felt disconnected from the entire sphere of scientific knowledge. “Not everyone responds to the stereotypical way that science is communicated. We know there are people out there who don’t like science.” However, in a world where getting reliable information becomes harder every day, the scientific way of thinking and seeking facts is becoming increasingly important, and the podcast aims to provide this information while having fun along the way. “We really want to communicate science in a way that a lot of people can listen to and understand, while being entertained,” they explain.
Dope Labs primarily focuses on sharing scientific findings that matter to the wider public. As Dr. Whatley says, “You start with something they care about, and then say, ‘here’s the science behind it,’ and tell the science story from there.”
“The road I live on always floods, and my husband was wondering why. So we went out and started doing experiments and taking measurements of the road, and by the end of it, he doesn’t realize that he now knows a bit of fluid dynamics!” narrates Dr. Shodiya. This sense of wonder, familiarity, and fun pervade each episode of Dope Labs, and to a listener, it feels more like a friendly conversation than a scientific analysis.
When asked about favorite episodes, Dr. Shodiya laughed, responding “every time we come out with a new episode, I'm like, this is my favorite!” Dr. Whatley agreed, adding how Lab 026, focusing on the science of friendship during COVID, was especially close to her heart. “That episode was against the landscape of everyone being more isolated than we’re used to, so friendships are even more important right now.”
Indeed, COVID-19 has also provided the duo with opportunities to improve and delve deeper into the production side of their podcast, now that they have to record together remotely.
And the hosts have very clear goals for their future. “We want to have more people feeling welcome in the science community,” they explain. They aim to empower their listeners to view science as a device that can be applied to everyone’s lives, where people “use the scientific lens to ask questions about the things around them.” Dope Labs also provides a covert but crucial opportunity for representing the excellence and potential of women of color in STEM and to show that people “don't have to conform to this stereotype of what [scientists] look and sound like.” They reflect on how the coming generations are becoming more open to careers in STEM: “Those opportunities don’t seem as out of reach.”
“There’s no shortage of people of color (POC) with podcasts; it’s just a matter of the media choosing to highlight them,” says Dr. Whatley. They also reflected on the extra burdens that often fall on POC in professional environments, where they’re tasked with both doing their job and building the support systems and supportive micro-communities for others. “Lots of industries are calling on Black folks to create diversity task forces,” they add, “It’s important to acknowledge the work that’s being done and what it actually takes to build those supports. Who knows what they could have done if they weren't spending time to build a safe space?”
Finally, Dr. Shodiya and Dr. Whatley provided words of wisdom for young people pursuing STEM. Dr. Shodiya advises, “It’s important to be constantly trying to do your best regardless of how badly you did the day before. You never know who's watching you and your grind, and that could give you another opportunity.” Dr. Whatley echoes this message of courage and persistence: “Don’t tell yourself no, and don’t take a no.”
At their core, these women have a foundational philosophy that rings as an anthem for underrepresented groups in STEM: showing up, being themselves, and changing perspectives. Through their relevant and entertaining content, they’re making the world a better, more scientific place, one episode at a time.
Dope Labs is a new podcast from Spotify Studios hosted by best friends (and two of the dopest scientists you will ever meet), Titi and Zakiya. In each episode, they serve up scientific principles with experts in the field (and a healthy dose of tea). Each Dope Labs episode is accompanied by a cheat sheet with read/watch guides contextualizing each discussion, resources from the esteemed guests, and more.
Catch this week’s cheat sheet HERE. Tune into this week’s new episode below, where Titi and Zakiya take on worldwide burnout in 2020, featuring Dr. Anne Helen Peterson.