Veterinary students produce podcast about climate change and animal health

two students in radio station recording studio
Veterinary students Kate BaDour and Melissa Clark recorded their episode of VetCAST at KSUA, the University of Alaska Fairbanks's student-run radio station. (Melissa Clark)

While many listened to podcasts as a way of passing the time during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, veterinary students at Colorado State University were busy producing one.

Dr. Colleen Duncan coordinates an elective course, Emerging Issues in Animal Health, for second-year students in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Program. Though she taught the course many times before, for the Fall 2020 semester she had to figure out how to move the course content all online.

“How do you have a group of 35-40 people work together in a remote space?” Duncan said. “That’s too many people to have on one Teams call to have a meaningful discussion.”

Duncan knew students were passionate about the course topic, which in recent years focused on environmental sustainability. Based on a survey distributed by previous participants of the same course to veterinary students across the country, climate change and its impact on animal health was a topic of interest, but there are fewer educational opportunities to learn about it.

“Veterinary students care about climate change and want to do something about it,” Duncan said.

In previous semesters, students were able to pursue research projects, write papers, and present posters at conferences, but this year was different. Wanting her students to have the opportunity to tell a story about how the environment influences animal health, Duncan decided producing a podcast was the way to go.

Bees, bats, mosquitoes, and more

Students formed individual production teams but brainstormed with the rest of the class to narrow down specific themes for each podcast episode.

“Each group picked topics they were passionate about, found people they could interview, or identified articles they could showcase,” Duncan said. “They took ownership of their episodes.”

Leah Sauerwein, Maria Koytcheva, and Zack George produced their episode, “How NOT Tequila Mockingbat,” about how humans negatively impact bat populations, which are actually beneficial inhabitants of the planet.

“It seemed extra relevant because of the news that bats were the potential source of COVID-19,” George said. “And we were doing a podcast because of COVID, so it brought it full circle for us.”

University of Alaska Fairbanks/CSU Collaborative Veterinary Program students Kate BaDour and Melissa Clark chose tick migration and their impact on disease transmission to dogs for the topic of their episode, “Tick Tock Tick Talk.”

“You don’t have to be a researcher to know what a tick is, or a veterinarian to understand that ticks are moving up to Alaska and establishing residency,” Clark said. “We felt like we could create a solid action message for the general public: ‘if you see a tick on your dog, send it in to get tested.’”

Because they spend the first two years of their program in Fairbanks, Alaska, students do not typically get to participate in classes taking place at the Fort Collins campus. Thanks to COVID-19 and the move to remote learning, BaDour and Clark were able to asynchronously take the animal health elective.

“Someone could spend a lifetime researching how climate change affects Alaska,” Clark said. “I thought this class would be a good opportunity to learn more about that.”

Making sense – out loud

Students shared a mutual interest in the overall topic of climate change, though each group took a different approach to the production of their episode – and encountered some challenges along the way.

“We sat down to look at our original script and realized that clearly none of us had read it out loud yet,” Sauerwein said.

While Sauerwein, Koytcheva, and George had plenty of experience in academic writing, translating research for the general public was a new challenge.

“It’s difficult to take an idea and turn it into a script that can be read out loud in conversation form,” George said. “Especially when you’re trying to make academic writing interesting – it was dry as hell.”

As it turns out, communicating science is easier said than done, and each group had to figure out how to distill hours of research and interviews into a 15-minute episode.

“We asked Dr. Duncan if we could have two episodes!” Clark said.

What brought it all together as a comprehensive series was the help of veterinary graduate students, Drs. Anna Fagre, Treana Mayer, and Molly Carpenter. Fagre is a veterinarian and microbiologist, as well as a disc jockey, so she knows a thing or two about sound editing. She also recruited the help of her brother, Ethan, who is an audio engineer, and together they helped the students normalize the audio, create a theme song, and edit each episode together.

“What made my heart skip a beat was the first time I heard our episode after Anna and Ethan had put in the intro song,” Clark said. “What we had talked about become a reality, and it was amazing.”

The finished product is a 12-episode season of VetCAST, or Veterinary Climate Action and Sustainability Talks. Each episode focuses on a different topic related to climate change, and the series is a culmination of the students’ research, conversations with experts, and creativity.illustrated tree with lungs, title vetcast

“Sometimes out of chaos come the best ideas and the best work. This course became, ‘how the heck do we do a podcast?’” Duncan said. “We did it and the product is VetCAST.”

While Duncan is unsure what a season two might look like, she has not written it off as a possibility. In the meantime, she is encouraging the students to promote their creative accomplishment. They are working to share VetCAST and related messages about how environmental change impacts animal health with the veterinary community, including at a virtual symposium in April.

“You can be the best doctor or researcher, but if you can’t relay that to someone, they can’t use that information, anyway,” Koytcheva said. “Something this podcast can do for science is make normal reading material available and accessible to people.”

The Veterinary Climate Action and Sustainability Talks tell stories about how the environment influences animal health. Created by Colorado State University veterinary students, these episodes seek to expand your knowledge and inspire you to take action to protect animal health. Listen to season one of VetCAST on Spotify.