5 Most Popular Interviews: Mendelspod 2013

Theral Timpson

With a new year staring us right in the face, today we review our 5 most popular interviews for 2013.

1.  Debating Encode: Dan Graur, Michael Eisen

Our most popular show of the year by far included two guests back to back, Dan Graur and Michael Eisen weighing in on the ENCODE project. I can clearly remember the Saturday morning early in March that my colleague Ayanna called me way too early saying, "you gotta get on Twitter." I did and was glued to the debate marked #ENCODE for hours.  Rifts within the scientific community are always good for the journalism business, and this one delivered the traffic. I'm still running into folks at conferences who say, "oh, you're the ones who did the interview with the scientist who went after ENCODE."

At stake was not just the worth of the $400 million ENCODE project (a multi-phase follow up to the Human Genome Project), but the value of doing Big Science in general, and perhaps even most important, the characterization of the human genome. (We've learned that scientists can be possessive over the human genome. Something to do with a "duty to the universe.") In 2012 over 30 papers were published as the first phase of the ENCODE project was completed. These papers were accompanied by a large media campaign about the "death of junk DNA." The lead authors of the ENCODE project were claiming that, contrary to what was previously thought, most of the genome was in fact functional, that even though 80% of the genome doesn't contain genes, it still plays a role in health.

Six months later, Graur and his colleagues published "On the Immortality of Television Sets," a sharply worded and sarcastic takedown of ENCODE. The Graur paper deconstructed the ENCODE claims and, judging by Twitter, had the agreement of most scientists in the field. What many took issue with was the tone of Graur's paper. Was it right for a scientific publication?  Fortunately for us, Graur's interview presence was just as engaging as his prose.  

Credit for the show's popularity also goes to the second guest, open access publishing guru, Michael Eisen. He was happy to take up with Graur in his criticism of Big Science and question the worth of such a big project as ENCODE. Not the least bit shy himself, Eisen lamented a shift to the "Sovietization" of science. He cited the then recently announced Brain Mapping Project as well.

2.  Father/Scientist Finds Gene Responsible for Daughter's Unknown Syndrome:  Hugh Rienhoff Talks Personal Genomics

Apparently this headline had everything our audience loves, except perhaps more talk about ENCODE.  First of all: personal genomics.  Anyone who is searching around in their own DNA or that of a family member is basically a hero in our industry.  That Hugh Rienhoff did before many others further built up his notoriety.  

This show turned out to be a scoop for us, which I wasn't aware of until about halfway through the interview.  Hugh had just found the gene causing his daughter Beatrice's unknown syndrome, but he hadn't yet been to press.  

Hearing directly from patients, or families of patients, was something our audience clearly liked this year, and we followed up Hugh's show with more patient interviews.  This will be a strong theme in 2014.

3.  Making a Difference: Janet Woodcock, FDA

I was surprised to see this show pop up in our anayltics as third on this list. We've found that the biggest names in the industry don't always draw the biggest crowd.  Still, Janet was very open in her answers here and explained the FDA's newly adopted program of fastracking "breakthrough status" drug candidates.  

This was our first interview with someone from FDA. Since then we've had Liz Mansfield from the device division join us in another popular show.  Obviously folks want to hear directly from the horse's mouth when it comes to regulation.

4.  Hunkapiller Chips away at PacBio's 'Perception Issue'

I was quite happy with this show.  Early each year we produce a series on the latest in NGS, and this year the new CEO of PacBio, Mike Hunkapiller, set the tone for the series around the importance of 'long reads'.  The PacBio instrument had suffered several years of being seen as low accuracy.  But in this interview Hunkapiller pointed to limitations with short read technologies (Illumina, Ion Torrent) saying that actually, the PacBio machine had high accuracy.  

In fact, the importance of long reads became the theme in NGS over the year.  BioNano Genomics entered the market offering genome mapping technology and the opportunity to better capture structural variation.  And upstart Nabsys was the darling at AGBT with their 'positional' sequencing.  (Nabsys promised a product launch in 2013, and unless they plan on a holiday launch, haven't delivered on that.)  Furthermore, Illumina picked up Moleculo, a company offering a solution for getting longer reads from the Illumina platform.  I'm proud that we were able to catch the 'long read' message early in the year with Mike's show and keep our listeners up with the very latest in the field of NGS.  Stay tuned for 2014's series beginning in January.

5.  Science and the "Great Delusion" with David Brin, Sci-fi Author

This was easy.  All we had to do here was just get this interview.   Ok, we did show up at Brin's house in San Diego and turn on the camera.    Author of many popular sci-fi books, including one made into a movie by Kevin Kostner, Brin has been captivating audiences with his tremendous intellectual chops and entertaining delivery.  Never one to shy from any question, no matter how probing or how far into the future, Brin delivered a tour de force here.  

I remember that day in San Diego when we filmed Brin. The interview was quite the ride.  Interviewing Brin is like being in the cockpit of the millitary's top fighter jet.  One can go anywhere, and quickly.  After the interview, both Ayanna (behind the camera) and I applauded.  What else to do?

I'm going to also list our interview with another sci-fi writer here, author of the popular Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson.    KSR, as he's know among sci-fi fans, also delivered a great interview and came in just after Brin's in terms of audience downloads. 

One final note. This list all came from early in 2013 and in fact the numbers favor the older shows.  Many of our interviews have staying power, so the longer they've been up, the more hits.  Another way to compose the list would have been to look at how each show did over a week's time period.  If we had done that, we'd also be talking about the recent controvery over the FDA letter to 23andMe (here and here) and a show we did with the self described "science indie".

Happy New Year to our audience, and thanks to all our 2013 sponsors for underwriting some memorable programs!


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