Until she was 12, Sarah Jean McPeek ’19 did not want to be a human.
The Enfield, New Hampshire, native was more interested in the hopping, prowling, flying world of animals. For most of her childhood, she wanted to become one.
McPeek has by now accepted her opposable thumbs, using them to pursue her passions of practicing and communicating science. A biology major at Kenyon, McPeek studies bird flight with Assistant Professor of Biology Natalie Wright, writes a nature column for the Kenyon Thrill and assists with Higley Headlines, the biology department’s student-run blog. She also assists the Brown Family Environmental Center in its outreach efforts.
McPeek’s latest and most ambitious extracurricular project is Kernel, a burgeoning undergraduate research podcast communicating all things curious. Each episode is a conversational jaunt through a Kenyon student researcher’s area of academic expertise: Lee Hartley ’19 talks gender roles in science fiction. Daniel Olivieri ’19 describes narration through digital mapmaking. Hannah Hertz ’19 explains the evolutionary genetics of moss sex. All the while, McPeek takes the proverbial driver’s seat, steering conversation toward places unexplored with a sharp wit and a contagious energy.
As the show’s inaugural semester draws to a close, McPeek reflected upon her Kernel conversations and the role of research at Kenyon.
Where did this project originate?
I’ve been trying for a while to figure out how to get something started to get people talking more about their research and to share that with the community, and it just hit me this summer — a podcast!
What makes research at Kenyon exciting?
I think the liberal arts environment is very conducive to developing skills as much as developing knowledge. Here, you get the chance to really take on projects and work one-on-one with your faculty mentors. I feel like I’ve gotten so much personal and independent research experience here that I basically have a master’s-level dissertation as my senior exercise for my biology major.
It’s amazing what opportunities we have as young undergraduates to apply our knowledge with research. There are chemistry students who are working at synthesizing molecules that’ll help cancer drugs, for example. There are so many exciting things going on, and our ability to contribute to this important work as current students is really unique and special and something I'm really grateful for.
How do you make your episodes fun and engaging?
I think there’s a lot of pressure in academic communities to be erudite, to talk intensely in a particular language and tone about your work. I don’t want Kernel to feel like a textbook. I try to bring the dynamic and exciting out of my interviewees and I throw in jokes to keep the conversation light.
I really approach these as if two friends were sitting down in a coffee shop and talking about their work and it just happened to be recorded, like you're listening in to conversations that students are having on campus, because I want us to be having these types of conversations all the time, and I hope that my podcast can help facilitate those discussions between students from different academic disciplines.
What is your favorite episode?
I quite like my episode I recorded with my friend Anu Muppirala ’19 about her work studying pathways of nervous system development in neurodegenerative mutant zebrafish. We're both incredibly excited science nerds and we had a great conversation about her work, our fascination with neuroscience, and more broadly how we've changed throughout our Kenyon science careers and what our plans are moving into the next stage of our education in graduate school. It's a time capsule of two nerdy seniors who are in the process of letting go of Kenyon and realizing how grateful we are for the amazing opportunities the school has given us to grow and develop into the scientists we are today.
What do you hope listeners take away from your show?
I just hope they learn something new. Chemistry, neuroscience, anything. I always tell listeners at the end of the podcast to talk to the person I’m interviewing, because everyone I interview loves discussing their work and hearing about others’ work. I also hope that the show will inspire more students to get involved with research. Every topic won’t appeal to every viewer, but the hope is that someone out there will listen and be so inspired to know more that they start their own project. To my knowledge, there isn’t a listing of every research area offered at Kenyon, and I hope that my podcast can serve as a sort of archive of student independent work. The opportunities are truly endless. If you’re curious and willing to put in the work, Kenyon will help you make it happen.
And, like our theme song says, always question. Talk about what you’re doing, not just in your classes but in your research. Be bold, be curious and keep the conversation up.
What’s with the name?
First off, everything at Kenyon has to start with a ‘K.’ In the scientific world, kernel is a statistical method that explains probability of dispersal, and I’m hoping my interviews can enhance the spread of knowledge about Kenyon academic life. Also, the word for kernel in Latin is nucleus, so that’s where we get the nucleus of the cell, the brain, and atoms — the center of it all. I want to be at the center of information. Really, I’m just an excitable, nerdy person who wants to know it all!
— Ben Hunkler ’20
Related Content: Read an article by McPeek about her experience learning taxidermy in Professor Wright’s lab at Kenyon.