Thursday, September 4, 2014

An InExact Science

In her new podcast, PBS alumna Lisa Cantrell (PhD 2013) explores basic questions of psychological science—and human experience--through beautifully designed sonic landscapes  

Art and science often seem worlds apart. But when the two meet up in Lisa Cantrell’s new podcast, An InExact Science, sparks fly between them, igniting visions of a long, happy, well-lived future, mutually beneficial to both.

Since she graduated from PBS last year and began her new gig as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Davis, Lisa Cantrell (PhD 2013) has been dreaming up, plotting out and putting together episodes for her podcast project, “An InExact Science.” The first podcasts will appear online by early November at In January they will begin airing on KDVS in Davis.

In An InExact Science, Cantrell plumbs the mysteries of every day human experience by offering the perspectives of top researchers in psychological science alongside the stories of “ordinary people” (aka non-scientists).  In this way, she seeks to build “a small bridge,” as she calls it, “between what we sense every day and the empirical evidence of science.”

“Why do we experience happiness? How do we learn a first language and why is learning a second sometimes hard? Under what circumstances do we feel regret? Why do we remember certain events but not others? Why do we sometimes misremember? Where does religious belief come from?”

These are the questions that propel a podcast that, she announces in her promotional video, will be “about us, FOR us, and will invite science to pull up a chair, stay a while, have a cup of coffee—heck, stay for dinner! And explain at least a little of why we experience the things we experience.”

But the conversation is hardly one-sided. Language, memory, music, religion or regret—whatever the topic might be—she will also expose what she calls “the beautiful side, the phenomenological side, of what it feels like to experience a particular thing” so that the topic is “not just objectified in the way that science does to explain things.”

In putting these views together, she seeks to produce something artfully and beautifully designed. “I love listening to podcasts that are done really well,” she explains, “the way they move information along and shape a topic. The shows that are really good”—she mentions Radiolab, Snap Judgment, and 99% Invisible—“create a space that has layers. You feel like you’re in a certain room or environment just by the sounds that are happening. They have a beautiful organization and structure.”

But not only is the podcast artfully designed, it is also poised to prompt what she calls a “science-art-what-up!” cycle. Alongside top researchers and a story-telling public, she is enlisting local artists to produce promotional materials. (Go to the website and you will find buttons, posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs.) And she is drawing on the music of local musicians to include in her show. (One of the first episodes includes music of the Bloomington band, Busman’s Holiday.)

Not surprisingly perhaps, Cantrell herself comfortably occupies the worlds of both art and science. A South Carolina native, she started college at Furman University as a visual arts major, but shifted gears when she realized this path would most likely provide little means of support. Not knowing what to do next, she took time off from college and traveled in Latin America. She worked in an adolescent rehabilitation center in Chile while living and painting in an art collective, and she taught preschool English in Mexico.

The experience brought home to her the mysteries of language learning, and on her return to college, she took a psychology course that got her “super hooked,” as she puts it, on the topic…

…Ultimately landing her straight in the lab of one of the foremost researchers on language learning and early development, PBS Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor, Linda Smith. The first episode of An InExact Science, in fact, is on language and features an interview with her former advisor. (Listen to a teaser for this episode here.)

Now she is working in the Infant Cognition Lab of Lisa Oakes, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, and is studying visual attention and memory in infants and the use of eye-tracking methodology. In virtually all of her spare time, she can be found working on the podcast, uniting art and science in what she hopes will be a long-term relationship to a renewable and everlasting “science-art-what-up” cycle.

Watch the promotional video for the project.  Or listen to a teaser for the first episode.

A Kickstarter campaign to fund equipment and travel for the podcast will be ongoing until September 12.

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