We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


“This Podcast Will Kill You” Hosts Talk Successful Science Communication, Overcoming Failure and Quarantinis

The Hosts of This Podcast Will Kill You.
Dr. Erin Welsh and Dr. Erin Allmann Updyke. Credit: Grant Czadzeck.
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 12 minutes

Dr. Erin Welsh and Dr. Erin Allmann Updyke describe themselves as a “one-two punch of infectious disease knowledge”. The sci-com world’s iconic duo formed a friendship during their PhDs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Welsh studied disease ecology and Allmann Updyke studied disease epidemiology.

It’s no secret that discussions of science – be it through journals, conferences or lab meetings – can be somewhat intense, often loaded with complexity and jargon. The Erins shared a longing to talk about epidemics and bizarre medical mysteries in a way that was fun, relatable and helpful for everyone, regardless of their background.

While exchanging podcast recommendations with one another, they stumbled upon the idea of launching their own and, before long, This Podcast Will Kill You (TPWKY) was born. Since 2017, the Erins have taken listeners on a weekly deep dive into a disease, exploring its biology, history, epidemiology and how it has affected the world.

The podcast’s archive features episodes on some of the world’s weirdest and (not so) wonderful pathogens, as well as disorders such as endometriosis and Parkinson’s. Each episode kicks off with a firsthand account of someone impacted by a disease, emphasizing the human element of the science that is discussed afterward.


Instead of lecturing their audience, the Erins approach each podcast episode as an opportunity to teach and learn from one another. This refreshing approach to science communication has resonated with listeners both within and outside of the scientific community; at the time of writing, 132 episodes are available and boast rave reviews. TPWKY has also been recognized through Webby Award nominations in the Science and Education Podcasts category.


Despite the challenges that can accompany a career in science communication, the Erins have persisted in building a platform that educates and inspires people all across the world. In this interview, they reflect on their journey so far, sharing how they built TPWKY and offering advice for budding sci-commers. They also explain the origin of the famous “quarantini”.


Molly Campbell (MC): What interested you so much about infectious disease research, and why did you choose to pursue a career in this field?


Erin Welsh (EW): It was a roundabout journey for me that always had a destination, but I didn’t know what I wanted to research along the way. I started my undergraduate studies in nursing where I took a microbiology class and thought, “Hey, I really want to be in this class”. I didn’t want to sleep through my alarm; I wanted to get up, hop on my bike and get there for the 8am start. This was a little unusual for me.


I changed my major to biology and joined a research lab studying the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was very cool. That’s where a taste for the historical analysis of epidemics started to emerge. When I joined the lab, the first thing I did was head to the library and find a book all about the Black Death – I wanted to know everything about it. From then on, this would become my “fun time” exploration of disease.


My academic work was focused on the bacteria themselves, and I found myself thinking that this was such a small view of what I was interested in within infectious diseases. I decided to pursue a master’s degree in epidemiology and, when I was getting ready to finish that degree, one of my committee members asked what my next step was. I said that I would probably do a PhD in epidemiology when he suggested I consider ecology. A large part of my thesis had explored environmental influences on parasites, but it never occurred to me that this was something I could study.


Erin Allmann Updyke (EAU): Similar to Erin, I had never intended to work within disease. I was studying marine biology and then took an ecological parasitology class, and that’s what shifted my mindset to one of “Okay, so these parasites are my people”. I needed to know more about them.


I went on to do a master's degree in public health and thought that I wanted to be involved in outbreak investigation work. I completed my PhD in entomology and that’s where I met Erin – we were in the same laboratory.


It’s interesting to look back over how this journey has progressed, because so much of the work that we do now is focused on trying to break things down in a way that anyone, regardless of their background, can understand and appreciate. They can appreciate not only how fascinating these diseases are, but how big of an impact they have on society and our planet. Throughout my education, so much of the work that I enjoyed doing was of a similar theme, such as informal education work in undergrad studies. It feels as though everything has come together.

MC: You describe feeling “disenchanted with the insular world of academia”. Can you talk about how this manifested for you? Was there a specific moment or event that led to the creation of TPWKY?


EAU: We both finished our PhDs in 2018, and so in the summer of 2017 we were attending a lot of different conferences. Conferences can be incredible – you learn so much from the fascinating research that is being presented and you get to connect with lots of different people. But as the end of our PhDs were approaching, we found ourselves asking “When is this going to go beyond just these four walls?”, or however many walls the conference hall had!


We had both gotten really interested in public health because of the impact that diseases and disease ecology have on such a large scale. I wanted to be able to reach people that might never be at one of these conferences, but still wanted to know about this research.


Me and Erin were being antisocial at a barbecue towards the end of summer – a normal habit for us – when we started discussing the podcasts that we both listened to. We had this eureka moment where we knew we needed to start a podcast about disease, because nothing like that existed and it could be a cool thing. That was really the moment when TPWKY was born.


EW: We had also become tired of the impersonal language so often used when discussing science. We wanted it to be fun and engaging and exciting. We had missed talking about research topics such as the origin story of the nickname “clap” for gonorrhea, or the fact that rabbits can have growths caused by the Shope papilloma virus, which may have inspired the mythical Jackalope creature. These fun tidbits are so interesting, and you aren’t always able to explore as much as you’d like when you’re deep into PhD studies.


We loved talking about science and wanted to have a fun, relaxed outlet for doing so. I don’t think we realized that so many other people would feel the same way. TPWKY has been one of the greatest joys from that respect.


MC: Please can you describe everything that our readers need to know about the podcast – including the “quarantinis”?


EW: TPWKY is the science podcast that explores the biology, history and current status of various diseases and other medical topics. But of course, there's a lot more to it than just that!


At the beginning of each episode, we include a firsthand account, often from someone who has direct experience with the disease. We have done this from the very beginning in order to humanize the topic that we’re talking about, and as a way to complement learning about the biology of the disease.


Take the plague for instance. When you learn about plague in a classroom setting, you’re probably learning about whether it’s a gramme positive or negative bacteria, what it looks like on a stain, what its symptoms are or how long the incubation period is, etc. This is the nitty gritty of science. But if you learn about it from a historical perspective, you also get to explore the impact it had on the economic structure of major parts of Europe or learn how it shifted the primary language to English after the decline of French and Latin. You might learn about the invention of quarantine. When we started the podcast, we wanted to be able to look at a disease from all different perspectives and then relate it back to the human aspect that this firsthand account provided.


Then there’s the “quarantini”. This was just a way for us to have fun, and for people to know that this is not a serious podcast – or at least not all of the time. We make a themed cocktail for each episode of the podcast, which now includes alcohol free versions, the “placeboritas”. Over time we’ve created cocktails such as the “hair of the rabid dog”, “smallpox on the rocks” and many others. Our gonorrhea episode featured a cocktail called “burning love” – it’s really delicious.


MC: Sometimes the scientific environment can feel like an intimidating place. There can be a lot of doubt – particularly in young scientists – about whether they belong there. You both make science feel welcoming and a place for everyone. Can you talk about how do you do this?


EAU: It’s very intentional, and it’s something that can be quite challenging to balance because we never want to sugarcoat or present anything that’s incorrect. We want to present information in a way that is logical and easy to follow.


This feels particularly important for the historical aspect of the podcast, at least for me. I was a “science kid” – I knew nothing about history. Now, my favorite part of the podcast is being able to learn about something that I’m really interested in, in a way that is really interesting.

No matter what your background – whether it’s science-heavy, history-heavy or neither – there’s still something that you can get out of the podcast.

EW: Erin and I have no formal training in science communication. I think that we both still feel a bit of impostor syndrome while making the podcast. We often have to sit and think really hard about how to articulate information in a way that is simple and easy to follow. This has helped to create a non-threatening approach to science communication, because we’re all just learning together, not lecturing each other. It gives us the opportunity to ask questions, to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.


MC: What is the most enjoyable aspect of creating TPWKY?


EAU: I have two favorite parts. The first is that I get to work with Erin. It’s perhaps a cheesy answer but it’s true – we started this process just being best friends. I love being able to work with her, to learn from her and the fact that we have maintained our friendship throughout this whole process.


My second favorite part is that we have reached people in a way that I never thought would be possible. We receive emails from listeners that have gone back to school after listening to the podcast or got their flu jab for the first time. It’s incredible to have had that impact on people’s lives.


EW: I think Erin hit the nail on the head. I also love that this podcast gives me the opportunity to learn broadly across different fields rather than just intensely in one. Being able to follow a line of curiosity down a rabbit hole and not being restricted in terms of it being “relevant” to your work.

I was always asked what I wanted to do when I got older when I was a child, and my answer was always to read books. I literally get to do that now!


MC: Have you experienced any “failures” in your careers thus far? If so, what did that experience teach you?


EW: After finishing my PhD, I went on to do a postdoc in Finland, and I left that postdoc early. I am no longer involved in academia. I think that, when you are trained in graduate school, you are trained to be an academic – period. You are not trained to work in any other industry unless you seek that training elsewhere. Leaving academia, even though I knew without a doubt that I did not want to be in that world, felt like a failure. I had spent years of my life doing something that was not what I would end up doing.  


Now, with distance and time, and being able to do the thing that I truly love and I am fulfilled by, the feeling that this was a failure has started to ease. It was my choice, and my reasons for doing so were valid. Often it’s seen as a problem when someone leaves academia, rather than the conversation being centered around academia itself. I think that this really needs to get revisited.


EAU: I remember a lot of small failures throughout grad school; I could never, ever keep a cell culture line alive – I just wasn’t physically capable of it! Pretty much all of the grants and fellowships that I applied for, I never got. I never published 98% of my PhD thesis, and I still feel a little guilty about that.


So, there's a lot of small failures, and then there are bigger ones. I echo what Erin has said. I am still in training right now, in the last year of my residency. Even today, every single person asks me: what are your plans for the future? I still don't have an answer for them. Besides that, I want to do the podcast, but because it’s not academia or it’s not straight medicine, I feel a sense of guilt in saying that, which I think is just so unfair – I know how hard we both work, and the impact the podcast has had. But it’s a nontraditional career path, and that can sometimes come with stigma attached to it.

Science is just failing over and over and over again until you figure something out. Having the mindset of “it’s okay to fail”, because that’s the only way that we learn, is important. I have failures, but I don’t have regrets.


MC: What advice would you offer others who would like to become science communicators?

As I’ve had no formal training, it's like hard to articulate, but I think one of the most important aspects is just trying out different things and doing it, instead of seeking perfection before you start. You have to feel happy with what you’re sending out to the world, but it doesn't have to be perfect.


I think Erin and I both had the hardest time working on the episodes that we had the most knowledge about, because when you're overexposed to something you forget the building blocks of knowledge that are required to understand it. So, I think that it’s important to practice science communication by talking with people who are not scientists about it. Ask them to repeat back what you just told them, to see if they’re able to articulate it, to find out what they struggled to interpret, etc.


EAU: I definitely echo Erin here – just do it. When people train for a career and then consider that it might not be for them anymore, the hardest part is always just taking that leap and actually doing the thing they want to try. It can be really hard and scary because you might fail.


My second piece of advice would be to find something that you are actually passionate about and have fun doing. Work isn’t always fun – making our podcast still requires a lot of work! Don’t get me wrong, there are days when we’re like “We don’t want to record this episode”. But, on the whole, I think that what makes us effective as science communicators is that we want to be doing this. Interest and passion go a really long way.


MC: What’s the greatest thing about being women in science?


EW: Usually the question is “What is the most challenging thing about being a woman in science?”, so I had to really think about this one. I asked my group chat that is full of women that went to the same school as me and Erin. We all have different careers now; some of us are in industry, some of us are physicians and some of us are science communicators.

They responded with answers such as “getting to inspire the next generation of scientists”, or “being able to pursue something that you never thought you would do as a kid”. Then somebody pointed out that we are all in this group chat together, all women scientists, all supporting each other and understanding what we’re going through. Even if we aren’t having the same experience as each other, we can still relate, empathize or sympathize. That is really the best thing about being part of this amazing community.  The fact that I was able to ask a group of women, who have all kept in touch over the years, and getting amazing answers; well, I think that’s the best thing about being a woman in science.


EAU: I feel exactly the same. When Erin asked that question in our group chat, I was like, this really is the best part – the community that exists around being women in science. I think it's knowing that there is always somebody that you can talk to, that's going to have your back and that’s going to understand and support you.

Dr. Erin Welsh and Dr. Erin Allmann Updyke, MD, co-hosts of TPWKY, were speaking with Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks. 

About the interviewees

Dr. Erin Welsh and Dr. Erin Allmann Updyke MD, are the co-hosts of This Podcast Will Kill You. Welsh is a disease ecologist and epidemiologist, now working full-time as a science communicator. Allmann Updyke is an epidemiologist and disease ecologist currently in a medical residency program to complete her training.