CU Boulder grads and campus minister celebrate a year of their globally popular podcast, which is lauded for ‘clear, level-headed’ information
Early in 2020, Matt Boettger and his wife began to hear rumblings in the news that a new and virulent strain of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, had caught fire in Wuhan, China. Searching online for more information, they became even more concerned.
“It was confusing, a lot of mixed signals,” says Boettger, coordinator of university ministry for St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.
But after seeing a social media post about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, by an old friend and CU Boulder graduate, Stephen Kissler (ApMath’14; MApMath’14), a research fellow in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, he gave him a call.
“We talked for 45 minutes, and I got so much out of it. I said to him, ‘The world needs your expertise; this is really important. Wouldn’t it be cool if we created a podcast?’” says Boettger, who had done a “short stint” of podcasting several years earlier.
And, wouldn’t it be even cooler, he thought, if they brought in Stephen’s older brother, Mark, a CU Boulder graduate (ChemEngr’10) and now an academic hospitalist at the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora?
Although none of the three had experience in podcasting, on March 5, 2020—just days after the United States tallied its first 100 COVID-19 cases—they launched the Pandemic podcast featuring the brothers Kissler, with Boettger serving as a producer and co-host. A year later, the team celebrated the podcast’s first anniversary, having produced at least one, sometimes two or three, episodes a week since the beginning, and having developed a global audience.
“It’s been a huge godsend and helped so many people,” Boettger says. “Honestly, it’s also helped preserve my sanity.”
The Kissler brothers turned out to be the perfect hosts to answer questions about the pandemic—which by mid-March 2021 had taken more than 530,000 American lives—based on the latest research and, just as important, acknowledge what wasn’t known, all while remaining studiously above partisan sniping.
“I don’t think there is a better place to get reliable, level-headed, scientific info about the pandemic,” one five-star reviewer wrote on Apple Podcasts. “This podcast has a beautiful way of rising above the spin and mire to frame complicated issues.”
The Kisslers grew up in Castle Rock, Colorado, where their mother and father were high school teachers who taught calculus and chemistry, respectively.
“Our parents were tremendously dedicated teachers. I learned a lot about the link between the technical and the more human elements from the way they approached their students,” says Mark, who was part CU Boulder’s Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics and Society.
After earning a master’s degree in narrative medicine from Columbia University, Mark graduated from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and began a residency in combined internal medicine and pediatrics at CU Anschutz in 2019. Since the disease arrived in Colorado, he’s been treating COVID-19 patients.
Stephen, meanwhile, earned a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University, where he specialized in infectious-disease modeling and wrote a dissertation based on the 2009 influenza pandemic.
“The beginning of 2020 was pretty interesting for someone studying pandemics and infectious disease,” Stephen says. “As the virus started to spread, I could see it was behaving in a way reminiscent of flu pandemics in the past.”
From the start, Boettger and the Kisslers wanted to present reliable, factual information untainted by politics or rumor, with a willingness to acknowledge uncertainties and missteps without judgment.
“This was scientific communication in real time where the evidence was still evolving. … Scientists and doctors were still figuring out what was going on and conveying all of that with honesty was really important to us,” Mark says.
Although Stephen specializes in infectious-disease modeling, not the societal implications of pandemics, he notes that heated debate surrounding outbreaks of life-threatening disease is not new in American history.
“There was raging debate about mask use, though of a different character, during the 1918 flu pandemic. … Similarly, one of the major cholera epidemics of the 1800s sparked debate about prioritizing public health versus the economy, closing ports and quarantine,” he says.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone, Stephen says: “At a deep level, infectious disease is inherently relational; it spreads by encounters with other people and infuses our normal way of social interaction with a certain level of risk and danger. It affects this almost sacred thing about being human, our ability to interact and relate with one another.”
Beyond creating the podcasts, working and, in Mark’s case, raising a young family, the Kisslers have also published work in top journals during the pandemic. Stephen co-authored a May 2020 article in Science, “Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the post-pandemic period,” while Mark was lead author on “Toward a Medical ‘Ecology of Attention,’” co-written with his wife, Katherine Kissler, and another colleague and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January.
“Bodies and persons aren’t the same as machines, and health and well-being aren’t industrial outputs but delicate states of being,” Mark and his co-authors write.
I hope one result (of the pandemic) is that we realize how much value there is thinking in terms of populations and communities, and the ways we are all interconnected."
The podcast team agrees that the implications of COVID-19 go beyond the merely clinical, raising deeper questions about how society functions and how its members relate to one another.
“For me, I hope that we can have a renewed sense of understanding, and what it means to be in dialogue with one another in a deep way,” Mark says. “We’ll have to hold the tremendous suffering of this year together with questions about how we can participate in our communities, both locally and globally, with integrity and compassion.”
“I hope one result (of the pandemic) is that we realize how much value there is thinking in terms of populations and communities, and the ways we are all interconnected,” Stephen says.
Boettger says the pandemic and working with the Kisslers “has been such a huge gift to me, cultivating our friendship, recognizing how complicated reality is and embracing all the complication.” He’s also approaching the 20th episode of his own podcast, Living the Real, to help “people gain perspective, purpose, and a plan for their lives.”
The trio is currently soliciting input from listeners and deliberating whether to continue the podcast after the current pandemic has subsided, and if they do, what its focus might be. All three have enjoyed the experience, but don’t want to push on just to push on.
“In some ways, the podcast maybe has a natural arc to it. But there are still questions we’re interested in: How do we rebuild after the pandemic? Questions about the relationships between clinical medicine and public health, of lessons learned, and how to best educate the next generation of clinicians,” Mark says.
“The podcast medium is kind of fun. It’s like tuning into someone else’s conversation that becomes your own.”