Two College of Engineering and Applied Science alumni launched a new podcast earlier this year aimed at providing clear and accurate scientific information about the COVID-19 pandemic. If their collaboration seems natural, it is because they have more in common than degrees from CU Engineering—they also happen to be brothers.
Engineering alumni Mark and Stephen Kissler—alongside host and producer Matt Boettger—started the Pandemic: Coronavirus Edition podcast to share their expertise in medicine and mathematical modeling as applied to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
New episodes air weekly and feature the Kisslers’ commentary on topics relating to the crisis, from antibody testing efforts in Telluride, to mental wellness during social isolation, to health disparities along racial lines.
“It serves both as a science communication platform where we discuss an evidence-based approach to the news as well as a forum for us to discuss ways of staying grounded in the midst of the rapid changes in our lives that we are all experiencing,” said Mark Kissler (ChemEngr’10).
“It started out of an understanding that each of us brought a unique but complementary perspective and also that conversation and stories are often the best way to engage these types of complex issues.”
Mark serves as a clinician at the University of Colorado Hospital. He is also an instructor at both the CU School of Medicine and the College of Engineering and Applied Science through the Engineering Honors Program and the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics & Society.
“We had been thinking about respiratory pandemic pathogens for the past six or seven years,” said Stephen Kissler (ApMath‘13). “Matt Boettger brought us together for the podcast, looking to explore the human side of all this. How do we explore the different experiences in both the hospital and modeling worlds, and how do we construct our lives in this scenario?”
Stephen is an epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases within Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Sharing science in uncertain times
The Kisslers and Boettger set out to make the podcast accessible, with an eye toward using COVID-19-related news and topics to bring their medical and mathematical modeling expertise to bear.
“Our target audience was initially our friends and family,” Stephen said. “The point was to communicate in as an accessible and straightforward way as possible. We were thinking about things at the most fundamental level. What do these things mean for us, and how might we help the people that we know and love to understand them?”
It is no surprise that several episodes focus on pandemic-related events and issues in Colorado.
“We all grew up in and have very strong ties to Colorado,” Stephen said. “We weren’t sure this show would be for anyone other than our parents! But I also think that the best way to think about this pandemic is in a local context, although we always have to have an eye to the international context. The disease is spreading at a very local scale.”
The Kisslers said they also recognize a continuing need for direct communication from science and medical professionals as misinformation and political considerations color the narrative around the pandemic.
“One of the things that strikes me about the podcast medium is that we can have an informal tone and really approach an authentic dialogue in which we question one another, clarify things and come to an understanding,” Mark said. “I think that in my favorite podcasts—or lectures, or other educational experiences, for that matter—it is often the offhand remark that sparks a new understanding or a new way of looking at things.”
“We can challenge each other, we can ask each other questions, we can clarify right on the spot," Stephen said. "That sort of mimics what is going on in the community everyday. We’re trying to collectively come to what the truth and the reality of the situation is. It’s never been more important than it is now for the common person to evaluate different sources of information coming in because they have a direct bearing on our lives. The podcast has allowed us to contribute to those conversations in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”
Those contributions have been well-received thus far, as the podcast has generated a steady stream of positive feedback from those within and without the scientific community, they said.
“The most meaningful comment for me was from a couple awaiting their first child, who said that it helped alleviate some of their anxiety and provide a touchpoint for good information,” Mark said. “Another listener said that it helped concretely influence the ways that he and his household were social distancing.”
Bringing CU’s engineering mindset to medicine and mathematical modeling
Mark and Stephen credit their foundational education as CU engineers with the success they have found in their respective fields.
Mark Kissler was the class of 2010 Silver Medal Award winner for the college, a Boettcher Scholar and a member of the Engineering Honors Program. After graduating from CU, he went on to earn his master’s in narrative medicine from Columbia University and his medical degree at Baylor Medical School. He returned to Colorado to complete his residency at CU Anschutz.
“Engineering seems to me to be a great preparation for medical training,” Mark said. “So much of medicine is about understanding how to break down problems, to think analytically, and to keep both the small and the large picture before you at all times.
“I can't overstate the importance of engagement in the humanities that are uniquely available through the Herbst program, which propelled me into narrative medicine and continue to inform the ways that I engage with patients and colleagues. It's that sense of the technical motivated by and situated within a larger context that still motivates my teaching and work as a clinician.”
Stephen earned the Outstanding Undergraduate of the College Award when he graduated in 2013 with a BS/MS. He participated in both the Engineering Honors and Global Engineering programs. After graduation, he became a Gates-Cambridge Scholar and earned his PhD at Cambridge University.
“The education and the overall experience that I got at CU was absolutely world-class,” Stephen said. “Applied Math had exceptional instruction and mentorship. Anne Dougherty took a personal interest in each of her student's progression. She was very attuned with what each student wanted to do with lives and careers. There was a constant stream of opportunity that she made sure was open to us.
“The training I got at CU was rigorous and practical. I did my PhD at the University of Cambridge, where the students were able to solve mathematics problems to a remarkable degree. But when it came to solving a research problem—the spread of a pandemic, for example—it was much more difficult for them than it was for me. That was training that I got at CU that is remarkably rare. Courses are so project-based and oriented toward this paradigm of mathematics as a tool for thinking very clearly about the world.”
Stephen credits the Engineering Honors Program for inspiring him to use mathematics in truly practical, humanized ways.
“I’m studying a pandemic now, and there is certainly something to be said about the mathematics of pandemics. But this is also a human thing. I need to be able to understand who I am in the context of the outbreak, and in the context of social responsibility and a deep commitment to help people,” he said.
As a graduate of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Mark Kissler has some advice for aspiring engineering students interested in a career in medicine.
“Don't underestimate the importance of breadth of experience, both intellectually and personally,” he said. “We are urged from so many places to do things because they are good for the application, because they are the type of experiences that will ‘look good’ in the future. But freeing yourself from those secondary, external motivators and approaching opportunities that will allow you to ask better, more authentic questions about what you uniquely have to offer the world—I think that's the best preparation for the real work in these fields.”