UCI News

Science made simple – in Spanish

Prompted by UCI grad student, popular radio podcast goes bilingual, starting with series on the pandemic

by Lilibeth Garcia, UCI | December 17, 2020
Science made simple – in Spanish
Among the show’s writers is UCI doctoral student Karen Arcos (top right), a blind Latina in a STEM field who proposed the bilingual episodes. “The Loh Down on Science”

Washing hands while singing “Happy Birthday” or the ABCs has become a regular ritual for many in the U.S. But what about people around the world who don’t have access to clean water or soap? The syndicated radio show “The Loh Down on Science” looks into this issue – in three humorous minutes and two languages – in the episode “Hasta la Última Gota”/“Every Last Drop.”

Easily digestible science communication is increasingly vital, especially during a pandemic that requires a certain level of medical education. Unfortunately, the internet is swarmed with inaccessible jargon as well as dangerous pseudoscience. To fill this gap in reliable information, “The Loh Down on Science” presents relevant concepts in bite-sized pieces. Episodes are only one to three minutes long and delivered in witty, memorable quips.

Currently in its 16th year, the podcast is featured on NPR affiliate KPCC-FM (89.3) and syndicated weekly on 150 stations. “It’s hosted by best-selling author Sandra Tsing Loh, who teaches a science communication skills class within UCI’s Graduate Professional Success in STEM program. The career preparation course trains scientists to become storytellers and gives graduate students the opportunity to become scriptwriters for the show.”

The course introduced Karen Arcos, a Ph.D. graduate in cognitive sciences, with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, to a possible career in science reporting, something that instantly resonated with her research interests and background. Two years ago, she pitched the idea of creating bilingual episodes of “The Loh Down on Science” to add another layer of accessibility to the program.

As a Latina scientist who is totally blind, Arcos has an appreciation for the diverse ways people consume and process information. “Growing up, I had to learn a lot of stuff differently because I’m blind. I had to learn to read, for example, with my fingers and orient myself by using touch or sound instead of vision,” says Arcos, whose dissertation compared memory between blind and sighted adults and explored the role socioeconomic status may play in the groups’ memory differences.

There was perhaps no better topic to explore in two languages than the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the high Latino population across Southern California.

Introduced this fall, “El Loh Down on Science: Edición Especial de la Pandemia en Español” comprises 20 episodes first produced in English that were translated by an ensemble of bilingual female graduate students at UCI. They cover such subjects as the history of masks, the wonders of soap, how quarantines affect pets, and even how to “harness your home computer, when you’re sleeping, to join an army of computers crunching data to find COVID-19’s Achilles’ heel” – all bringing lighthearted touches to an often dire topic.

To help others process information more easily, Arcos and the other writers take elaborate scientific phenomena and describe them in no more than 180 words – then have them translated to another language entirely. Bridging disciplines is something the cognitive scientist has been doing since she was an undergraduate at USC, where she majored in psychology and minored in Spanish. Arcos’ minor and background as Colombian American have come in handy while working on the scripts. In addition to her work in neuroscience, she earned an emphasis in Chicano/Latino studies, which gives her insight into the importance of ethnic inclusion in science research and writing.

“My research doesn’t look at identity specifically, but I try to highlight broader ethnic concerns in my papers,” Arcos says. “Psychology articles often overlook demographic factors like race, even though they influence our thoughts and our behaviors. A 2020 study found that psychology tends to offer very little information on ethnicity and its influence on cognitive development.”

Sometimes just being visible as a Latina in STEM is significant. When she’s not studying neuroscience or writing about obscure but fun science topics for the public, Arcos finds other ways to give back, such as mentoring students through the undergraduate admissions process. “Latinos are so underrepresented in cognitive sciences, and I think that’s why I earned the Chicano/Latino studies emphasis,” she says. “It’s a community that’s so supportive, and doing this type of work is really helpful to show myself and other people what’s possible.”