This Interview Will Kill You

A Conversation With the Hosts of 'This Podcast Will Kill You'

Ryan Syrek, MA


July 16, 2019

With a name that's as much a threat as an irresistible invitation, This Podcast Will Kill You has been educating and entertaining listeners for the past 2 years. Sporting a nearly five-star rating on iTunes and frequently placing near the top of the charts for science and medicine podcasts, the show is written and hosted by "the Erins": Erin Welsh, PhD, and Erin Allmann Updyke, PhD. Welsh is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, and Allmann Updyke is pursuing her MD degree at the University of Illinois.

The show is a thoughtful exercise in disease storytelling that is intent on humanizing science and medicine. It's every bit about advocacy as it is about offering an innovative learning experience. In a delightfully candid conversation, we spoke to the Erins about their mission, the need to supplement standard medical education, and how medical professionals have engaged them and the show.

For those who haven't listened yet, can you describe a bit about how This Podcast Will Kill You works?

Welsh: In each episode, we cover a different infectious disease. We've also branched out into things like chronic diseases, noninfectious conditions, and poisons. You know, the things that will kill you....I tackle the history, and Erin tackles the biology and epidemiology. Basically, we tell each other the story of a disease.

And there's drinking involved, right?

Welsh: Oh, yes, for sure!

Allmann Updyke: The "quarantini" is what that is called. It was one of the first things that we came up with: a cocktail based on the disease. We thought, "This is too good of an idea to not make this podcast." We also make "placeboritas," which don't have alcohol but are more entertaining than just water if you don't imbibe.

Other than disease-themed beverages, what inspired you to start the podcast?

Allmann Updyke: In our last year of our PhDs, we felt like the science we were doing wasn't leaving the world of academia. The podcast was born a bit out of that frustration.

Welsh: The conversation about disillusionment with academia and burnout led to a conversation: "Okay, let's do a podcast. Ha, ha! No really, let's do a podcast...." We wanted to make sure to not have barriers, whether that meant financial barriers to pay for access to scientific articles or barriers to information from terminology that is sometimes not helpful if you're not an expert.

Allmann Updyke: At the same time, we decided we wouldn't dumb anything down. We don't hesitate to dive into complex issues, topics, and biology. We just do it in a way that's accessible.

Welsh: When we tell the story of the condition to each other, we're learning it as much as we're teaching it.

Speaking of learning, how has working on the podcast interacted with your medical education?

Allmann Updyke: I think there's a lot that students and medical professionals can gain from the podcast. The podcast has been really helpful for me in studying for boards. It's like, "I know these microbes because we've already covered them on the podcast!" I have heard from friends who have listened and said, "I got this question on UWorld right because I listen to your podcast!" That's always really thrilling.

I think the bigger thing is that we provide a broader context and perspective because we incorporate history. That's something that's lacking in a lot of the medical classes. We try to integrate this wide spectrum of information to understand the impact that these diseases have had on humanity and not just focus on one small aspect. Yes, you're learning information you might be tested on, but you're also getting a bigger sense of what this disease has looked like across the globe and across time and space.

Welsh: These conditions are typically taught in isolation. If you were to learn about the plague in a microbiology class, it would be a very different story than what you would learn in a history class or in an epidemiology or public health class. Getting that full picture of all three things adds to an understanding of the disease and the way medicine addresses inequalities in access. Most of the time, it's a sad story.

Allmann Updyke: If you are a traditional med student, you might not have had any exposure to a lot of the history we cover. Before starting this podcast, I knew nothing about history. Learning about history gives you a different perspective on why we see the disease distributions we see today and what has led to a disease having the effect it's had. That has been really eye-opening.


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