How Do You Make Science Funny?
- Host: Rose Kerr
- Guest: Robyn Perkins
Rose – Welcome to the Particle podcast, where we talk about science and the people who just love it.
I’m Rose, and I love a good science pun; but only periodically.
Fortunately, today, I’m joined by Robyn Perkins. Robyn is a charismatic comedian with a scientist brain. We had a chat about research, dating apps and decision making. Hope you enjoy.
Rose Kerr: Welcome Robyn!
Robyn Perkins: Hello!
ROSE -To start off with, how would you explain what you do as a job? What do you actually do?
ROBYN -(laughs) So I stand on stage and talk into a microphone and hope that people laugh. Ah no, so comedy is my full time job and there are several different avenues that I perform in; so I do comedy clubs, and I do tour shows, so hour long shows, and the hour long shows that I do kind of, combine science and comedy.
ROSE -And what was your science background in?
ROBYN -So I did a lot of degrees –
ROSE – – really? –
ROBYN — so many degrees, so little income. Uh but yeah, my first degree was in, just a Bachelor in Science and so focusing on Biology and Marine Biology. And then when I left there, I did two years of a Masters in Architecture and then left that and did, uh, got a Masters in Landscape Architecture.
ROSE -Wow! That is a broad range!
ROBYN -Yes! (laughs)
ROSE -When you were in school, like going right back, do you think you were someone who was interested in science?
ROBYN -Yeah, I mean, I, so I wanted to be a marine biologist from the age of five –
ROSE — Yup, classic –
ROBYN – – Like everything I did, everything I did had to do with Marine Biology, and not just like whales and dolphins like every other kid, but like, oh – if we had like a book report that we had to do on, like, an African country so I chose like, Cape Faraday because it was an island so I could somehow dabble into Marine Biology, or like every animal report like everything I could twist into Marine Biology, I did. And yeah, and then just did that my whole life, so I started doing research programs in high school so like, by fifteen and then was doing internships at research labs all through university and then just, stopped. (laughs).
ROSE -(laughs) Before we get to the stopping, and when the comedy comes in, when you’re at school, did you live near the beach or something? Was that why Marine became so interesting to you?
ROBYN -No! I don’t why it was. I genuinely – it was just from when I was five, and I think it did start just by a fascination with whales and dolphins, and I’d been on a swim team since I was five; so I loved swimming and that side of things. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t near the beach that I was fascinated by the ocean.
ROSE -But you never went onto study Marine?
ROBYN -I did, so the plan was always to do an undergrad in biology to get a better background and then get a, like my PhD in Marine Biology. So I did coral reef research when I was seventeen, in Grand Cayman, and then did an internship at University of Florida working on the sense of smell in blue crabs.
ROBYN -Yeah, I was –
ROSE -How do they smell?
ROBYN -(laughs) They, I mean, through their antennas, so where the blue crabs go through different levels of salinity, so we’re basically adjusting them to see how the smell fluctuates in different salinities.
ROSE -Huh. How do you test that?
ROSE -You, ah okay. (laughs) This, by the way was in 2000, summer of 2000 –
ROSE — Okay, it was a while –
ROBYN – So it was a while ago and I just wanna say, uh, I don’t know if our practices are, uh, ethical anymore (laughs).
ROSE -Yeah, yeah well.
ROBYN -So I just wanna – I was instructed to do some things. Ah, basically you cut off the antenna of the blue crab –
ROSE –Wow! –
ROBYN — and then cannulate the main artery to keep it alive with like a saline solution and then run food over the antenna and you hook up something to the up to the electrodes. So the whole thing is done under a microscope which is –
ROSE –Wow! –
ROBYN — very hard to do. ‘Cos you’re looking at like, an artery that’s less than a millimetre wide.
ROBYN -Yeah, and then just test the response.
ROSE -Wow! That’s a complicated way to figure that out.
ROBYN -Yeah. It was! (laughs).
ROSE -Did you enjoy studying science at uni?
ROBYN -Yeah, I mean I did. I think the problem is – so I think after that, so the blue crabs was amazing, the next summer I had an internship at Scrips where I was looking at dinoflagellates. And I think the more –
ROSE — Oh what? –
ROBYN -So that one was looking at like, red tides and the effect of the UVB light on the heat shock proteins in dinoflagellates.
ROBYN -which was again, interesting but I think the closer I got to Microbiology – I’m a very creative person and I felt like the reason why I didn’t stay in research was because I felt like I wasn’t able to be creative. Because to get grants, you were, had to have a very good idea of where it was going before you could apply. And I just wanted to be more artistic in what I was doing.
ROSE -Yeah, yeah.
ROBYN -So I was looking at like, the you know, the Western blots band being like, ‘well that’s pretty!’ (laughs) and that’s, rather than ‘that’s useful’.
ROBYN -I just wanted to be more creative, I guess.
ROSE -Is that something you felt even when you were younger and really enjoyed Marine Biology? Did you still have that pull towards creativity, or did you think that must’ve developed later in life?
ROBYN -No, I think, I, I was always creative and, in my undergrad, you could major in a number of different things. I was kind of torn between Biology and I did a lot of the courses of Economics, and then also was trying to get a degree in Art, and then my Dad was like, ‘You can’t work as an artist, like, you won’t make any money!’, so I didn’t –
ROBYN — it was a lot of family influence to not go down the artistic route.
ROSE -So when you incorporate science into your comedy, do you feel like that’s paying homage to your younger self, who wanted to be a scientist?
ROBYN -I love it. I still do love research and even when I went into Landscape Architecture, I feel like that was a really great, like, merger of creativity and science. ‘Cos with Landscape Architecture and it was looking at like, large scale projects. So, one of the projects I worked on was like the Rio 2016 Olympic Park. And so, you’re looking at a lot of different layers that are going into that, so like the ecology of it, and stormwater systems and drainage and circulation patterns. So, there’s a lot of research as well and Botany that goes into it.
ROBYN -So that was a great way to combine the two. With comedy, I think the thing is that I, like every scientist out there, like we overanalyse everything.
ROBYN -And like, everything. Whether it be like an outfit, or like your dating life or everything. So, all of the science that I do in comedy, it’s not stuff that I’ve studied before. So, last year I did the neuroscience of decision making, this year I’m looking at love and dating in society. And next year, I’m looking at the relationship between confidence and competitiveness. So, all of the research that I’m doing, I haven’t studied before. So, it’s all, it’s quite fun, because I feel like I’m back reading scientific papers and talking to scientists and actually getting the data behind everything.
ROSE -Well that seems to be something that I’ve noticed, is that although scientists sometimes have a specific interest area –
ROBYN — Yeah. –
ROSE -Science itself has promoted them to become really curious about other topics.
ROSE -So, maybe, even though you, you’re not a researcher yourself, science maybe promoted your sense of wanting to find out more about other things.
ROBYN -Yes. Oh, a hundred percent. I am, I like, all of my shows are, are about a thing I was curious about.
ROBYN -Like and it’s one of those things, going you know, they always say in comedy, ‘write about what you know’ and I write about what I don’t know then research it and then (laughs).
ROSE -Yeah, that’s interesting. How do you research it? Where do you find information?
ROBYN -So many different avenues. Scientific papers are a big one. I think, I actually, this probably sounds really lame to say, but –
ROBYN -I actually like starting with TED Talks –
ROBYN — because it’s a very, short broad summary of, and you get scientists and researchers giving short topics and then find those people and look into their research more. So, it’s a good way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. But I have contacted and interviewed scientists that specialise in certain fields –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN — and just reading books, and just a bunch of different avenues to…the problem is, the topics that I’m covering are so huge, you know. And this is people’s, many different people’s lifelong work. And so to try to pull out a small amount of that to then condense it into a palatable format and then stick it in an hour long show, is, also I don’t have time, I mean if I was going to do research on the neuroscience of love, that’s like, more than a lifetime of work.
ROBYN -So to try to condense that and explain it in a three minute joke, is hard (laughs).
ROSE -Do you consider yourself a science communicator?
ROBYN -I think that probably the best way to, way to put it. Because I don’t, I don’t practice science, I don’t, you know the research that I do is not, not (laughs).
ROSE — Experimenting. –
ROBYN -It’s, it’s weird, I yeah. I, having identity issues of whether I consider –
ROBYN -myself to be a real scientist anymore because I’m not doing it, but at the same time, communicating. And I do, I do make sure everything I say is accurate. There’s Kings College in London. I’ve done previews there, at their, I have a friend that works in, research in dementia. And so she had a bunch of her brain scientists –
ROSE — Yeah, –
ROBYN — to come down and did a preview in front of them to make sure everything I was saying was factually accurate.
ROSE -Yeah, is that a fear? That you’re going to say something in a joke and it’s not going be, presenting then science incorrectly which is probably not what you wanna do –
ROBYN — Yeah. –
ROSE -because you understand science. Do you get worried –
ROBYN — Massively –
ROSE -about it? Yeah.
ROBYN -The first preview that I did in front of them. I have a whole bit about the Amygdala in the first show.
ROSE -If you’re like me and you didn’t know, the amygdala is an almond shaped part of your brain responsible for a lot; things like emotions, fear and mating selection. It’s kind of near the top of your spine right in the bottom middle of your brain.
ROBYN -I’d gone through all the amygdala jokes and they were kind of quiet at that point in time, and when you’re on stage you’re thinking of anything but what’s coming out of your mouth. And so I got really nervous and then after the show, it was like, ‘did you, you guys didn’t laugh, was it wrong? –
ROBYN — like is it inaccurate?’. They were like, ‘no we loved it, we just take the Amygdala very seriously. (laughs)
ROSE -Oh wow.
ROBYN -So it is nerve wracking. And actually, I did a preview for this show where I made a comment that says, that animals for the most part, don’t play hard to get. And I had somebody email in and go, ‘they do play hard to get’.
ROBYN -And we had this whole back and forth, and from what I’ve found and again, I do not, I don’t have a lifetime of research. But animals, I mean, a hundred percent play games. When they get together.
ROBYN -But hard to get is very specific game that, I think there’s like a species of Antelope that do it and one species of bird that can kind of, allude to it. But most, mammals do not play hard to get and I’ve, once that person wrote in, it was, ah, turned into a big debate and then –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN — I’ve talked to more zoologists that I know. And they’re like, ‘well I don’t know any species that play hard to get’ or at the same time –
ROSE -Maybe they do?
ROBYN -Yeah, exactly. So, it is one of the things that I then try to qualify by saying most animals even though I can’t really find any evidence that they do. But it is a fear, ‘cos I’m going up there. And obviously there are jokes that I make –
ROSE — Yes. –
ROBYN — you know, about that are quite obviously not true. Which is fine (laughs).
ROBYN -I think. And people that know aren’t true, for example, I don’t know if this, but when I’m talking about with the amygdala and saying that they’ve done studies that some animals can live with amygdala damage it just means that they will mate with anything.
ROBYN -So then saying, like the highest percentage of animals living with amygdala damage are actually Aussies from Armadale.
ROSE -(laughs) Yup. Great.
ROBYN -So, which ah, obviously isn’t true.
ROBYN -But I feel like the evidence can tell what’s actually true and what’s not (laughs).
ROSE -Yeah. It’s dangerous, but it’s true.
ROBYN -(laughs) Yeah, yeah, it is.
ROSE -In the process of writing a show, what does your life look like? Tell me (laughs).
ROBYN -(laughs) Yeah it is. I usually perform probably six nights a week.
ROBYN -Except for a festival which is every single night. And then, I do a combination of the boring admin side of the stuff during the day and writing and how I write; I have a blank wall in my flat, and I just have Post-Its on it. The whole wall, is like, covered with Post-Its –
ROSE — Wow. –
ROBYN — that go like, through the structure of the show and what I need to research and stuff like that. So if anybody, so has, doesn’t know this about me and they come to my flat, it looks like I’m going to murder people.
ROBYN -Especially when you have like, ah, like when you’re writing jokes, there’s a like some of them just like, one word. And then so it’ll just be like a name with something crossed through it or like (laughs).
ROSE -Yeah, yeah.
ROBYN -Yeah. So, yeah. It’s a lot of, I’ll start off with, and I work on an Edinburgh Fringe schedule –
ROSE — Okay –
ROBYN — I’m always working to complete a show by the Edinburgh Fringe. Which means that when I take shows to Perth, they are very done. Which is to me, you guys get the best! (laughs)
ROSE -(laughs) Well rehearsed. Peer reviewed.
ROBYN -Yeah. But it needs the. So in September that’s what I’m doing, starting September to December, is like a lot of heavy research and then it’s more taking that research and putting it into jokes, like January to July.
ROSE -Going back to the show you’ve done on decision making.
ROSE -Where did the inspiration for that come from?
ROBYN -So I, I am very indecisive. And (laughs) when I, I’d been doing comedy for a while.
ROBYN -And most of the comedy I was doing was just club comedy. Just doing dick jokes! And I had, uh, a friend of mine actually, bought like, the shell of building for a comedy club in Liverpool in the U.K.
ROBYN -And, uh, had me go up to Liverpool for three days and just sketch out ideas for the club. And so, we spent over three or four days together, and by the end of it, he’s a promoter of one of the biggest clubs in the U.K. and he’s like, ‘you know, no offence but after spending three or four days with you, you are so much more interesting than your comedy would say’. (laughs)
ROSE -(laughs) Wow!
ROBYN -Which is, harsh but really fair. Because it was, the things that I was doing, I mean, I had dabbled in it, I had like, and it was one joke as like, calculating the speed of an ejaculation with a like train
ROBYN -It was like a, like you could see it, but I had never written anything on it, and I before that I hadn’t done my first hour long show yet. I realised that actually, I think in science. When I go to write a bit for the first time, if I come up with an idea, I will research it immediately. And I always thought that was normal.
ROBYN -That you just, like, yeah, find something funny and then my instinct is to go ‘okay, well why is that? What’s the background behind it?’. Like here’s a stereotype that I think is funny; let’s look at the history before it, is there a biological background to it.
ROBYN -And so, it took a few people to be like, ‘that’s not normal’. Most people don’t do that. And so, started, uh, writing that, and was working on a show that originally was going to be called Robyn’s Bad Decision Time, because I figured that I made bad decisions. And my brother-in-law had this moment where he was like, ‘you don’t make bad decisions. You don’t make decisions’. And the difference is, you’re just scared of committing to a decision. And so I started looking into, why that is. And because there are two parts of your brain that go into decision making. So there’s the prefrontal cortex, which is like the factual part of the brain, that you know, logical, works on the pros and cons. And then the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain.
ROBYN -And the two work together. And you can’t make a decision without your amygdala, uh, but in fight-or-flight situations, your amygdala can take over and make the decision without your prefrontal cortex.
ROSE -Interesting, I would have assumed it would be the other way around.
ROBYN -Well, the prefrontal cortex is part of the, uh, most developed. So the limbic system, the amygdala’s part of the limbic system, neuro, uh your lizard brain. Oh gosh, I’m gonna get this wrong. (laughs). No uh, I’m pretty sure, like the, the amygdala’s part of the original part of your brain, that –
ROSE — Okay. –
ROBYN — so it is, in your instinctual responses, and fight-or-flight, and that’s where it thrives, in the prefrontal cortex, or it’s part of the, humans have developed this.
ROBYN -So with that, I have an issue trusting my amygdala, trusting my emotions. And so, that is why I am so indecisive. And when I met –
ROSE — Interesting.-
ROBYN -And yeah, it was great when I, just basically, found this woman, uh, this scientist, and sat her down. I was like, ‘why?’. And she was like, ‘you have a stressed-out amygdala’.
ROBYN -I was like, ‘oh, alright’. (laughs)
ROSE -And can that be something anyone has, or is? –
ROBYN — Yeah, yeah. She actually does amygdala coaching as well.
ROSE -Yeah. (laughs) Just to help. Just, so I, in the show that I was doing, I uh, would get anonymous decisions from the audience before the show started. And people would just write ‘em on pieces of paper and put ‘em in a bag and I picked one out. And instead of identifying who, um, made the, who had that decision, uh we would create the parameters, like, on stage. So like, one of the ones I had was, ‘should I tell my girlfriend I killed her gerbil?’. And so, I got through and we asked the audience, you know, all the parameters, like ‘how long have you been together?’, ‘how old was the gerbil?’, like, ‘where was she when this happened?’. And uh, then we go through the prefrontal cortex and how the prefrontal cortex would make that decision in the different areas of the amygdala, looking at uh, emotion, mood and feeling, and then make a decision as a –
ROSE — as a group –
ROBYN –as an audience. Yeah.
ROSE -Working as one big amygdala together, I suppose.
ROBYN -Yeah! (laughs)
ROSE -It’s interesting that, you said that earlier that you don’t think you’re a scientist. But what you’ve just described is researching and you’re using science in your comedy. Does that make you maybe re-evaluate; maybe you are a scientist?
ROBYN -I guess so. I mean, I think this, uh, show I’ve done about love actually has an experiment in it.
ROBYN -Which is, more, like we take anonymous votes throughout the show and enter them live on stage into Excel.
ROSE -(laughs) A scientist’s best friend, obviously! (laughs)
ROBYN -Yes! (laughs)
ROSE -Also a science choice to choose to make an Excel spreadsheet –
ROBYN — Oh, yes! –
ROSE — during a comedy show. (laughs)
ROBYN -So many Excel sheets in my show, it’s amazing! So I guess, in that, but I’d say that’s more of a social experiment.
ROBYN -I feel like, there are, a lot of biases that go into it. ‘Cos I’m telling, like especially this year, I’m telling a story of what happens. And so, how I’m telling the story is very much biasing the audience as to how they’re voting. And so, for that reason, I mean that is an experiment looking at how my words can change how people vote.
ROBYN -I, yeah, I research, but I think where I get so self-conscious about it, is because I am grossly simplifying huge amounts of data to present it to people who-I mean-scientists love the show –
ROSE — Okay –
ROBYN — but then to also make the show accessible to people who aren’t, in science as much.
ROBYN -As long as you have an interest as to why this is then, yeah. So this is, I’m simplifying things, I feel like that’s almost not offensive, but –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN — do you know what, yeah. I feel like I’m…
ROSE -I can see what you mean. It’s interesting, ‘cos it’s, they’re definitely things that a scientist does, are incorporated into a job that isn’t seen as scientific. Do you think that people are more comfortable thinking about science, and scientific topics when it’s presented through comedy?
ROBYN -Uh, yeah, absolutely, I think, think, any uh, any topic is more comfortable when you’re laughing –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN — then you’re laughing when your guard is down, so you’re more receptive to things, and if you lecture somebody, like if they haven’t chosen to be lectured on that topic, then they don’t want to hear it.
ROBYN -So, I think, you can kind of sneak things in and a lot of people who have come to the show are like, ‘oh wow, I learned something as well’. (laughs)
ROSE -Oh, that’s really cool.
ROSE -Why do you think people should care about the science behind some of these more human experiences?
ROBYN -I think, especially with the mating selection show, I think one of the things of the show does is it pulls out inconsistencies that are, uh, that of our social constructs. And I think that it’s really important to challenge those. And going, ‘why is this okay?’. Like, I’m not, like I think in one of them it’s talking about rejecting people romantically.
ROBYN -In public. I, and it’s looking at for example, uh, why is it not okay to reject somebody based on their body type, but it is okay to reject somebody based on their height.
ROBYN -I’m not saying one or the other is right, or like they both should be able to be rejected or neither should, but I’m saying those are two things that it’s inconsistent and why do we have that in society?
ROSE -It sounds like you’ve moved all across the world. So where did you study your first part with the science, and then do you think maybe where you lived, has that moved because of what you’ve studied, or the comedy that you’ve gotten into, how does that work?
ROBYN -So I was raised in New Hampshire, then um, moved around a bit so my, I moved to Boston for grad school. And then lived there for a while, came to London for a job, just because I also wanted to live in Europe. And just away from the States (laughs). Uh, but it even, like through the internships, I you know, spent a summer in Florida, spent a summer in California. And uh, London though, when I started comedy is for a working comic who is not famous is, I think, the best place to make money.
ROBYN -Or to make a living on it. Uh, and then coming to Australia every year, I mean Perth is my favourite Festival to do.
ROBYN -Every year. It is, it is, because the audiences are so switched on as well, and so a lot of, there’s a handful, I’d say probably about twenty UK comics that come over to Australia for Perth, and Adelaide and Melbourne every year, and maybe more so just for Melbourne, but uh, to do the festival circuit.
ROSE -Are there any other comedians doing science?
ROBYN -No. And I mean, there’s a, there is a group in London, but they aren’t many, uh, I just had coffee with Steve Cross, who is one of the biggest science comedians in the U.K., and of course Robin Ince who is uh, my hero (laughs). And he was saying, like, uh probably ten, twelve years ago, they put out like a top five science comedians list in magazine.
ROSE -Oh wow.
ROBYN -And he was like, ‘which was great that I made the top five, ‘cos there were only six.’ (laughs). And going, ‘wow’. And it’s starting to grow, it is. And there are different uh, different levels but I think it, yeah, it’s something that I need to figure out how to reach my audience.
ROBYN -That’s the thing I’m not, that’s a big challenge for me right now.
ROSE -Who do you think your audience is?
ROBYN -I think my audience is, like, twenty to forty five year old smart people (laughs).
ROSE -Because I also have, while I talk about science and a lot of uh, there’s a level of intelligence in my show, it’s equally I’m using my life stories to explain it and question it. So when I’m talking about dating, or I’m talking about indecisiveness and a lot of it is my experiences that happened as I’m thirty eight years old. So it’s, I mean I’m like a young thirty eight ‘cos I’m not married, or have kids or have a bank account or savings.
ROBYN -So I really have the success of like a twenty two year old, so I really feel like in that range would be great (laughs).
ROSE -Yeah, interesting. And it’s interesting that you say, ‘smart people’. Do you think that –
ROBYN — is that offensive? (laughs)
ROSE -No, it’s not, I think it’s interesting! Because, is that, do you think reflective you think science is maybe only interesting to a certain audience? Do you think it’s the science that’s pushing maybe it not to be for a broad, wider audience? Or do you think it’s your style? Is there a reason why you’ve broke it down to that?
ROBYN -I think it’s people that like to think.
ROBYN -Like, people that like to know the ‘why?’ –
ROSE — Yup. –
ROBYN — behind things. And I think that’s the big thing about it. ‘Cos they’ve also, I’ve tried to do shows to uh, more of a club, a comedy club audience –
ROSE — Yeah.-
ROBYN — that just wants jokes. And they’re like, ‘I don’t want to think about. I don’t wanna think about the bigger message behind a comedy show.’ –
ROSE — Okay. –
ROBYN — ‘I don’t wanna know the reason why, I just want you tell me whether or not you took home that guy.’
ROBYN -So, I feel like the audiences that want to know ‘why’, are the ones that appreciate the shows more.
ROSE -Yeah, that’s a good point. Sometimes you just not there to learn.
ROBYN -Yeah. (laughs) Exactly!
ROSE -You’re just really not.
ROSE -But do you think people should care ‘why?’.
ROBYN -Yeah, absolutely. I think when we start to question why things are, then we can start to change things that aren’t fair, or honest, or right.
ROSE -What do you wish people knew? Whether this be from something you’ve studied formally, or maybe something you’ve researched for your shows, what do you think, if people knew it, they’d just be better off?
ROBYN -I, okay, I think in general, I think I wish people would realise that you don’t have to be a proper scientist to investigate something.
ROBYN -Maybe that’s what it is. I don’t, ‘cos I don’t have, my training is just, you know, like university and then I kinda moved on. i think… that’s what it is, I would call myself an investigator.
ROSE -That’s cool. I like that.
ROBYN -Yeah (laughs). A science investigator.
ROSE -What has been a subject that you’ve come across whilst, I don’t know, researching or maybe it’s just been mentioned to you, that you’ve been like, ‘oh my goodness, I wish I could’ve known more about that’, or like maybe that you could have studied it further? Is there something that you really, like, captured you at some point?
ROBYN -I think, I love neuroscience.
ROBYN -And uh, the, kind of, I keep having all these ideas for shows that I’m working on. And so, I think the two things that I’m very interested in right now – one is uh, cognitive bias, which is the show after next year. But how, I just find that fascinating how, like one hundred and fifty two different ways that our brain perceives the truth other than what it is –
ROSE — Ohhh. –
ROBYN — and how we’re biased, which is incredible. Uh, so that I am excited to look into more. And the other thing that uh, I’m really enjoying learning about more is, uh, looking at science of competitiveness and how our mental state can have real physiological changes, effects.
ROSE -What kinds of changes?
ROBYN -Well, okay. So, if before a competition, if you’re in the mindset of ‘this is going to be a competition’, and you’re mentally ready, that will increase your testosterone. And that uh, because testosterone can pass over the blood brain barrier, that actually speeds up your D.N.A. transcription, creating more neurotransmitters –
ROSE — What?! –
ROBYN — which gives you, like, a better performance.
ROBYN -I know! It’s like, that’s incredible! (laughs).
ROBYN -Yeah. And another one is, uh, I believe it’s the uh, playing to win, versus playing not to lose. The difference is, um, noradrenaline versus adrenaline. And so when you have a surge of adrenaline, because it goes up your spinal cord for a very quick burst, it will dilate your blood vessels, getting, giving more oxygen to your muscles. Whereas noradrenaline will constrict them, uh and so that will decrease the amount of oxygen they get to our muscles as well.
ROSE -Which one would cause more adrenaline? Playing to win, or playing not to –
ROBYN — Playing to win, or playing not to lose? –
ROSE — lose? Yeah. How interesting.
ROBYN -But it again, it’s, I, it’s um, it’s scary when I talk about things like this, ‘cos I’m, I think that I’m understanding it, like I will –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN – – and I, but some people again, saying something like that. It’s, I’m sure there is somebody, who this is their life work, going, ‘well, that’s not exactly straight forward.’ –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN -but it is, there’s a lot of other factors that go into it, and uh.
ROSE -Like, one of the things that is going to be very cagey to describe in next year’s show, is uh, looking at the COMP gene. Which is a gene that they’ve linked to competitiveness.
ROBYN -And it’s basically the gene that, um, removes in your prefrontal cortex, reabsorbs dopamine into your neurons.
ROSE -Ohh. So when you’re…
ROBYN -So when you’re in a stressful or any sort of competition –
ROSE — Yeah. –
ROBYN — you get an influx of dopamine.
ROBYN -And this gene basically creates the enzyme that reabsorbs dopamine. And if you have two much dopamine in your brain, you have an overload, then your brain shuts down and you can’t make those factual, logical decisions. Right? And there’s two types of the COMP gene, there’s like the fast moving and the slow moving. And so, the people who have the fast-moving COMP gene, they’re able to make more in stressful, competitive situations, make rational decisions, more.
ROBYN -And so, which tend to come off as riskier decisions –
ROSE — Ohhh. –
ROBYN — because they’re based on fact, rather than emotion and your amygdala.
ROSE -Yeah, okay.
ROBYN -And the interesting thing about that, is that uh, estrogen, which is present in more females, binds to the COMP gene and slows it down.
ROBYN -And when I first started reading about this, I was like, ‘are you, what?’.
ROSE — (laughs) –
ROBYN — ‘are you saying that men are more competitive than women?’. Absolutely not!
ROBYN -(laughs) And I know that has to do with your baseline levels of dopamine as well.
ROBYN -Because if you have higher baseline levels of dopamine, then you’re fast acting, like it’s a lot of different factors that go into that. So it’s not that all men are more competitive than all women, but it’s saying that if you have two humans that have the same baseline level of dopamine, if one of them has more estrogen then they’re going to have a slower acting COMP gene. But equally when you’re not in stressful situations, then that can actually help you. And then if you’re able to manage like, stress of the, yeah, there’s so many different factors, but it’s interesting that you could simplifying one situation going, ‘well, if somebody makes riskier decisions, that makes them appear to be more confident’ because they’re putting themselves into competitions.
ROSE -Ohh, I see.
ROBYN -Whereas other people wouldn’t, and that could be proving why men are egotistical.
ROSE -Yeah. Take more risks perhaps?
ROBYN -(laughs)Go science, right?!
ROBYN -There are so many factors that you’re like, ‘you can’t say that’ (laughs).
ROSE -It does make it stressful.
ROSE -And it’s interesting, the idea that, I mean, you look at people who are competitive perhaps, and you just go, ‘oh, it’s just a competitive person’, but it just goes to show how sometimes there’s more layers further back from that.
ROBYN -Yeah. Yes, exactly.
ROSE -You’re very interested in people. Did you ever consider doing psychology?
ROBYN -(laughs) I, I, yeah. I probably would have done really well with that, actually (laughs).
ROBYN -I think I’ve also a very short attention span though. And so I think with comedy I can kind of like, move onto the next thing, so I can do a million things at once. But I feel like if I was going to go into psychology, that’s again, a lot of school and a lot of other stuff, that…(laughs)
ROSE -(laughs) Is that what’s quite unappealing?
ROBYN -No, well, it’s not school, ‘cos I love the learning.
ROBYN -I think it’s the repetition. Like, um, so when I was doing my thesis. My thesis was looking at the effect of UVB light on HSP-70 in the diatom Thalassiosira
ROSE –You’re gonna have to explain to me what that is!-
ROBYN -I know. Alright, so heat shock proteins are a type of protein that comes out if you’re stressed.
ROBYN -And so, we’re basically, um, the research was trying to look at uh, why red tides exist and how they exist in –
ROSE — Red tides? –
ROBYN — Red tides. So um, maybe this is a thing in the west coast of the States more.
ROSE — in the, yeah. –
ROBYN -you’ll have like algal blooms.
ROBYN -And some of them are made up of diatoms, or dinoflagellates that are red, so all of a sudden, they will massively populate.
ROBYN -And just like, suffocate. They won’t let light down to the lower levels, so it has –
ROSE — Yes. –
ROBYN — a lot of negative impact there and then also.
ROSE -Are they literally red?
ROBYN -Some of them are.
ROBYN -Yeah, which is where they got the name. But also if you look at like, oysters and clams that are filtering that much water, they’ll get a high concentration of it; which is toxic. And then their bodies are made to absorb that, are fine to absorb that, but if you have birds and stuff that are eating oysters –
ROSE — Yes. –
ROBYN — they will then get sick and die, because there’s such a high concentration of it, if they eat a number of oysters. Ah, which is why some people get sick off of oysters and clams and stuff.
ROBYN -So, I was doing this research, and I got really good results. And they were like, ‘okay, you just need to do it all over again –
ROSE — (laughs) –
ROBYN -and then you can be like, first name on your paper.’ and I was like, ‘alright’. ‘Cos I’m like about to graduate from university, so it’s like, pretty young to be first name on a paper.
ROBYN -And I was like, ‘I don’t wanna do it’. –
ROSE — Don’t want to repeat! –
ROBYN — I don’t wanna do it! And I remember, I was just going through this like, crisis of what I’m gunna do with my life. And they were like, ‘really it’s the thought of doing just two more weeks in the lab, is it that bad?’
ROBYN -And I was like, ‘yeah, I don’t wanna do it’. Like, I’m done.
ROBYN -Which is, horrible (laughs). But I just.
ROSE -You can’t help it.
ROBYN -When I’m done, I’m done. Yeah.
ROSE -If you don’t wanna do it, you don’t wanna do it.
ROSE -Even if it’s just on a personal level, what do you see the connection being between science and art?
ROBYN -I think there’s a huge overlap. I don’t think they are necessarily two opposite things. And I think the biggest connection between them is, problem solving and thinking. Like when, the art that I love the most is, uh, art that has a greater meaning and art that makes you think, and uh, challenges you. And so when you’re problem solving whether it be for an art or for a performance, or writing, or again, science is more, I think…literal take on problem solving. But it’s that analytical thought process of creating, and solving, and challenging.
ROSE -And giving weight to your thoughts, I suppose. Like in science if you have a thought, you test it out. In art, maybe you have a thought and then you explore it in different ways.
ROBYN -Yeah. That’s a much better way to put it. (laughs)
ROSE -(laughs). It was a bit of team work there to get there.
ROBYN -Yeah, no, it was! It was good. It is, and I, that’s what I love about both of them, is uh, and I am quite literally combining both of them, but yeah, having a thought and exploring it.
ROSE -It’s all part of it.
ROBYN -Yeah, exactly.
ROSE -This is arguably my favourite thing to ask. What is your favourite kind of ‘fun fact’ or go-to like, cute little science fact that you like to tell people?
ROBYN -So, I’m pretty obsessed with the amygdala.
ROBYN -And I think that the amygdala’s the most underrated part of your body.
ROBYN -So I, in the decision making show, I decided to uh, stand up for the amygdala and I made a series of stickers. And because other parts of the body get credit, right? So you have like the heart, which gets credit for love.
ROBYN -Which is obviously, crap, right?
ROBYN -You know the ventricle has nothing to with love, right?
ROBYN -And it also does your fear, which is like your bowels, they, you know, get credit for that, you know.
ROBYN -And like, your sex drive is also your amygdala.
ROSE -It’s responsible for so many things!
ROBYN -I know, right? So, my, my four stickers, one of ‘em says, ‘I love you with all of my amygdala’.
ROBYN -Yeah, one of them says, uh, ‘you scared the amygdala out of me’.
ROSE -That’s great.
ROBYN -Yeah, one of ‘em is, ‘I wear my amygdala on my sleeve’.
ROSE -Oh (laughs).
ROBYN -And one of ‘em is, ‘You’re so thinking with your amygdala.’
ROSE -That’s great. It’s like a science fact and a science joke in one. I like that one.
ROBYN -Yeah, nice.
ROSE -It’s really good. Do you see yourself doing comedy and science comedy forever?
ROBYN -I think so. But. I feel like, your goals and your dreams should be constantly changing. And if they’re not, if I’m going to have the same goals today as I do in twenty years, that means I’m not really developing as a person. So, right now, I think, yeah. I think it’s infinitely challenging. There are an infinite amount of questions I can ask and answer with comedy and research. But I can’t promise anything.
ROSE -(laughs) What’s on your list to continue researching?
ROBYN -Yeah, cognitive bias stuff is definitely next. Um, competitiveness and confidence is in there. And I don’t really know after that. It’s, something will come up, I’m sure.
ROSE -Yeah. Something’s going to make you excited.
ROSE -Well good luck and thank you very much for joining us.
ROBYN -Thank you so much for having me.
Rose: Thank you for listening to the Particle podcast. Check out more of our content on all the socials, as well as particle.scitech.org.au. As always, this episode was recorded in the wonderful science hub that is Western Australia. And Particle is powered by Scitech.
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