Weird Science: Stories of Embarrassment and Small Victories in NYC’s Scientific World

Weird Science: Stories of Embarrassment and Small Victories in NYC’s Scientific World

January 31, 2012 at 4:00 am

Where: 92YTribeca
When: Feb. 2 at 7:00 p.m.

Living in New York City — not exactly the Amazon rainforest or the Great White North (though occasionally, depending on the season, it can feel like either) — we sometimes forget that science is all around us. At The Story Collider, the city’s only science storytelling show, we aim to remind everyone that it is here – and not just when we’re avoiding germs on the subway or mentally calculating the velocity of approaching cabs.

Every month we invite six guests — ranging from scientists and educators to comedians and burlesque dancers — to tell stories about a time when science affected their lives. These are true, personal stories, not lectures. (Part of my job as producer, co-host and resident non-scientist is to prevent anything educational from worming its way into the show. Not on my watch, folks.)  Instead, The Story Collider is all about making science real and entertaining for everyone.

With this goal in mind, physicists Ben Lillie (also my charming co-host) and Brian Wecht founded The Story Collider nearly two years ago and since then we’ve podcasted more than 70 stories from our stage, hosted storytellers from all over the world and put on shows in four different cities. But our home is still New York.

In no show is this better represented than our upcoming Feb. 2 performance in partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences, in which we’ll present six stories centered around the theme of “Science Teachers” at the 92YTribeca. These stories will range from one New York public school teacher’s desperate quest to educate her students about crustaceans to a man’s experience watching med students practice suture knots on the subway, as he reflects on a traumatic incident from his past.

In honor of this upcoming show, MetroFocus invited us to present five favorite stories from past podcasts that center around the New York experience of science.


Jim O'Grady is a WNYC reporter. In his Story Collider podcast, he contemplates the dueling roles of nature versus nurture. Photo courtesy of The Story Collider.

Jim O’Grady, “Running from the Bronx”

WNYC reporter Jim O’Grady ponders the age-old conundrum of nature vs. nurture when his Bronx-native mother takes him back to her old neighborhood. He reflects on a high school track meet that led him to question whether or not he had inherited his mother’s toughness. In the end, he’s able to tap into his inherited fighting spirit and it influences the outcome of the race.

Listen to Jim O’Grady tell his story.


Dave Ritz is an actor and a storyteller. His story involves a paid medical study that goes a bit further than he expected. Photo courtesy of The Story Collider.

Dave Ritz, “The Easiest 20 Bucks”

This is a story about how people act under pressure. Finding himself unemployed, Dave Ritz decides to take part in a medical study at John Jay College to make a quick $20, but ends up getting more than he bargained for. As Ritz is exiting the study, he’s stopped by security personnel who accuse him of stealing. Ritz becomes understandably agitated — until he realizes that the accusation, and his reaction, is also a part of the study.

Listen to Dave Ritz tell his story.


Naomi Azar is a clinical psychology PhD candidate and a yoga instructor. Her story is about suffering from prosopagnosia, which impairs your ability to recognize faces.

Naomi Azar, “Do I Know You?”

What better place than a city of 8 million people to discover you suffer from prosopagnosia, a condition that impairs your ability to recognize faces? This is what happened to Naomi Azar, and it led to some awkward interactions on the streets of New York. What we like about this story is that it flips the formula for sit-coms like Seinfeld, when the protagonists randomly run into people they do know. In one instance, Azar sees a woman on the subway platform and feels a sense of familiarity. “I must know this person,” she says, and gives her a hug. Azar’s friends later tell her that she had embraced the woman who works the salad bar at her university. Azar finds humor in her condition and provides an amazing glimpse into the mysteries of the human brain.

Hear Naomi Azar navigate from faux pas to faux pas.


Lou Serico is a forensic scientist. He tells the story of how his career in science went from meh to awesome. Photo courtesy of The Story Collider.

Lou Serico, “Researching the Funniest Virus”

Geneticist Lou Serico seems doomed to study the world’s most embarrassing medical conditions. But then his love for science is reignited when he gets the chance to conduct research at Rockefeller University with its swanky digs (a geodesic dome and cappuccino machines!) before finally finding his place as a forensic scientist with the New York Medical Examiner’s Office.

Listen to Lou Serico’s hilarious tale. (explicit language)


Maija Miemisto is the director of shipboard education on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. While teaching a class, she unearthed an environmental scandal. Photo courtesy of The Story Collider.

Maija Niemisto, “A Step Off the Boat”

Maija Niemisto, director of shipboard education on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, is educating a class of high school students about the history of the Hudson when the overpowering smell of raw sewage wafts across the deck. Although she tries to tell the students that the Hudson is much cleaner than it used to be, she finds that the stench is the first clue in a large-scale environmental scandal. Her story shows how the good work of one scientist can make a difference for so many people.

Maija Niemisto tells her story.


Erin Barker is a writer and a copy editor. She is the producer/host of “The Story Collider,” as well as editor of its online magazine. She is a recent Moth GrandSLAM champion.