Dissecting a Cell Biology Audio Story

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This weekend I listened to “The Cell’s Mystery,” an audio story by independent producer Sara Robberson. In the piece, she tells the story of Japanese scientist Dr. Shinya Inoue, whose work helped to significantly advance the understanding of how cell division takes place. Dr. Inoue did much of his work in Japan during World War II, which posed significant challenges since the country was being bombarded regularly.

From a technical and professional standpoint, the piece is very well done. All the interview subjects are very clear and easily understood and there is no background noise. I noted that Robberson included a second or two before Dr. Inoue’s bites of him taking a breath and sounding like he is gathering his thoughts; this helps to humanize him, and paints the picture of him remembering events from long ago. There isn’t nat sound in the piece, but there is music underneath Robberson’s tracking and the sound bites at the beginning, when Robberson begins talking about how Dr. Inoue’s mentor  challenged him to investigate cell division (at -6:08), as well as near the end (-1:40).

In terms of sense of story, the piece can be a little hard to follow at times because of the scientific nature of the subject. Listening to the piece several times is necessary to fully understand Dr. Inoue’s work. Nonetheless, Robberson did a good job of simplifying the topic. She allows the more elaborate concepts to be explained by her sources. This is better than trying to explain the concepts herself since her sources have more credibility in the science than she does. They do a great job explaining it – for example, at -2:40, Dr. Gary Borisey explains the cell division process by comparing it to a chair in the room; this explanation makes it easier to grasp the concept. The only caveat I can identify in terms of the story is how briefly Dr. Inoue’s theory on the mitotic spindle was covered – it was described, and at -2:00 Kenney said it was proven correctly 20 years later. The listener never learns of how it was proven correctly or of the struggle to prove it right; it feels a little abrupt.

In terms of editing decisions, I felt the piece was very solid. The music, again, adds a nice touch to the piece; without it, the piece would definitely need nat sound of some sort, and it doesn’t seem like this particular story has an opportunity for nat sound. All the bites flow together seamlessly.

Dr. Inoue makes a great choice for this audio story, because his work was crucial in the field of cell biology, yet few people outside the field know who he is. His story is a powerful one, having worked in Japan during World War II and overcoming that challenge. Now, at his old age, this story is like a look back at a significant and successful career.

2 Comments

  1. You mentioned the music — I find its editing a little strange at the beginning of the story: the music lead-in seems so short, it may as well not be there at all, and then it’s too soft. At –6:08, though (and later, around –1:30), it works very well. It really helps this story because of the multiple voices and the tough topic.

    You mentioned that there is no nat sound, but what does the text intro say?

    Your discussion of the science and its presentation is very good. This was a tough subject to do in audio, I think. Pictures would help a lot!

    • Chris Peralta says:

      Robberson points out in the text intro that usually sounds are needed to give a sense of place. Indeed, the lack of sounds here seemed to make it difficult to have a sense of place; I always pictured Robberson and her interview subject in the middle of an empty room. (Though the picture included with the text intro probably helped contribute to that mental image.) However, this is a tough subject with few opportunities for nat sound. Perhaps some nats of lab work going on – a microscope lens being adjusted, machines whizzing, etc. – could have been included.

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