Some students at the University of Virginia School of Law are exchanging traditional note-taking in class for roundtable discussions around a microphone.

Professors Michael Livermore and Kim Krawiec, who run their own podcasts, pull in students to talk to experts, conduct research and map out the scripts for episodes featuring guests.

Livermore’s “Free Range” podcast focuses on environmental issues, from wildfires to climate economics. Krawiec’s “Taboo Trades” podcast allows students to dive into conversations on controversial topics like international surrogacy, organ donation and sexuality.

As the students gain expertise in complex legal issues, they also earn some class credit and learn how to conduct insightful conversations, present their findings in an easy-to-digest format for listeners and ask tough questions — respectfully.

A ‘Free’ Experience

For second-year student Elizabeth Putfark, the thought of re-reading her previous semester’s paper — and perhaps catching errors she didn’t notice earlier ­— was “a little mortifying.” She, along with fellow 2L Matt Di Sandro, wrote essays in Livermore’s Environmental Law class about the impact of wood pellets and their role in renewable energy. Livermore was so impressed with their work that he asked if they would want to make a guest appearance in a podcast episode.

The students, who didn’t realize they wrote their papers on the same topic, shared how they found inspiration for the assignment in different ways.

Putfark has planned on pursuing environmental law since she enrolled at UVA. Her father, who she says in the podcast is a nature-lover, works in the logging industry. It’s typical for Putfark and her dad to have conversations about the tension between loving and respecting nature and the role timber plays in the economy.

The two go back and forth on forest conservation issues, but when Putfark asked her dad about wood pellets, he got quiet. 

“I thought, ‘That’s strange,’” Putfark said. “Something must be going on here.”

Matt Di Sandro made a guest appearance on an episode of the "Free Range" podcast.
Matt Di Sandro

Di Sandro became interested in wood pellets while researching alternative energy sources in Europe. Particularly with the war in Ukraine, wood pellets have become popular because they are a carbon-neutral alternative to coal.  

But that spike in popularity has come at a cost — one that many argue is much bigger than the costs of traditional timber harvesting, like the kind Putfark’s father supports. Reporting shows that ancient forests in Europe and hardwood forests in the Southeast U.S. are being cut down for pellet production. And those bigger, and typically older, trees contain and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned — more carbon, even, than coal.

Livermore guides the podcast episode with questions for both students, allowing them to share findings from their research.

Free Range with Mike Livermore · S2E2. Explainer: The Controversy over Wood Pellets

Putfark and Di Sandro spoke with multiple experts on wood pellets and their effect on the environment. Some of them include Allen Knight, group director of sustainability at Drax Group, a leading company in the biomass industry; Louise Guillot, a Politico sustainability journalist; and Heather Hillaker, a senior attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center.

“When you’re writing a paper for a class, what you see about the issue is confined to sources you’re able to find online. But when you get to talk to the actual players involved, you see the human side of the issue,” Di Sandro said.

While wood pellets may not be a leading issue for environmental activists, Putfark hopes awareness continues to spread. Throughout making the podcast, Putfark was challenged to think differently than she did when writing her research paper.

“This was an opportunity to think about the other sides of the argument — the ethos and pathos,” she said, referring to the credibility of the experts and the emotions behind the issue. “Doing this episode, that’s really what we were doing — we were setting aside all of the who’s right and who’s wrong for a minute and just figuring out how to piece together a bunch of facts and details and make an interesting, complex story relatable and fun to listen to."

‘Taboo’ Talk

Third-year student Rahima Ghafoori stumbled upon the “Taboo Trades” podcast class when searching for classes to take in the fall. Having never taken a class with Krawiec or worked on a podcast, Ghafoori took a chance on the unconventional course offering.

She didn’t know what she was signing up for, she said, but she wasn’t disappointed.

Rahima Ghafoori co-hosted an episode of the "Taboo Trades" podcast.
Rahima Ghafoori co-hosted an episode of the "Taboo Trades" podcast.

Every week, the class would dissect a different topic, from private prisons to the ethical compensation of medical research subjects. The 11 or so students in the class would read an article by the upcoming week’s podcast guest. After reading the piece, each student would come up with two questions to ask the expert. The remainder of class was spent organizing the questions into a comfortable flow for the interview.

“Going in, you read the pieces and sometimes you’re like, ‘I don’t really understand,’ and so I would do my own research to be able to come up with thoughtful and meaningful questions,” Ghafoori said.

Each week, a different student would lead the conversation with the expert guest. Ghafoori interviewed Holly Fernandez Lynch, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics.

This episode — hosted by Krawiec, Ghafoori and Caroline Gozigian ’23 — focused on clinical research ethics. Ghafoori, who said she has never met anyone who has participated in a clinical trial, became intrigued by the potential corruption and undue influence that can occur.

“The stakes feel high when it comes to something like medicine,” she said.

During the podcast, Ghafoori’s questions centered around the involvement of specific socioeconomic groups in trials and whether more disadvantaged groups — like low-income households — are more likely to be asked to participate.

Lynch shared that companies, especially pharmaceuticals, want to get clinical trials done as quickly as possible. There is “a lot of relationship-building” involved, she said, so there is a constant push and pull between timeliness and reaching the people that could benefit most from the final product.

As an example, Lynch discussed the COVID-19 vaccine trials. While there was urgency to get the vaccines approved, one company halted its trial for a lack of diversity in participants. Instead of charging ahead and continuing with the study, the company began a grassroots effort to reach more participants, asking staff to start knocking on doors.

The podcast “really forced a lot of us to think about these topics in a way that we hadn’t before,” Ghafoori said. “Typically, the conversation centered around the morality and the opposition [relating to the episode issue], but we engaged very respectfully about it.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.