By Ada Hagan
“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone” – Albert Einstein
We’ve discussed it on the blog before, but science has a communication problem. Sure, research is performed and shared via research articles or at scientific conferences, but rarely do scientists directly relay results outside of their academic niches. Few scientists disagree with broader science communication in theory, especially since much of the funding for research is provided by taxpayer dollars. And we learned in our first “Science behind-the-scenes” post that the final step of the scientific method is to “communicate your results.” So why is it that researchers don’t interact more with non-researchers regarding science? Part of the issue is that the intense specialization of researchers into a narrow topic, combined with a lack of effective communication training, makes effective communication a difficult task.
The need for better communication between scientists and lay audiences is why one researcher at the University of Michigan is making the news on the Zika virus. But not because of her lab’s efforts at the bench, instead she’s on the air. Or more precisely, on the web.
Kathy Spindler, a Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is a co-host on the popular weekly podcast “This Week in Virology” (TWiV). Spindler has been a faculty member at the University of Michigan since 2001 when she moved here from the University of Georgia. Here, she’s continued her groundbreaking research on how viruses, such as Zika or mouse adenovirus, can cross into the brain causing inflammation and disease.
Spindler brings her expertise as a virologist to TWiV, where the hosts discuss the latest in virology, whether it be in research or the news. TWiV was launched in 2008 by Vincent Racaniello and Dickson Despommier, virologist and parasitologist, respectively, at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and funded by Racaniello. From in-depth coverage of the Ebola epidemic to the current focus on the Zika virus, TWiV tackles difficult topics in an engaging and insightful manner. A December 2015 TWiV episode1 discussing the Zika virus led to Spindler being interviewed by PBS News Hour.
Spindler explains that she chooses to volunteer her time in podcasting because “[y]ou should be able to explain what you do for a living to almost anyone–such as the person sitting next to you on a plane. Podcasting is not just explaining what I do, but what others do, and to many more people than I’ll ever reach on planes! It’s important and satisfying to make science accessible to a wide audience.”
Indeed, the diversity of topics and thought-provoking discussions on TWiV appeal to a varied audience. Listeners, including high school students, public school teachers, retirees, graduate students, colleagues in microbiology and non-science professionals, frequently engage with the hosts through letters, comments, and on social media. Most shows include answering listener emails, and TWiV will occasionally do “all email shows” to catch up on the volume of correspondence. Many listeners share the weather in their area (a staple of each TWiV episode), demonstrating the geographical diversity of the audience, with listeners from around the world.
TWiX Podcasters (L to R): Michele Swanson, Elio Schaechter, Vincent Racaniello, and Kathy Spindler. Image Credit: Used with permission from the UMich Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Just down the hall from Spindler is another microbiology podcaster, Michele Swanson. Also a Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Swanson joined the Department in 1996, and has established herself as a successful bacterial pathogenesis researcher. One pathogen she investigates, the bacterium Legionella pneumophila, is the cause of Legionnaires disease, which has recently plagued the city of Flint, Michigan.
Swanson is a co-host on “This Week in Microbiology” (TWiM). Also created and hosted by Racaniello, biweekly episodes of TWiM were added to expand the breadth of topics from virology to all things microbiology; though topics primarily focus on bacteriology. Another frequent focus of the news is exciting new research on the human microbiome and a number of researchers at the University of Michigan contribute groundbreaking research to the field. Swanson, Racaniello and other TWiM hosts have dedicated a number of episodes to dissecting the latest on microbiome research, frequently from UM researchers. Like their counterparts on TWiV, the TWiM co-hosts describe the experimental methods and findings of new research, and in the process, make the concepts available to a wide audience.
As an academic scientist whose own training and research has been funded by public tax dollars, Swanson notes that she welcomes] “the opportunity to share my knowledge and love of microbiology with others outside of academia. At the 2015 Michigan Meeting ‘Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse’, it was heartening to hear President [Mark] Schlissel and other academic leaders encourage faculty to engage with the public.” This sentiment was reiterated by President Schlissel at the 2016 Michigan Meeting, where he commended organizers for efforts to publicly communicate the meeting through live-blogging and live-tweeting.
In addition to TWiV and TWiM, Racaniello releases monthly episodes of “This Week in Parasitism” (TWiP), focusing on parasites and now, “This Week in Evolution” (TWiEVO). Together, the podcast series (TWiX), boasts 10,000 or more downloads per episode, with more than four million downloads for TWiV total. The TWiX team, including Spindler and Swanson, has covered a lot of ground in their discussions. Some topics are curiosities of the microbial world such as the ocelloid, a unicellular organism with an eye-like structure2, or viruses that infect sea stars3. Many are relevant to clinical medicine and public health, including interviews with Ebola responders4, the microbiome5, new research on prominent pathogens6 and how vaccines work7, or fail to work8. Racaniello and his TWiX teams have even dedicated episodes to careers in microbiology9. In October, 2015, live episodes10 of TWiM and TWiV were recorded at UM to celebrate the dedication of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology as a Milestones in Microbiology historical site by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).
Live Recording of TWiM at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology Milestones in Microbiology event. Professors (L to R): Vincent Racaniello, Michele Swanson, Elio Schaechter, Mary O’Riordan, Harry Mobley and Vincent Young. Image Credit: Used with permission from the UMich Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Spindler and Swanson put careful thought into preparing for each episode. In addition to reading the research papers, as they might for any journal club or teaching, they prepare supplementary material such as useful analogies, explanations of techniques, or interviews with lead authors. Profiles of the lead authors (usually graduate students and postdocs), spearheaded by Swanson as a way to demystify laboratory research for the public, are a popular feature on TWiM. This pair of accomplished researchers view their work on the podcasts as an opportunity to stay abreast of new research while honing their teaching skills.
Improving their ability to communicate science to non-specialists is important to both Spindler and Swanson. Ultimately, the opportunity to remind the public about the excitement and value of basic research is what keeps them coming back, episode after episode. And if the listener emails aren’t enough to prove that their communication efforts are working, both Swanson and Spindler have been contacted by TWiX fans visiting the Ann Arbor area.
All episodes of TWiV, TWiP and TWiM are archived and hosted by ASM. They are freely available at their website “Microbe World” (http://www.microbeworld.org) and on iTunes. Tune in and write in—they’d love to hear from you!
Suggested TWiM & TWiV Episodes:
- TWiV episode #368
- TWiM #103
- TWiV #315
- TWiV #341
- TWiV #323, #355; TWiM #110, #26
- TWiM #62
- TWiM #104, TWiV #392, #217
- TWiM #70
- TWiV #300, #292; TWiM #99
- TWiV #360; TWiM #114
*A version of this post was originally published by the University of Michigan Health Lab Blog.
About the author
Ada Hagan is a doctoral student here at the University of Michigan in the department of Microbiology and Immunology. She does recon on the sneaky ways bacteria find nutrients (like iron!) when they are invading our bodies. Originally hailing from the mountains of East Tennessee, Ada earned both her B.S. and M.S. in Microbiology from East Tennessee State University. In her spare time, Ada spends time with her pets and husband, cooking, fishing & the occasional Netflix binge. Follow her on Twitter (@adahagan) and see more of her posts on LinkedIn.
Read more posts by Ada here.
One thought on “Communicating science: From Michigan, across the world (wide web)”
Dr. Spindler’s quote about making science accessible to a wide audience by putting forethought into the language and rhetoric you employ to describe what you do is on point and something too often lost when the process does take place.
As you mentioned, some narrow fields of study are specialized to a point where they utilize a vocabulary that does not even exist in common English. It’s almost more aptly termed science translation than communication in some regards.
Appreciate the detail and planning you put into this piece.