Friday, 29 September 2017 14:46

Podcasts introduce both scientific discoveries and the people who make them

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Published in Microbial Sciences

I am a podcast fanatic. Since discovering wonderful conversations about culture, politics, and art, podcasts have gradually replaced the talk radio and music stations I formerly listened to. When I was still in grad school, I discovered This Week in Virology (TWiV), at the time the most in-depth podcast covering microbiology. I continued listening as the TWiX empire expanded, and when given an opportunity to teach a microbiology course, I loved using This Week in Microbiology (TWiM) #50, which celebrated the work of Carl Woese, to introduce the concept of ribosomal RNA sequencing and its contribution to microbiome studies. I find the podcast format great for introducing both ideas, and the people behind the ideas.

For those unfamiliar with the medium, podcasts are similar to an on-demand radio program that you can listen to with your computer or smart phone. Some podcasts, like Radiolab or Science Friday, continue to have regularly scheduled air times on public radio stations, and are also available as a file to download; others are only available online. Podcast listening is perfect for absorbing information while doing repetitive tasks in the lab, as well as when commuting to work or cooking at home.

ASM’s “Meet the Scientist” podcast ran from 2008-2010, and we’re relaunching the series with a new name--“Meet the Microbiologist.” As a longtime listener and fan of microbiology podcasts, I’m extremely proud and excited to contribute a podcast that complements the BacterioFiles and TWiX podcast family. Meet the Microbiologist (MtM) is an interview-style show that gives scientists a platform to discuss their research conversationally. I want to hear about their scientific discoveries, but also about what problems their research addresses and how they were inspired to enter into their fields. 

Our first two episodes launched on Thursday, September 28th. In the first one (MTM065), I spoke with Vincent Racaniello about his research on polio virus and his work as a science communicator. Racaniello, the host of all the TWiX shows, describes the three major “eureka moments” of his career: generating an infectious DNA clone for polio virus, discovering the polio virus receptor on host cells, and generating a transgenic mouse model of polio virus infection. He then tells the story of the creation of TWiV, which started with Racaniello and his colleague Dickson Despommier speaking in Racaniello’s office, where he continues to record his podcasts today. I was lucky enough to visit Racaniello in his office/recording studio, where I not only saw his awesome tech arrangements for recording a multi-person show, but was also able to view the famous wall of polio

Listen to MTM episode 65:

In the second episode (MTM066), I spoke with Raymond St. Leger about his fascinating work on entomopathogenic fungi, which are fungi that infect and kill insects. Did you know about 50% of insects die of a fungal disease? We spoke about different fungi and their various uses, such as in biocontrol agents to protect crops or as a specific insect control agents. St. Leger has studied many Metarhizium species, which vary in the insect species that they kill. Some species act as generalists, meaning they can infect and cause disease in many different insect species. These are often found among the microbes surrounding the plant roots, where the fungus attacks insects that might damage the root system by eating it. After killing the insects, some Metarhizium species can even transport nutrients from the dead insects to the plant roots!

Listen to MTM episode 66:

We also discussed St. Leger’s studies on Metarhizium species that are specialists that infect and kill only defined insect species. His lab studies the mosquito pathogen M. pingshaensei as a way to control malaria-spreading Anopheles mosquitos. His lab has worked in collaboration with others in ‘semi-field’ experiments in Burkina Faso and Maryland to study how the fungus can interact with mosquito targets and the nearby environment. Anopheles mosquitos carry the Plasmodium protozoans that cause malaria, and current efforts to curb the mosquito population, such as using insecticide-infused bed netting, have become less effective as the insects have developed resistance to insecticides. St. Leger sees mosquito-pathogenic fungi as a complementary control method, that can work alongside insecticides to lower the local population of mosquitoes.

Conversations with both of these scientists emphasized the importance of science communication. Racaniello especially stressed the importance of science communicated directly from scientists and he outlined simple ways that busy researchers can use social media to communicate their research results, images of life in the lab, or thoughts about science-related topics. St. Leger discussed his practices in speaking about genetically-modified organisms with national regulatory bodies and local governments, emphasizing his role as a communicator to explain how fungi can act as one of many tools that a community can utilize in combination with other technologies. 

Meet the Microbiologist allows scientists to discuss their research in their own words and reveals a little bit about the people behind the scientific discoveries. These conversations give listeners a window into scientists’ motivations as well as including some really cool facts! One common thread among guests is the community efforts to work together – every interviewee has credited collaborators and previous discoveries by others in their work, emphasizing community efforts in scientific research.

I was inspired by mentions of these previous discoveries to incorporate a bit of science history into each episode. At the end of each conversation, you’ll hear a new feature I’m calling a “CHOMA tidbit.” I’m working with ASM Archivist Jeff Karr to find stories from the Center for the History Of Microbiology and ASM Archives (CHOMA) related to each conversation. I’ll summarize a short story based on these materials (most previously not available in digital format), and we’ll post the source materials on the show note websites. I love comparing the scientific and philosophical questions from past scientists to those of today, and think these vignettes will nicely complement the discussed topics.  

Please listen, tell your friends, and subscribe to the podcast feed for future conversations! And if you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. Meanwhile, maybe you know a great science podcast that I haven’t listened to yet. Share your favorite show, or when you prefer to listen to episodes, in the comments section below. 

Last modified on Friday, 29 September 2017 18:23
Julie Wolf

Julie Wolf is the ASM Science Communications Specialist. She contributes to the ASM social media and blog network and hosts the Meet the Microbiologist podcast. She also runs workshops at ASM conferences to help scientists improve their own communication skills. Follow Julie on Twitter for more ASM and microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.

Julie earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, focusing on medical mycology and infectious disease. Outside of her work at ASM, she maintains a strong commitment to scientific education and teaches molecular biology at the community biolab, Genspace. She lives in beautiful New York City.

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