June 15, 2016 8:00 AM

Sharing Knowledge of Microbiology, Virology and More via ‘This Week’ Podcasts

Two U-M science professors are spreading their knowledge of microbes and infectious risks. Their means: podcasts thousands of listeners have downloaded.

It’s a common scenario: Research is shared via journals or at conferences, but rarely do scientists relay those results outside of their academic niche. And almost never do they explain findings to the public at large, even though public tax dollars often fund research. With this precedent, coupled with a lack of effective communication training, the sharing of one’s passion with lay audiences can be difficult.

Not so for Kathy Spindler, Ph.D.

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A professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan, Spindler co-hosts the weekly podcast “This Week in Virology” or TWiV.

“It’s important and satisfying to make science accessible to a wide audience,” says Spindler, a virologist who researches how viruses can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause brain swelling among mice.

From in-depth coverage of the Ebola epidemic to a current focus on the Zika virus, the program examines research in an engaging and insightful manner.

The podcast was launched in 2008 by virologist Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D., and parasitologist Dickson Despommier, Ph.D., both of Columbia University. Funded by Racaniello, “TWiV” has tackled a number of tough topics in a timely fashion while on the air.

It has also garnered attention from traditional media: An episode discussing the Zika virus last December led to Spindler being interviewed by PBS News Hour.

Subjects might be complex, but the presentation isn’t. And that’s by design.

“You 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,” Spindler says. “Podcasting is not just explaining what I do, but what others do — and to many more people than I’ll ever reach on planes.”

Her listener base, as such, includes students, teachers and retirees — those with careers in microbiology and non-science professionals alike. Many, too, engage with the hosts through letters, comments and social media.

Underscoring the wide appeal are the show’s “all-email” episodes that highlight and answer correspondence from around the world.

"It’s important and satisfying to make science accessible to a wide audience . . . You should be able to explain what you do for a living to almost anyone."
Kathy Spindler, Ph.D.

A growing practice

On campus, Spindler isn’t alone in her pursuit.

Just down the hall from her office is another U-M science podcaster, Michele Swanson, Ph.D., who co-hosts the podcast “This Week in Microbiology” (TWiM).

Racaniello also created “TWiM” (which, unlike Spindler’s show, is released biweekly) to expand the breadth of topics covered to all things microbiology – with a lot of coverage of bacteria.

Swanson, a professor of microbiology and immunology, 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 area around Flint, Michigan.

A frequent focus for Swanson, Racaniello and other “TWiM” hosts is dissecting the latest research on the human microbiome — the study of the communities of bacteria that inhabit our bodies — including related U-M work. A recent meeting held at U-M also provided rich fodder for discussion.

Swanson, an academic scientist, notes that she welcomes any outlet “to share my knowledge and love of microbiology with others outside of academia.”

It’s no surprise, then, that both Spindler and Swanson put careful thought into preparing for each episode.

In addition to reading the research papers in advance, just as they might for any journal club or classroom lecture, they prepare supplementary material such as useful analogies, explanations of techniques or interviews with lead authors. The latter is a popular feature on TWiM and was spearheaded by Swanson as a way to demystify laboratory research (and researchers) for the public.

Which is why it was “heartening,” Swanson added, to hear U-M President Mark Schlissel encourage microbiologists gathered at U-M for the 2015 Michigan Meeting to engage with the public. The 2016 Michigan Meeting on microbiomes was live-blogged and live-tweeted by U-M graduate students.

Room to expand

In addition to “TWiV” and “TWiM,” there is a monthly release of yet another complementary program: “This Week in Parasitism,” focused on parasites. And, since last December, a fourth addition, “This Week in Evolution.”

Together, the podcast series, collectively called “TWiX,” now boasts 10,000 or more downloads per episode, and more than four million lifetime downloads combined.

An extensive number of topics covered by the “TWiX” team comprise curiosities of the microbial world, such as the ocelloid, a unicellular organism with an eye-like structure, or sea star viruses. Other episodes are relevant to clinical medicine and public health — including interviews with Ebola responders; new research on prominent pathogens; and how vaccines work (or fail to work).

Several go-rounds have been dedicated to careers in microbiology. Recently, episodes were recorded live at U-M to celebrate the dedication of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology as a Milestones in Microbiology historical site by the American Society for Microbiology.

Working on the podcasts, whatever the topic, provides an opportunity to stay abreast of new research while honing their teaching skills, Spindler and Swanson agree. It also improves their ability as educators to communicate science to non-specialists.

Beyond reaching listeners via internet airwaves (episodes are available for free at MicrobeWorld.org and via iTunes), the digital connection often takes on a real-life form: Spindler and Swanson have been contacted by “TWiX” fans visiting the Ann Arbor, Michigan, area.

Ultimately, the opportunity to share with the public about the excitement and value of basic research is what keeps the hosts coming back to record.

Suggested starting episodes include: TWiV: #368, #315, #341, #323, #355; TWiM: #103, #62, #104, #70, #114.