This podcast might not actually kill you, but it covers so many things that can. Each episode tackles a different disease, from its history, to its biology, and finally, how scared you need to be. Ecologists and epidemiologists Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke make infectious diseases acceptable fodder for dinner party conversation and provide the perfect cocktail recipe to match
Episodes with Smash Notes
Despite what its name might suggest, the story of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) takes us far beyond the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the western range. From the Bitterroot Valley to southeastern Brazil, it is a story filled with equal parts tragedy and discovery, as the researchers desperate for answers fall victim to the very disease they seek to prevent. In this episode, we dive into the dark past of this deadly disease, first exploring the biology of the teeny tiny organism that wreaks such devastation. As always, we follow that up by tracing the history surrounding this much-feared infection and its role in the creation of one of the world’s leading infectious disease laboratories. Finally, we end with the current status of RMSF, which (spoilers) isn’t as bleak as you might think, thanks once again to antibiotics. Tune in to hear why we’ve been excited to research this episode since the very beginning of the podcast.
Are you one of the billions of people around the world who starts your day with a freshly brewed and deliciously aromatic cup of coffee or tea or maybe even hot chocolate? Or are you caffeine-avoidant, looking on at your coffee-addicted friends with confusion and maybe even pity? In either case, this episode is for you. We are joined by the one and only Matt Candeias of In Defense of Plants to tackle the world’s most consumed psychoactive drug: caffeine. First we get a taste of the massive history of the most popular caffeine-containing beverages, then we trace what exactly caffeine does in your body after that first scrumptious sip. And finally, we explore what role this compound has for those many, many plants that produce it. We hope you find this episode as stimulating as its subject!
“I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct.” With these words, Wilhelm Röntgen introduced the world to an invisible power, a power which would in turn be used to both harm and heal. This week, we take a tour of the wide world of radiation, starting with a primer on what radiation actually is and how it works, courtesy of Dr. Timothy Jorgensen, Associate Professor of Radiation Medicine and Director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program, Georgetown University. Then we discuss the nitty gritty on what radiation does to you on a cellular level. We follow that up with a stroll through some of the major moments in the history of radiation - from X-rays to atomic bombs and from radioluminescent paint to cancer treatments. Finally we wrap things up by chatting about the many amazing medical applications of radiation therapy and how you can assess the risk/benefit of that X-ray or mammogram.
To read Dr. Jorgensen’s incredible book Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, check out his website or head to our website for our full list of sources.
The second disease ever to be eradicated, rinderpest could be the most devastating and notorious infection you never knew existed. Though its name means “cattle plague”, the deadly rinderpest virus infected hundreds of species of animals during its long reign, and outbreaks of rinderpest left nothing but famine and ruin in their wake. In this episode, we start by taking you through the biology of one of the biggest killers we’ve ever faced. We then trace the long history of this feared disease, from fire festival rituals in Russia to the imperialist exploitation of the Great African Rinderpest Panzootic of the 1890s that paved the way for European colonial rule over a large part of the continent. Fortunately, this story ends happily as only one other has done so far - with complete and total eradication. You may have started this episode not knowing about rinderpest, but when you’re done, you won’t be able to stop talking about it. Trust us.
No story of antibiotics would be complete without the rise of resistance. As promised in our last episode, this week we dive into what the WHO calls ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’ - antibiotic resistance. In the decades since their development, misuse and overuse of antibiotics has led to many becoming all but useless, and our world seems on the verge of plunging into a post-antibiotic era. How does resistance work? Where did it come from? Why did it spread so far so rapidly? Is there any hope? In this episode, we answer all these questions and more. First, we explore the many ways bacteria evade the weaponry of antibiotic compounds. Then we trace the global spread of these resistant bugs by examining the major contributors to their misuse and overuse. And finally we assess the current global status of antibiotic resistant infections (spoiler: it’s very bad) and search for any good news (spoiler: there’s a lot!). To chat about one super cool and innovative alternative to antibiotics, we are joined by the amazing Dr. Steffanie Strathdee (Twitter: @chngin_the_wrld), Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences, Harold Simon Professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Co-Director at the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics. Dr. Strathdee provides a firsthand account of helping her husband, Dr. Tom Patterson, fight off a deadly superbug infection by calling on a long-forgotten method of treating bacterial infections: phage therapy.
To read more about phage therapy and Dr. Strathdee’s incredible experiences, check out The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir.
Fifty episodes. That’s fifty (sometimes) deadly viruses, bacteria, protozoa, parasites, and poisons. And don’t forget the fifty quarantinis to accompany each! What better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than talking about something that may actually save you: antibiotics. In this, our golden anniversary episode, our ambition tempts us to tackle the massive world of these bacteria-fighting drugs. We explore the various ways that antibiotics duel with their bacterial enemies to deliver us from infection, and we trace their history, from the early years of Fleming and Florey to the drama-laden labs of some soil microbiologists. Finally, we end, as we always do, with discussing where we stand with antibiotics today. Dr. Jonathan Stokes (@ItsJonStokes), postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Jim Collins’ lab at MIT, joins us to talk about some of his lab’s amazing research on using machine learning to discover new antibiotics, which prompts us to repeat “that is SO COOL” and “we are truly living in the future.” We think you’ll agree.
To read more about using machine learning to uncover antibiotic compounds, head to the Collins’ lab website, the Audacious Project site, or check out Dr. Stokes’ paper:
Stokes, Jonathan M., et al. "A deep learning approach to antibiotic discovery." Cell 180.4 (2020): 688-702.
The eleventh episode of our Anatomy of a Pandemic series has arrived, and just in time. Have you found yourself trying to sift through headlines claiming “this model predicts that” and “that model predicts this”, but you’re not sure where the truth really lies? Then this episode is for you. With the help of Dr. Mike Famulare from the Institute for Disease Modeling (interview recorded April 29, 2020), we walk through the basics of mathematical modeling of infectious disease, explore some of the current projections for this pandemic, and discuss some guidelines for evaluating these headline-making models. As always, we wrap up the episode by discussing the top five things we learned from our expert. To help you get a better idea of the topics covered in this episode, we’ve listed the questions below: What is a math model and what are some of the goals of mathematical modeling? So talking specifically now about infectious disease models, can you walk us through what the basic components are of an infectious disease model, like an SIR model? Where do you get the data that you use to estimate the parameters in an SIR model - what is based on actual data and what has to be estimated? Infectious disease outbreaks often have a curve-like shape, with the number of infected individuals on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. Can you explain why infectious disease epidemics tend to follow a curve? Can you talk us through some of the assumptions that you have to make when you're constructing one of these models and how that kind of relates to the uncertainty inherent within models? How might that uncertainty affect interpretation? What are some examples of the various ways we use infectious disease models in public health policy? Can you talk about how models might be used at various stages of a pandemic to guide public health measures? How might our use of models early on in a pandemic be different from the middle of one? Speaking specifically about COVID-19 now, can you talk about what a basic model for this pandemic might look like? Are models for COVID-19 using only lab-confirmed cases of the disease or clinical-confirmed cases as well? Looking back on these earlier models of COVID-19, what can we take away from the performance of these models? Is there any agreement among models as to what policies might be the best in terms of keeping cases and deaths as low as possible? For those of us who have no background in mathematical or statistical modeling, are there guidelines that we should use to evaluate these models or compare them? What should we (as in the general public) be taking away from these models? Are there any positive changes you hope to see come out of this pandemic, either as a member of the community or as a math modeler?
For a deeper dive into the wonderful world of infectious disease models, we recommend checking out this recent video from Robin Thompson, PhD of Oxford Mathematics titled “How do mathematicians model infectious disease outbreaks?” The video was posted on April 8, 2020.
In 2019, eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes, made headlines in much of the US as cases skyrocketed compared to previous years. But why is this disease so feared and even more importantly, why is it on the rise? Those are just a couple of the questions we seek to answer on this week’s episode. From the nitty gritty on what this virus does to your body to centuries-long forest dynamics in Massachusetts, we connect the disease ecology dots of EEE. We promise, the biology and history of eastern equine encephalitis is much more exciting than its etymology.
In the tenth episode of our Anatomy of a Pandemic series on COVID-19, we continue our exploration of the diverse impacts of this pandemic by taking a look at how education and schooling has been affected, with a particular focus on the United States. Massive school closures and transition to distance learning has revealed vast inequities in access to basic educational needs and has highlighted the importance of public schools as more than just a place to learn. We are joined by journalist Jennifer Berkshire (Twitter: @BisforBerkshire) and education historian Dr. Jack Schneider (Twitter: @Edu_Historian), producers of Have You Heard, a podcast on educational policy and politics, to examine the current challenges in delivering educational content during this pandemic and some implications for the future of public schools (interview recorded April 17, 2020). As always, we wrap up the episode by discussing the top five things we learned from our expert. To help you get a better idea of the topics covered in this episode, we’ve listed the questions below: Have we seen anything like this before, like with the 1918 influenza pandemic and school closures due to polio epidemics? What are some of the services that public schools in the US provide? And how is this pandemic revealing that schools are more than just a place to learn? Can you talk briefly about the inequalities in education and access and their historical roots? Are these inequalities unique to the United States or are there other countries where similar inequalities are seen or being revealed by this pandemic? Who is being left out in this switch to distance learning? Can you discuss how well distance learning works across different age groups? Do you think that this epidemic will make policymakers and politicians see the economic value of schools? Or is it going to further decrease funding to schools and result in the dismantling of the public school system? How do you think our definition of school will change after this pandemic? What was the trajectory of funding for public schools before this pandemic? How well does distance learning seem to work? When schools re-open, what kind of effects are we going to see on current students? Specifically, how do we recover when some kids will have continued to learn during this pandemic and others will likely have fallen further behind? What positive changes do you hope to see come out of this?
Episode 9 of our Anatomy of a Pandemic is here, and this week we’re stepping outside our public health sphere to examine COVID-19 from an entirely different perspective, that of an economist. Pandemics don’t happen in a vacuum, and the ripples of their impact extend far beyond those of public health, as nearly every person can attest to today. We’ve seen headlines about a global recession and high rates of unemployment, but what do those things actually mean? Have we seen something like this before or is this uncharted territory? And most importantly, what can we expect? We were curious to know the answers to these questions but we lack the expertise to take them on ourselves, so we asked economist Martha Gimbel, Manager of Economic Research at Schmidt Futures to join us on this episode about the economic impacts of COVID-19 (interview recorded April 14, 2020). A caveat: this episode focuses mostly on the economic impact of the pandemic in the US. As per usual, we wrap up the episode by discussing the top five things we learned from our expert. To help you get a better idea of the topics covered in this episode, we’ve listed the questions below: What are some of the indicators that we use to know how the economy is performing, and what were the trends we were seeing in the months before this pandemic hit? Could you take us through a timeline of the economic impact, starting with the first signs that the pandemic was having an impact on the global economy? What industries felt the pandemic first, and where do we stand now? Could you break down the impact that we’re seeing on the global economy, the US economy, large corporations, small businesses, and the average consumer? Was there a global recession after the 1918 influenza pandemic? If not, what makes these current circumstances unique? Which countries or industries are the most vulnerable and why? Are certain countries or industries proving to be more resilient in the face of this global recession? Can you talk about the gig economy here and how our reliance on low-paid workers with no protection from their employers has impacted our own economic resilience? Can you talk about the implications of the numbers of unemployment insurance filings that we’re seeing and just how staggering they are? Are the current benefits offered through the unemployment system going to be enough to keep people at home and not seeking work in situations that put them at higher risks of exposure? Are there any general trends or predictions in terms of how long this recession will continue and what it will take to recover? How will we know when we have “recovered”? Are you seeing any innovative solutions that people are proposing or starting to implement in terms of a social safety net? What positive changes do you hope this pandemic will bring about? Where is the money for the stimulus checks coming from? Is that $1200 check going to be enough to keep people going for the next few months?
You don’t look surprised to see this in your podcast feed - or is that just the botox? This week we’re taking a tour of the wonderful world of Clostridium botulinum and the toxin it produces, at once both poison and prescription. First, we delve into how botulinum toxin acts to paralyze your muscles and under what circumstances you might encounter it. Then we iron out the wrinkles of the why of botulinum toxin, an answer that involves migratory birds, maggots, and marshes. The story continues with blood sausages, an unfortunate funeral party, and a massive shift from toxin to treatment as the therapeutic potential of botulinum toxin is explored. And the best part of this episode? Georgia. Hardstark. You’ve heard the always amazing, ever hilarious, and one of our personal heroes Georgia Hardstark on My Favorite Murder, but now listen to her share her firsthand experience with getting botox facial injections. This episode ranks among our top favorites we've ever recorded, and we hope you love it as much as we do!
In the eighth episode in our Anatomy of a Pandemic series focusing on COVID-19, we discuss how this pandemic will likely lead to a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable populations around the globe. “Wash your hands.” “Stay at home.” “Practice physical distancing.” These are the public health messages for how to slow this pandemic. But what happens when you can’t wash your hands because you lack clean water or soap? Or if you can’t stay at home because you’re fleeing a war zone? Dr. Jonathan Whittall, Director of Analysis at Medicines Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders) joins us to talk about the challenges faced by the most vulnerable populations during this crisis and how MSF is working to overcome those challenges while bracing for the pandemic’s impact (interview recorded April 3, 2020). We wrap up the episode by discussing the top five things we learned from our expert. To help you get a better idea of the topics covered in this episode, we have listed the questions below: What kind of projects are you currently working on? Can you talk about what you're seeing in terms of the differences between this COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergency situations, such as cholera outbreaks in refugee camps or Ebola epidemics? What are some lessons that you think hospitals in other regions can learn from physicians or logistical coordinators that have worked in these situations previously? You wrote a great opinion piece about some of the challenges faced by the most vulnerable populations in trying to prevent infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. Can you talk a bit about those challenges and what the most vulnerable populations are? What are some of the ways that MSF has been trying to overcome those challenges? What have we seen so far in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on these vulnerable populations? MSF has recently expanded their efforts throughout Europe - can you talk about what that expansion looks like and how different groups or activities are prioritized? As a part of a group that works internationally, can you talk about some of the challenges in coordinating this work internationally and why it's so crucial to communicate across borders? There's been a lot of discussion about how this pandemic may change the way we handle public health at national and, especially, international scales. What are some of the changes you hope to see?
Follow Dr. Jonathan Whittall (@offyourrecord) or check out the MSF-Analysis website (http://msf-analysis.org/). And read his fantastic article here: https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/bracing-for-impact-of-the-coronavirus-1.70570512