Using music, beer, and pop-culture to communicate science. Zombie Brains: Microbial Mind Control

This post is by former UT Austin graduate student Rayna Harris.

I recently gave a talk at The North Door for Nerd Nite Austin. This is a monthly event with an audience of 250 partially inebriated nerds, including about a dozen colleagues and friends. I put a lot of effort into making it fun and relatable, so I thought I would share some of the details about how and why I gave what I think is my best talk ever.

You can view the video here and view my slides are here.

Science and sign language

I knew I would have a sign language interpreter with me on stage, so I tried to minimize jargon and define the scientific words I used. I recorded myself practicing my talk and critiqued the video playback about six times. I focused on reducing my use of filler words “um” and “like”. I specifically asked the interpreter to create a sign for “microbiome”  because I knew I would use it more than a dozen times.

On stage with a sign language translator and a ‘Tom Waits does David Attenborough’ impersonator. Instagram photos available

Incorporating live performance and YouTube videos

I wanted to show this BBC David Attenborough video, but I was worried that people would be bored or that the sound quality would be bad, so I decided to play the video on silent and add my own sound. I invited my friend Joseph Palmer to narrate it using his amazing impersonation Tom Waits. With the help of the sound engineer, I cued a clip of Tom Waits Oily Night song to provide an eerie backdrop. Joseph’s performance received much applause and laughter. It was awesome!

Watch this 30-second video clip on Twitter of the Tom Waits-narrated footage of an infected insect being evicted from the social colony.

The 3 main themes of my talk

I decided that I would cover three main topics during my talk: parasitic mind control in insects, the link between the gut microbiome and the brain in humans, and the potential for parasitic mind control in humans. I opened with a definition of the word “microbiome” because I thought that was the best hook and it allowed me to engage the hearing-impaired viewers with a brand new sign. But, then, I launched into the 3 parts in the ordered described. This collage of images provides a good overview of my talk.

These are all the images I used in my talk to illustrate beautiful biological phenomena and link it to current social phenomena.

First, I describe deadly host-pathogen relations in the jungle using photos from photos from Alex Wild and the Tom-Waits narrated video from the BBC. I describe research from Carolyn Elya, Michael Eisen, and colleagues on a fungal pathogen that manipulates Drosophila melanogaster in the lab. I take a moment to highlight other awesome neuroscience and molecular -development research in flies.

Then, I transition to talking about the dynamics of human microbiomes, with much of my inspiration coming from a book by Ed Yong on the multitudes of microscopic organisms living in our body. I got a lot of questions during the Q&A about how diet and disease affect and are affected by our microbiomes.

Finally, I talked about the possibility of microscopic organisms influencing social behaviors such as kissing, hand holding, breastfeeding, and more. The examples I used are inspired by basic research and by personal experience. I kept my language very casual to keep the audience engaged, and I got a lot of laughs and applause during this part of the talk. I hope they go away knowing what “horizontal gene transfer” is.

Similarities between host-parasite relationships and sexual harassment

I wanted to have something in the talk that made it timely, so I decided to make an analogy between host-parasite relationship and current social movements related to sexual harassment and discrimination. I was very worried that this tangent on sexual harassment might not go over well, but I felt compelled to utilize my moment in the spotlight with a microphone to discuss an important social issue that affects many women in science.

I practiced this segment of my talk a lot, and I posted a short video of my last practice session here. What I said on stage was a little different than during that last practice session, but I kept the analogy between infected ants being evicted from colonies to women fearing job loss if they showed evidence of being harassed.

To my surprise, this portion of my talk drew even more applause than my friend’s impersonation of Tom Waits! However, this time people weren’t clapping and cheering because it was funny or novel; I think they were signaling to me that the could relate to what I was saying and that they were glad I had the courage to talk about it on stage.

The Q&A session

The Q&A lasted for what felt like 15 minutes. I made sure to repeat every single question from the audience in my own words before responding, which I think is something I will try to do in the future. Most of the questions were of a biomedical nature that I felt I didn’t have the expertise to answer, so I tried to say “I don’t know for sure, but here is what I think…” when responding.

I did get one fun question and I responded with some research from the Lenski Lab. The audience member asked something along the lines of whether or not we should fear gut colonization by ancient bacteria that have been trapped in glaciers but are now being brought back to life. I responded by saying Lenski had done a lot of experiments competing older generation and newer generations of bacteria against each other and the most recently evolved bacterial almost always performed than the ancient ones. I didn’t give him a citation, but this paper on sustained fitness is what I think backs up my response.

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