A few weeks ago, I was graced with an honorary doctorate in social media from Social Media University, Global. My dissertation has been wonderfully received; I have been given high accolades and several once closed opportunities have opened. I have been humbled by the response and am sincerely grateful that people have been touched by my journey.
And yet, there’s more to the whole story. While Social Media has given me the PhD behind my name, I would never have attained this level of success without the one subject that has played a major role in my life for the last 40 years: science.
Or more specifically, sharing science.
Sharing was indoctrinated in me by my mother, Patricia, when I was young. She had been born and raised in India, spent time under the tutelage of Mother Teresa, and worked in England as a nurse’s assistant prior to coming to Canada; her story alone could fill a novel.
Patricia Tetro in her early years with the Sisters of Charity, as a nurse and back with the Sisters almost 40 years later (personal collection)
She maintained that knowledge is nothing unless you know how to share it and instilled that into my beliefs and actions. Through her hard efforts, sharing became a cornerstone for my growth and I gained a passion to always fulfill it.
The Incredible Bacteria that Started it All
My earliest recollections of sharing science were always associated with awe. I was fascinated by the stars and how they moved across the sky at night. I was spellbound by fireworks and how they went from being inert grains of metal to spectacular displays of color in the sky. I was enrapt by the fauna and flora that covered earth and filled the oceans and skies. But the memory that holds strongest had nothing to do with nature.
It was from television. More specifically, from the show, "That’s Incredible."
The segment started with a man in the shower causally lathering with soap. Out of nowhere, the announcer declared that bacteria are everywhere, in the dirt, in the water and even on your skin! Suddenly, the man’s pace changed. He vigorously scrubbed his arms, his hair and his face, all in the hopes of removing all the germs from his body. But the announcer almost nonchalantly added that no matter how hard the effort, we will always be covered with millions and millions of bacteria.
I remember thinking that each of us must have more bacteria on our body than there were stars in the sky. As a seven year old, it was hard to think of millions as a number, let alone that my body was covered in such a large amount of these little creatures. I wanted to learn more about them and how they lived on our skin, in the soil and anywhere else.
As usual, I asked my Mom about them and in her traditional way, she told me to find out about bacteria by myself and then, when I knew enough to share, to come and tell her in a way that she could understand and also use to tell others. She wasn't very helpful.
Over the next while, I read what I could from the library and from my father’s magazines and tried talking with teachers and parents of friends. Yet there were no clear answers. I realized that these bacteria were going to be harder to figure out than I had thought! So, as many seven year olds do, I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to know enough about bacteria so that I could share all the information with my Mom.
I didn’t know it at the time but in essence, I had set the wheels for a future of sharing science.
Learning the Big Picture in Science Sharing
My desire to learn continued into high school and thanks to some rather wonderful teachers at my high school, St. Pius X in Ottawa, I found myself working in a microbiology lab at the tender age of 16. Admittedly, I had absolutely no idea of how the research world worked. The learning curve was steep but my supervisor, Dr. Donn J. Kushner, was always supportive about learning and, much to my joy, sharing. He insisted that what goes on the lab must be applicable to what happens outside of it. And although I may have been testing the enzyme kinetics of betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase in Vibrio costicola, a rather menial task to say the least, I was assured that there was a bigger picture behind the testing.
Let me elaborate…
Certain vibrios are known to have pathogenic effects (pdf) on fish species, in particular, snapper and grouper (download pdf). Moreover, V. costicola was known to be a causative agent in the spoiling of certain fish. Now take into consideration that Canada at the time was suffering from what is now known as the "Tunagate" scandal and that fish of all sorts were being scrutinized for their health effects. Thus, by understanding the means by which these pathogens survive in the environment, one can have a better idea to prognosticate where these bacteria can thrive and how best to control them prior to and after fish are caught.
Now that’s a big picture!
Okay, I know today that my ideal at the time was misguided. As I’ve since learned, almost any small task in science can be signified and shared through incorporation of the work into a larger cause. Yet at the time, it seemed like I had the answer to sharing science and I pledged to keep everything in the big picture.
Unfortunately, a virus caused me to reconsider that vow.
Hello HIV/AIDS…and Goodbye Big Picture
The opportunity to study HIV/AIDS came to me thanks to the co-operative education program at my alma mater, the University of Guelph. In 1991, HIV/AIDS was the pinnacle of any microbiological study as not only was it being studied worldwide but countries such as Canada were implementing national strategies to control the spread of the virus. I planned to make the most of the four month period. I wanted to enrich both my research and sharing science. What I gained changed my life forever.
From Day One, I gained a new appreciation of the big picture although it was dramatically different and to some extent dreadful for a 19 year old. Samples that I tested were not from bacteria or cell cultures; they were blood draws from real human beings. Positive tests were not simply ethidium-bromide bands in an agarose gels; they were predictors of a lifelong struggle for the person, their loved ones and those around them. What hit me harder than anything though, was the fact that each positive band meant that one more soul would eventually lose their life. I learned to fear that positive band and the big picture that it implied.
A sample agarose gel electrophoresis and the colours that still haunt me today (Source: Wikipedia)
For the rest of my short tenure, I tried to reason with this reality but could not render a solution. I became disheartened by the fact that the only way to share this science was to venture into sadness, frustration and grief. There was nothing upbeat, no easy answers and not a hint of joy. I came to believe that if there was to be nothing but hardship in the big picture, then perhaps sharing science was not what I was meant to do and that I had made a severe mistake.
It was time to move on and leave the big picture behind.
After I left the placement, I finished my undergraduate studies, dabbled a bit in industry and even walked away from science for a while. I tried to find something that would re-energize the passion for sharing, whether it be science or anything else. Yet nothing worked. After a while I believed that I had joined the chorus of Pink Floyd's famous song, Comfortably Numb:
When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look, but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child has grown
The dream is gone.
A few short years later, however, my hopes were reinvigorated and I ventured down a new path of sharing science that would inevitably lead me to successes I could never have imagined.
Sharing Science the Academic Way
In 1997, I was offered the opportunity to join a new initiative at the University of Ottawa called The Centre for Research on Environmental Microbiology (CREM). CREM was founded by Dr. Syed A. Sattar, whom I had met less than a year earlier and had amazed me at his style of sharing science. His work was everything I believed in: not only academically sound but also had perspective for the world outside the lab. This new centre was based in the understanding of human, health-related environmental microbiology and the promotion of best practices in interrupting the spread of pathogens.
I was happy to come on board and to this day am thankful for Dr. Sattar’s kindness.
The first few years were great as CREM found its feet and the mandate took hold (pdf). Then in 1999, Dr. Sattar had an idea that back then might have seemed a little like a science coup. He wanted to take infectious disease control practices out of the lab and into the home. More importantly, he wanted to show how current trends in everyday life in Canada and the U.S. contributed to infectious disease for all.
I’m wasn’t sure why but he asked me to be a co-author but I couldn’t have been more pleased. We started writing the article, "Impact of changing societal trends on the spread of infections in American and Canadian homes," in early 1999 and it found its way into the American Journal of Infection Control in December of that year.
Not surprisingly, the scientific community was lukewarm to the paper yet the infection control community, the lifestyle community and even proponents of health and hygiene worldwide were excited to see the paper and CREM was asked to take part in numerous exercises to help control infectious disease spread. Some ended up in journals, others as chapters in books; media articles were written and presentations were solicited.
The one moment that I will always cherish happened to be a lecture I gave to a number of legal and environmental experts on the Walkerton tragedy that occurred the next year. It was my first experience presenting outside of my scope and I was amazed at the level of interest and engagement to the presentation (pdf). Everyone wanted to talk about the science, even if they didn’t know much about science in the first place. It demonstrated to me how sharing science can be done effectively from an academic base.
A few years later, a near pandemic gave me the opportunity to take that knowledge to the global stage.
Reaching for the SARS – Sharing Science turns into Knowledge Translation
In early 2003, a colleague of mine, Dr. Earl Brown, an expert in virus evolution and quite adept at working with the media showed up in the lab and asked if I would be willing to help him write a commentary on the SARS virus and crisis. Naturally, the goal was to ensure that the article had equal amounts of science and big picture translation to be applicable to not only virologists, but policymakers, the media and some members of the public. I was a little hesitant at first but then when he told me it was for The Lancet, a journal in which I craved a publication, I jumped on board.
The article took several days to strategize and write but we managed two significant achievements:
1. We hit home the message that SARS was a bad actor and that the SARS story was not going to be summed up in a nice little package.
2. We developed a collection of terms that could be used in the media if we were contacted. The virus was a tiger; a vaccine was possible but was a long way away; the virus could and would be stopped and yes, SARS might come back but perhaps less lethal.
We were sharing the science but we had translated the knowledge into easy to understand analogies and effective sound bites. We felt like we were ready for what was to come. We weren’t, however, expecting a tidal wave.
The article, Comparative analysis of the SARS coronavirus genome: a good start to a long journey, was released on May 9th, 2003. For the next week, Dr. Brown and I did very little science. We were too busy fielding requests from all over the world. Call letters spun by us like fast-moving cars: CNN, CTV, LBC, CCTV. Interviews were coming and going and although we were harried by the end, we had done our job effectively. We had stuck to the terms, shared our views and more importantly, ensured that the public would be informed without panic.
It was an overall success and led me to believe that sharing science could be best achieved through making the information accessible through metaphor and analogy.
I didn’t know it then but it was my first foray into knowledge translation (KT).
Germs Revisited the KT Way
In 2007, Kimothy Walker, an amazing reporter and anchor at CTV Ottawa, wanted to work on a story entitled "Germs." The premise was exactly the same as that first episode I watched as a child: Germs are everywhere! It was supposed to be informative, engaging and something that the public could take home. But bringing back the memories from 30 years earlier, I wanted to add another component to the story.
I wanted it to be entertaining as well.
Germs on CTV Ottawa Part 1 (personal collection)
Germs on CTV Ottawa Part 2 (personal collection)
While there was no shower scene, we made, in my opinion, a magnificent segment. The subsequent response only confirmed the conjecture. Feedback was immensely positive, people came and talked with me in the streets and I had more than a few mentions on academic and government campuses in the city. Yet for me, all of that didn’t matter because the true beauty of the experience was that for those 12 minutes, the distance between academia and the public had shrunk to nil.
I had finally succeeded at sharing science and I wasn't about to let it end.
I became a regular contributor to CTV Ottawa's News at Noon and eventually, the "Germ Guy" nickname was esteemed upon me thanks to another incredibly engaging anchor, Leanne Cusack. Thanks to the team there, sharing science through KT was taken from unidirectional to two-way; I would spend about 7-10 minutes every 6-8 weeks taking live calls from the public. There was no doubt that germs were a hot topic and everyone seemed to want to talk germs and ask the "Germ Guy" a question, even when I wasn’t in the studio! We enjoyed the accolades and stuck to the combination of engaging discussion, great Q&A and a sincere laugh or two all in the name of sharing science. I honestly believed we couldn’t be stopped.
Then H1N1 came to town.
The Pandemic That Almost Killed KT
The influenzavirus that sparked a pandemic first made news in early 2009 and while I watched the progression of the virus through Mexico, California and South America, there was really nothing to tell the public; the story was just too young and any statements would be based on conjecture than on fact. I wouldn’t speak to it on television and any questions were usually met with a simple answer: "I just don’t know."
But as the virus continued to spread, a disturbing trend started to appear: those with certain underlying conditions were at a higher risk of increased morbidity and mortality. In Canada, Aboriginal individuals were identified as being at high risk of the worst symptomology.
At the time, I was working on a collaborative effort to learn more about the impact of food and water on the immune health of Aboriginals in remote communities. Some data showed similarity to an immune dysfunction associated with the same underlying conditions that led to the worst cases of H1N1 infection. It was in retrospect far too early to share this (and to this day the paper is still mired in edits) but I felt at the time that the information gained was newsworthy. Thanks to the Globe and Mail, the information became part of a larger article that quoted numerous academic researchers. My quote was simple and I believed innocuous and harmless.
"There may be contributing factors that lead to an increased susceptibility to H1N1. What are those factors? Can we find them in time to prevent widespread mortality?"
What came back, however, were not answers and ideas, but outright rebuke. People were enraged, fellow researchers were aghast and even the media felt the heat. While the questions may have been valid and the data to some extent strong; the appetite for even the mere mention of this idea was exactly the opposite.
I should add that talking about the vaccine was even worse. When I appeared on television to discuss the vaccine, the anti-vaccine movement tried to destroy me politically, then professionally and finally personally.
The experience forced me to consider the reasons I was making any of these appearances and more importantly, whether I had crossed the line when it comes to sharing science to the public.
KT the Right Way: Let the Science Speak for Itself
I didn’t have much time to reflect as I received a call shortly after from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to help on a story they were putting together on the effectiveness of hand sanitizers. Having worked in hand sanitizers for years, it seemed obvious that they were a good supplement to handwashing and that they were useful only if there was an alcohol concentration of between 62-80% and the contact time was at least 20 seconds. To me, there was really no scientific story but to the folks at CBC, the story was all about public understanding and advice on how best to stay safe.
As the story developed, I realized that the story required me to use all the traits of good science: hypothesis, experimental design, methodology, experimentation, results and discussion/conclusion. The only difference was that instead of cells in a petri dish, I was going to be working with humans, more specifically Grade 8 students. In a way, it was ironic that the work I so feared in the HIV lab would prepare me for this. Each child wasn’t an experiment; but rather a human into whose health I was gaining some insight. Moreover, if sharing science with them could be done effectively, to help them understand, agree and then change their ways, I might be able to influence and hopefully improve their wellbeing.
The report aired shortly afterwards and the response was again highly positive from the public. The story was picked up and cited for months after and many started to question not the science but rather the way that people used the science in their health.
The outcomes taught me a huge lesson about sharing science and KT. The secret to success is all about being an effective conduit, or broker. We can all agree that science should always be the real story; but how to tell that story effectively to the right audience is a true talent that few have tried to learn.
I was set on this goal as one might view a doctoral degree. And thankfully, I had the perfect experimental environment to learn and grow.
Sharing Science and Social Media – Strategizing KT
I found that the best way to test my ability to share science was through social media. I first worked with Facebook and then migrated to Twitter and finally to a blog. The true value of social media was that I could test my brokering skills and receive almost immediate feedback. I could link to articles, add short commentary when applicable, and develop a following through a combination of hashtags and targeted messaging. I could participate in discussions with various demographics and find the best ways to educate and engage. I learned dynamically one update or tweet at a time.
Then there was the lesson learned from the #handhygiene hashtag, which somehow grew into its own KT community, complete with academics, regulatory officials, non-governmental organizations and even global entities. With so many people from different demographics all working towards one goal, I realized that there was yet another aspect to sharing science that I had never even thought possible: belief.
Those who were joining in believed that they could make a difference for others.
The community continues to share almost evangelically in the hopes of improving hand hygiene around the world. This once experimental hashtag has now grown so much larger than my initial vision and given me inspiration to tackle more issues, such as maternal and child health, nursing unity, hygiene strategies in developing countries and development of new science-based models to educate and engage the public.
The Journey Continues…
Over the last year, I have matured sharing science into a strategy that includes engagement in the academic, corporate, governmental and public worlds. Several published and future peer-reviewed articles have messages which aim to increase awareness and engagement in better practices in personal hygiene, infection control or Aboriginal Health. On the social side, I am working with international groups to develop KT strategies to take science and make it applicable and appetizing for the public. Countries from around the globe are interested and I am doing what I can to develop both local and global plans. And over the coming year, I hope to bring about a new strategy that might finally unite the world in One Health, One Voice.
A Final Reflection
It has been a long time since the airing of the episode that started me on this journey. Since then, I have learned from some of the best minds in the world, been mentored by visionaries, and given both challenges and opportunities that have made me a better person. But I need to stress that without science, none of this could have ever happened.
And so, while I have been given a PhD in Social Media, I hope that everyone who reads this realizes that my true strength and achievements will always be based in what has always transfixed me and will continue to inspire me well into the future:
About the Author Jason A. Tetro has been in the scientific community for nearly 25 years. He has worked on diagnostic technologies and has expertise in the food, water, air and bloodborne fields. He is currently Coordinator for the Emerging Pathogen Research Centre (EPRC) and the Centre for Research on Environmental Microbiology (CREM) both housed at the University of Ottawa. His current mandate is to develop novel strategies and models to identify and mitigate infectious diseases. Jason is also known as the "Germ Guy" where he promotes health and hygiene in the public. He has over 7 hours of broadcast time and been featured internationally as an expert in germs, their spread and how to prevent illness. He was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in social media from Social Media University for his work in brokering scientific knowledge to the public and for his efforts in public engagement to develop and change science-based policy. He tweets as @JATetro.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.