The quality of content in ACI is due to the rigor of our selection process and to the incredible scholarship and credentials of scholarly bloggers publishing in their fields. Due to this selectivity in content and academic contributions, ACI is proud to highlight exceptional blog authors in order to showcase their work and inspire other scholarly blog authors… and today’s author spotlight is on Dr. Vincent Racaniello.
Dr. Racaniello has a BA in Biological Sciences from Cornell University and a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine at the City University of New York. He is currently a Professor of Microbiology & Immunology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, where he also runs a Polio Laboratory.
He is the founder of MicrobeTV, an independent network of podcasts by scientists for people interested in viruses, microbes, parasites, evolution, and other life science topics. In his Virology Blog , Dr. Racaniello aims to teach readers about viruses and viral diseases.
Virology Blog Visit the blog | View in ACI
Read on for ACI’s full interview with Dr. Racaniello.
After getting your BA in Biological Sciences, you went on to get your PhD in Biomedical Sciences, where your dissertation research focused on influenza B viruses. Was your interest in virology there from the start, or did it come about as you studied biology, medicine, etc?
I went to Cornell University as a biology major. My father, who was a surgeon, expected that I would go to medical school. I was not interested in such a career, but could not say no to my father. The result was that after four years of college I graduated without a clear career path: I made little attempt to get into medical school. I returned home and my parents let me figure out what to do. I had loved biology so I looked for, and obtained, a job as a technician in a microbiology lab. One of my jobs was to identify bacterial contaminants in the company’s products. I fell in love with microbiology, but I realized I knew nothing, and had to go back to school. At the same time, I read Fever by John Fuller, the account of the emergence of Lassa virus in Nigeria. That book hooked me on viruses: I had to become a virologist! But how? I had no advisor, not support group, no one to help me out.
One night I went to dinner at a friend from my class in Cornell, who lived nearby. His father was Edwin Kilbourne, chair of Microbiology at Mt Sinai. After dinner Dr. Kilbourne asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I wanted to become a virologist, and was applying to master’s programs in the area. He told me not to waste my time with those, but to come to Mt Sinai and get a PhD in microbiology. It was August, but the next week I went for an interview, was accepted, and got my PhD there in virology, as Peter Palese‘s first graduate student. You can read about Kilbourne’s influence on my career here: Edwin D. Kilbourne, MD, 1920-2011.
Your Columbia faculty page lists picornaviruses as your primary research interest, which you define as “RNA-containing viruses that cause a variety of human diseases”. What led to your interest in that specific group of viruses?
In Peter Palese’s lab I worked on influenza viruses, which have an RNA genome. When I was ready to start applying for a postdoctoral position, I told Peter I wanted to continue working on RNA viruses, because I found them extremely interesting. He told me that I should go to the best RNA virus lab I could find, which was David Baltimore’s who had recently won the Nobel Prize for discovering reverse transcriptase in RNA tumor viruses. I was fortunate to get an offer so I spent the next 3 years working on poliovirus, which is what David wanted me to do (I always listened to my mentors: see Shelves and mentors – Virology Blog.)
Typically what one works on as a postdoc define the rest of their career. In my case this tradition was reinforced because in David’s lab I had found that a cloned DNA copy of poliovirus was infectious, the first time this had ever been done for any animal virus. This result meant that I could manipulate poliovirus in any way I wanted, an achievement that garnered may job offers. I started my lab in 1982 at Columbia and have worked on poliovirus since then.
On your blog, you note that you “also host and produce five podcasts: This Week in Virology, This Week in Parasitism, This Week in Microbiology, This Week in Evolution, and Urban Agriculture.” Online science podcasting is definitely an emerging technology. What led you to explore that route of science communication, and how can listeners tune in?
Back in 2004 I had published a virology textbook, Principles of Virology, with four other authors (now in its fourth edition) and I wanted to share the knowledge of virology that I had with the public. I started blogging that year and found that the public was very interested in virology! A few years later I started listening to podcasts (I have a very long drive, and I was tired of traditional radio). I loved being able to listen to whatever I wanted at any time. I heard a podcaster, Leo LaPorte, say if you are passionate about a topic, you can podcast about it. I took that as a call to start a virology podcast. I thought it would be interesting to capture conversations among scientists and deliver them to the public, as in talk radio, but not the conventional subject.
This Week in Virology began as an experiment in 2008; I did not think anyone would listen, but I wanted to follow my idea through. It became so popular that I started four other podcasts: This Week in Microbiology, This Week in Parasitism, Urban Agriculture, and This Week in Evolution. You can find them all at microbe.tv, on iTunes, or on your podcatcher app on your smartphone. And stay tuned, because I have many ideas for new podcasts as well.
How many of your blog readers and your TWiV audience tend to be those already rooted in virology as a chosen academic discipline or research focus, versus those in other disciplines who have a topical interest in virology? Do you find that gap has lessened as your readership and viewership has grown?
About a third of our readers/listeners are scientists; the rest come from all walks of life, as we learn from their emails. In fact, non-scientists were the first to make TWiV popular; the virology community caught on many years later. Scientists like the show because we make science ‘famous’. We are the voice of their work. But the non-scientists are the more numerous, which shows that the public really wants to hear science from scientists. We attract some scientists in other fields, but most of our listeners have nothing to do with science. Our listeners include health care workers, students of all levels, policemen, house painters, mailmen, and all sorts of others who just love science.
How do you go about selecting topics for your posts and your podcast agendas? Has your approach changed since you first started those projects?
There is no shortage of great science to talk about. Typically all I need do is look in the latest journal to find a great story. I try to find science that will be of broad interest to our listeners, not work that just fills in the details. There is nothing like an outbreak to stimulate interest: influenza, ebolavirus, Zika virus all lead to big spikes in audience engagement. I want to give people the big picture, not the details. What does the science mean to them? How will it affect them and what should they be doing? And we try to find the gee-whiz stories that will knock their socks off. It’s not hard: science is simply amazing these days, with all that can be done.
Your blog posts achieve that rare sweet spot of providing very discipline-specific information while remaining accessible to those not already versed in virology. As many scholars strive for that, can you offer any tips on being highly-focused but still accessible to interested readers from other disciplines?
I think it is a combination of having been in the field for a long time, having written a textbook, and having a broad overview of the field. And when I’m writing, I’m keeping my audience in mind. I don’t want to make it too simple, but try to shy away from complicated details. And I try to keep my articles short – that makes your writing style very different, because you have to get all the facts in without writing and writing. Consequently, I also strive to focus on one subject – interesting enough for the advanced reader, but short and straightforward enough for non scientists. But I also keep away from talking too simply, and using simple metaphors – I don’t like them at all. Just write what you want to teach, in simple terms!
In the end, I am a teacher. I teach a virology course to Columbia undergraduates and the key to engaging them is to be passionate about my field. I take the same approach to podcasting and blogging: I’m a researcher who is passionate about science and I want you to be passionate too. As I like to say, I want to be Earth’s virology professor.
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