Connecting academia, industry and the public

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Erin Welsh, PhD, is a disease ecologist and epidemiologist now working full-time as a science communicator. Erin Allmann Updyke, MD, PhD is an epidemiologist and disease ecologist currently in a medical residency programme to complete her training. Together, they make up This Podcast Will Kill You. Ahead of being a keynote speaker at SLAS 2024, Welsh shares insight with DDW.

In October 2017, Welsh and Allmann launched This Podcast Will Kill You to bring stories of disease, public health, and medical history to the general public, in large part to try to bridge the gap between academia/industry and the public. Having spent the summer before the last year of their PhDs attending scientific conferences where they learned about the latest research in disease ecology and presented their own work, they began to wonder whether anyone outside of those conference halls would ever learn about this research. 

Welsh says: “We had chosen to pursue epidemiology and disease ecology in our graduate studies because we were passionate about public health and connecting primary research with application and awareness. Yet most of the research presented at these conferences (ours included) was steeped in technical jargon and impersonal language. While precision in language is incredibly important for scientific scholarship, it can also limit its reach, making it nearly impossible for someone without a background in biology to understand even the title of some research articles.”

Gaining public trust and Covid-19

According to Welsh, Covid-19 highlighted both a lack of trust as well as an erosion of existing trust the public had in science and scientists, and the reasons for this fall both on scientists as well as popular media portrayal of science. Welsh says: “Few scientists receive training in how to communicate their research to a broad audience or seek out opportunities to do so, because science communication is not as incentivised or rewarded as it should be. As a result, the messaging about scientific developments or public health policy can be confusing for someone without a background in science. The phrase “trust me, I’m a scientist” should never be a substitution for a well-thought-out explanation.”

To that end, Welsh says: “Transparency is crucial for building public trust. So much of this comes down to demystifying how science is actually done. Popular media often presents science as static, unchanging, and lacking any ambiguity. Thus, when public health guidelines change as researchers and policy makers incorporate new data, the public can interpret this as ‘flip flopping’, rather than what it actually is: scientific progress.”

Welsh adds: “The pandemic clearly highlighted a need for clear and widely accessible scientific information, and so many people have risen to that challenge by creating websites, videos, podcasts, zines, and many other forms of media where people can get the information they want without having to sift through scientific jargon.”

Drug discovery

Welsh says that effective scientific information has the potential to accelerate drug discovery. She adds: “Learning across broad disciplines rather than just deeply within one discipline can spark ideas and foster creative, outside-the-box thinking that can lead to new innovations in drug discovery and many other fields of science.”

Despite the distance the biomedical world has come when it comes to improving protective measures for people participating in clinical trials, Welsh says there are still many areas where the goals of public health and pharmaceutical/medical corporations are in conflict. She adds: “The clearest example of this is the high financial cost of new drugs and lack of access to those drugs for every person living with a particular disease, a topic we discuss frequently on the podcast, particularly in the context of neglected tropical diseases.”

Based on her experience and from the range of guests the two have met through the podcast, Welsh says there are so many areas of promise in drug discovery. But, with their backgrounds in infectious disease, Welsh spotlights antibacterial therapies. She says: “The continuous rise in antibiotic resistance across the globe, leading to millions of deaths each year, signals an urgent need for new approaches to treat bacterial infections. One method, discussed with guest Dr Jonathan Stokes involves using machine learning to screen molecules for antibacterial activity, resulting in possible development of new antibiotics. The other approach, presented by guest Dr Steffanie Strathdee, utilises a natural enemy of bacteria, bacteriophages, to design highly personalised treatments that target the specific antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing the infection. Both of these projects showcase the kind of creative thinking that will hopefully lead to tremendous breakthroughs in biomedical research in the future.”

Collaboration and success

Welsh gives an example of successful collaboration stories which involves sleeping sickness, caused by Trypanosome parasites, and the antiparasitic drug fexinidazole. She says: “Research on neglected tropical diseases such as sleeping sickness has always been and continues to be underfunded, and as a result, the treatments used for many of these diseases are outdated or logistically challenging to administer. Until recently, the only available medication to treat sleeping sickness was an arsenic derivative that killed one out of every 20 patients. This was followed by a medication requiring several consecutive days of intravenous infusions. Most areas where sleeping sickness is prevalent are plagued by limited infrastructure and a lack of access to medical facilities. An oral treatment was desperately needed to overcome these challenges. 

“The pharmaceutical company Sanofi partnered with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative to hold clinical trials in the areas where sleeping sickness was still very much a problem. The drug they wanted to test, fexinidazole, had been developed in the 1980s but abandoned, only to be rediscovered through data mining when looking for oral therapies for sleeping sickness. Through this partnership, fexinidazole was approved to treat sleeping sickness, and global elimination of this parasitic disease is a realistic goal thanks in part to this collaboration.”

SLAS 2024  

Welsh and Allmann’s presentation, titled “Great question, we don’t know! Science communication through conversation”, will take the audience through their journey into science communication as we reflect on the lessons we have learned along the way. She says: “We discuss the importance of balancing depth with clarity, tailoring your talk to your audience, acknowledging the limits of your knowledge, and using scientific storytelling to humanise what can be a very impersonal field.”

Welsh says that they are excited to learn about cutting edge research across the many fields represented at SLAS2024, like drug discovery, precision medicine, diagnostics, and more. SLAS gives them an opportunity to learn about broader trends and advancements in this field. She concludes: “We are also thrilled to connect with the researchers in these fields and learn about what drew them to their work, what they are passionate about, and what changes they hope their research will bring.”

SLAS 2024 Supplement, Volume 25 – Issue 1, Winter 2023/2024

Erin WelshBiography:

Erin Welsh, PhD is a scientist and science communicator who produces and co-hosts This Podcast Will Kill You, a popular science podcast that she and co-host Erin Allmann Updyke launched in 2017. Each episode of the podcast explores the biology, history, and current status of a disease or medical topic.

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