Thirty-five years later

Thirty-five years ago this month, in September 1982, I arrived at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons to open my virology laboratory. I brought with me an infectious DNA copy of the poliovirus RNA genome, the first of its kind, and a lot of enthusiasm. Over the years we used this infectious DNA to study poliovirus neurovirulence, pathogenesis, and translation, among other topics; I wrote grant applications, published papers, and trained new scientists. In short, I was a typical academic scientist.

My career forked in 2000 with the publication by the American Society for Microbiology of the textbook Principles of Virology. Because this book was written by process, not by virus, each of the authors learned far more virology than ever before. As a consequence of writing this book, I became interested in disseminating virology to the public. Beginning with virology blog in 2004, I began to use social media to communicate science. This interest has lead to a collection of blogs, podcasts, lectures, and videos, in addition to four editions of Principles of Virology.

Recently virologist Islam Hussein, founder of Virolvlog and an avid science communicator, decided to summarize my modest scicomm career with an infographic. I’m grateful to Islam for this lovely chart, which was produced by Mohamed Gaawan. Here’s to the next 35 years.


I have always marched for science

vrrThis Saturday I will be participating in the March for Science in Washginton, DC. It’s all about celebrating science and the role it plays in each of our lives. Frankly, I could have participated in a March for Science one, two, three, or any number of years ago, because these issues have always been important.

Over ten years ago, well into my science career, I recognized the need for scientists to come off the sidelines (to quote March for Science) and start telling the world what it is that we do. It’s why I wrote a virology textbook; started virology blog; produce five science podcasts; teach a virology course and record all the lectures for YouTube, and much more. These activities have been my March for Science.

Whenever I visit a university to give a science talk, I spend the last 15 minutes telling the audience (mainly scientists) why they need to tell the public what we do. I tell them to let the world know that our lives are long and prosperous because of science. I emphasize that every scientist needs to communicate, so that the public sees us all together championing the way science benefits the planet.

The March for Science, held in many different cities, will give the world a view of scientists together defending the roles that science plays in our lives. It’s a large scale view of what I have done myself over the years, and what I have encouraged other scientists to do.

It is unfortunate that the March for Science had to be triggered by an administration that shows disdain for science and facts. I bet we could have organized a similar march years ago. But the march is happening now, and whether or not we are branded as left or right doesn’t matter – science doesn’t care about your political party. Neil de Grasse Tyson put it perfectly: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.

More important than the March for Science is what happens afterwards. Does it build a “global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments” as envisioned by its organizers, or is it back to business as usual for most scientists?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that there are many scientists who do engage the public, and their work will continue. The work that me and my co-hosts do to bring science and scientists to everyone will go on, as it has before the March.

That’s why I will be wearing a This Week in Virology t-shirt to the March in Washington DC. It’s the way I’ve been communicating science, making a difference by reaching as many people as I can. That’s the spirit of the March for Science, which will go beyond one Saturday in April.

Ten years of virology blog

Vincent Racaniello

Photo by Chris Suspect

Ten years ago this month I wrote the first post at virology blog, entitled Are viruses living? Thanks to EE Giorgi for pointing out the ten year anniversary, and also for publishing an interview with me at her blog, Chimeras.

Here is how this blog got started: in June 2004 the second edition of our virology textbook, Principles of Virology, had just been published. While the textbook had so far done well, its audience was limited, and I wanted to find ways to better spread information about viruses. At the time I had a hosting account that I used to publish a website for our cub scout pack, and while visiting the administration page, I noticed an option to install blogging software. The idea then came to me to start blogging about viruses, so I looked for a good domain name. All of the virology names were taken except for, so I bought that, and set up the blog. An artist made the logo, using an image of poliovirus bound to its cellular receptor; this structure was the product of a collaboration between my lab and those of Jim Hogle and Alasdair Steven. Then I wrote my first post. Discussing whether or not viruses are living seemed like a good introductory topic, and I used some ideas that had been published in our textbook.

To my surprise, after a few months the post began to attract comments, and to this day it remains one of the most commented posts on virology blog. My views on whether or not viruses are living have certainly evolved; a more accurate summary of my thoughts on this subject would be The virus and the virion.

I like to think that blogging has been a pathway to all of my other efforts to communicate information about viruses. Blogging brought me into the world of social media, leading me to start accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. Four years after virology blog, I started my first podcast, This Week in Virology, which is approaching one million downloads each year (we now have four science shows, including This Week in Parasitism, This Week in Microbiology, and Urban Agriculture). I began teaching an undergraduate virology course at Columbia University in 2010, and I have used video recordings of my lectures to teach virology at iTunes University and Coursera. I have had wonderful opportunities to interview virologists at colleges and scientific meetings; some of these can be found at my YouTube channel. I believe that I have shown that scientists can effectively communicate their field to the general public, and I hope I have inspired some of my colleagues to emulate my efforts.

For the first 20 years of my career I taught virology to roughly 200 students every year, for a total reach of four thousand people. My blogging, podcasting, and online teaching now reach millions in over 170 countries. It all started with a blog.

I have been lucky to reach so many people, in different ways, with information about viruses. But I still love blogging, and I will be writing about viruses here as long as I my brain and body permit. My sincere thanks to everyone who has visited virology blog and has been part of this engaged and excited community.

TWiM 32: Not the shadow biosphere

On episode #32 of the science show This Week in Microbiology, Vincent, Elio and Michael speak with Rosie Redfield about her evidence that a bacterium cannot grow on arsenic instead of phosphorus.

If you only listen to one episode of TWiM all year, make it this one – Rosie is terrific!

You can find TWiM #32 at

Microbiology blogs

If you have ever wanted to read other blogs on microbiology, head over to César Sánchez’ Twisted Bacteria, where he has compiled a list of his 20 favorites. There are even some in French, Spanish, and Slovenian (for those, don’t forget Google Translate). Thanks, César.

Social media and microbiology education

Readers of this blog know that I embrace social media for teaching virology. My experience with two types of social media, blogging and podcasting, has been published as an Opinions piece by PLoS Pathogens (read the full text or download the pdf file). In this article I discuss how social media is becoming an increasingly integral component of both research and education in the world of science. My experience has convinced me that scientists must embrace these applications to not only better communicate their work to the public, but to facilitate the progress of research.

Blogging and podcasting are not the only forms of social media that I have found useful for teaching and research. I use Twitter to locate or disseminate information about virology. I often tweet when I write a new blog post or release a podcast, or when I find an article of interest. You can see what I post on Twitter without ever visiting the site – my most recent tweets are listed on virology blog, in the lower right hand column. The individuals who follow me on Twitter can investigate further by clicking on the links that I provide in each tweet.

For me the value of Twitter lies in the individuals that I follow – mainly scientists and science writers. You must be judicious in selecting who to follow, otherwise your Twitter stream will be too dense. I have found that following 100-200 individuals provides just the right amount of information. Unfortunately, there are few microbiologists on Twitter, and even fewer virologists. And the science writers far outnumber the scientists. I do not see this situation changing in the near future, so I conclude that for me Twitter is more about giving than receiving.

Another service that I find very useful is FriendFeed. This site provides a means for aggregating all of my online activities – tweets, blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, to name just a few. My followers can then see everything I do online at one site. In turn, I can follow others and track their online activities. An advantage of FriendFeed is that you can comment, like, or share any item, a feature can be useful for scientific discussions. For example, I can post links to interesting journal articles, and if my followers are interested they can begin a discourse on each one.

Then there is Facebook (which recently acquired FriendFeed). The sheer number of people there make it impossible to ignore. For example, I started a virology group on Facebook over a year ago, and even though I did not publicize it, 417 individuals joined. I just started a Facebook page for my podcast ‘This Week in Virology’, where I will post news about TWiV, and which I hope will become a gathering place for people who want to learn more about viruses. You can find it here.

Racaniello VR (2010). Social media and microbiology education. PLoS pathogens, 6 (10) PMID: 20975949

Why should scientists blog and podcast?

My colleagues (generally the older ones) often ask me why I blog or podcast. They believe that I am wasting my time. After all, I am a scientist, and it is my job to carry out research. In order to do this I must publish papers and obtain grants. The grant funds are used to pay salaries (mine and those in my laboratory) and purchase the supplies needed for research. In my institution, nothing matters except raising money for research. Teaching, mentoring, and other community services mean very little. Blogging and podcasting do nothing to help fund my laboratory.

Here are my answers.

Why did I go into science? Because my parents (physician and teacher) and my teachers inspired me. But for many other children, the only inspiration they have is their teachers. They need input from other sources. I believe I can help provide that input over the internet.

Most people – kids, teens, adults – don’t understand science. Their teachers can provide only a very rudimentary, often flawed view of some of the fundamental concepts. While I cannot cover all of science, I can do a good job of teaching what I know. I have been studying and thinking about viruses for over 30 years, so I understand them quite well. I am also able to talk and write about them clearly and concisely, a gift I probably received in part from my teacher parent. These qualities put me in a unique position to educate the public about viruses. 

Early in my career, I didn’t think much about teaching. I focussed on research. Later I realized I had a reasonable ability to communicate what I knew, which turned into a love of teaching. My blogging and podcasting about viruses represent part of the effort to impart some of my knowledge to the public. 

As I have read and heard many times on the web, if you want to blog or podcast, do it about something you are passionate about. And that is what I am doing.