Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education 2013 – Dave Bhella

David Bhella, Ph.D., a structural virologist at the MRC Centre for Virus Research in Glasgow, accepts the Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education, awarded annually by the Society for General Microbiology for an outstanding contribution to microbiology education.

In his laboratory David produces beautiful three-dimensional structures of viruses. In this video you will see how he uses this visual material to educate the public about viruses. David has also developed engaging course material for activities at the Glasgow Science Centre.

I was honored to receive the Wildy Prize in 2012 for my use of social media to teach microbiology.

Live from the Society for General Microbiology Conference in Manchester, UK

MicrobeWorld and the Society for General Microbiology (UK) to live stream two events from their Spring Conference 2013 in Manchester, England, March 25-28.

Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education
Monday, March 25, 2013 17:20 GMT (1:20 PM EST | 10:20 AM PST)  

David Bhella, Ph.D., will be accepting the Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education, awarded annually by the Society for General Microbiology for an outstanding contribution to microbiology education. Bhella’s acceptance speech will be live streamed at 17:20 GMT (1:20 PM EST | 10:20 AM PST). Vincent Racaniello was awarded the Wildy Prize in 2012.

This Week in Microbiology
Wednesday, March 27, 2013 15:30 GMT (11:30 AM EST | 8:30 AM PST) 

Join Vincent Racaniello and co-host Laura Piddock, Ph.D., with guests Paul Williams, Ph.D., Kalin Vetsigian, Ph.D., and David Harper, Ph.D., for a live-streaming episode of This Week in Microbiology. The live stream starts at 15:30 PM GMT (11:30 AM EST | 8:30 AM PST) and you can watch it below. If you have any questions for Vincent or his guests during the broadcast you can tweet your question using the #sgmman hash tag or type it into the chat function of the video player.

If you live elsewhere in the world, please use, to calculate when the live streams will start in your area.


(If you don’t see the video and it is after the official start time please press the play button or refresh the page.)

Be curious

During my visit to the University of Vermont today I had lunch with seven talented Microbiology Ph.D. students. One of them asked me what was an important quality to have for achieving success in science. I said without hesitation, ‘Be curious’.

It’s the answer I always give. Being curious is the first step to being a scientist, and it’s the quality you must always have to be a successful scientist. If you are not curious about the world around you and how it works, do something else.

Which is why I find this statement by Aaron Swartz extremely moving:

When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity.

(from Dave Winer)

If Swartz is right – and I suspect he is, at least in part – then by driving curiosity out of kids, we are destroying future scientists. Except for the rare few who keep on following their curiosity.

Educating the world about microbes

I just returned from Dublin where I was honored to receive the Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education from the Society for General Microbiology. This prize is awarded annually for an outstanding contribution to microbiology education, including university teaching, education of the general public, school pupils or professional groups.

Below is a video of my acceptance talk. Thanks to Chris Condayan of ASM for the excellent split-screen recording.

While at the SGM meeting in Dublin I recorded TWiV 177 with Connor Bamford, Wendy Barclay, Richard Elliott and Ron Fouchier. Audio and video will be posted on 1 April 2012.

The dwindling American science majors

stem educationAccording to the New York Times (Why Science Majors Change Their Minds), the decline in the number of science majors in the United States has come about in part because the subject matter is too difficult. If this explanation is true, then we have not properly prepared these students in grades K-12. I also believe that the poor state of funding of American science is an important factor. My Columbia University colleague Stuart Firestein expressed this idea in his letter to the Times:

Why do science majors change their mind? They wise up.

Your article makes it sound as if American science students are stupid or lazy, unlike their workaholic Chinese and Indian counterparts. This is glib and insulting.

It is in their second year that students typically join laboratories and see firsthand that their dreams of a scientific career include low-paying and highly competitive professorial jobs, that getting grants for scientific research is increasingly difficult and unpredictable, that they are facing many years of postgraduate work at ridiculously low salaries and that they would have a hard time supporting a family.

Compare this future with that of the economics major (lots of math) who goes to business school and can look forward to million-dollar yearly bonuses.

American students change their majors because they recognize that this country has stopped providing a reasonable future for scientists, with slashed budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health.

For Chinese and Indian students, science remains a way out of poverty. For American students, it’s becoming the path into it.

Cliff Mintz at BioJobBlog adds the problem of outsourcing:

…it is important to note that outsourcing and consolidation in the life sciences industry that has occurred over the past decade has all but eliminated the option of industry jobs for those who were unable to secure academic positions. Put simply, there are no longer enough jobs in the US to support the numbers of sciences students that we annually train.

I also agree with Cliff’s idea of eliminating tenure in American universities as a way of infusing new ideas and enthusiasm into the system. The notion of a guaranteed position seems untenable in 2011 and beyond.

Virology at the Deutsches Museum

zometoolI just returned from a 17-day, 3,000 km road trip with my family in Europe. When I travel I’m always on the lookout for virus-related information and I found some at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. This museum showcases science and technology – it has over 100,000 objects illustrating the historical progression of areas such as mining, atomic physics, water transport, electricity, and much more. Katharina Eisenacher made it her pick of the week on TWiV 102; she said it was a fabulous museum and now I understand why! Let me show and tell you about the virology that I found there. All of the photographs can be clicked for a larger view.

On our way to the museum entrance we passed the gift shop, where two kits were prominently displayed in the window. The animal virus kit can be used to build a model of what looks to be adenovirus, complete with capsid and a small piece of nucleic acid. The biochemistry kit can presumably be used to build organic molecules. Both are unfortunately rather expensive: 44 euros for the animal virus kit, which is about $63 US. The kits are slightly cheaper on the company website, Zometool: the animal virus model costs $35. I’m going to order one and let you know how it turns out. Even at $35 the virus kit is too expensive; I would price it low enough so that more kids can learn about viruses. Building a virus model, and holding it, is a great way to become familiar with these microbes.

One room dedicated to modern-day appliances contained an exhibit on polio. An actual iron lung was displayed in front of a famous photograph of a ward containing many of these devices that were used to facilitate breathing of polio patients. For a polio researcher such as myself this was a special treat, particularly since I have never seen an iron lung! Those are my two sons checking it out; they were fascinated.

iron lung

iron lung side

Here is the text associated with the iron lung. Very well done.

iron lung text

Next to the iron lung was a glass case containing a package of poliovirus vaccine:


Here is the text associated with the vaccine box:

virelon text

 Another excellent exhibit concerned with infectious diseases contained a number of virus-related displays. The first that caught my eye was this collection of small virions hanging from the ceiling. I’d love to have these in the TWiV studio. Behind them you can see a larger than life size model of a cell, which can be entered to view sub cellular components.

virion mobile

Also part of this display was a large panel entitled ‘What exactly are viruses’? The large, colorful images of herpesvirions at the right contain a viewport through which electron micrographs of other viruses can be observed.

what are viruses?

what are viruses? detail

I was pleased to see a section indicating that ‘not all viruses cause diseases in humans’.


 Another part of this exhibit discussed antiviral drugs. Elsewhere was an actual robot used to conduct antiviral screens.


There was also a very large biotechnology exhibit which I did not have time to visit. It included a display by Amgen on artificial bone growth, and a DNA laboratory which among other things explained how sequencing works. It’s truly one of the best museums I’ve ever visited, and spending one day there was not enough: you could easily immerse in the exhibits for a week. This is the kind of museum the world needs, which preserves the history of progress in science and technology. And the virology is reasonably well done. Congratulations, Munich!

Microbiology books for kids

On TWiV 87 a listener asked us to recommend suitable books for children about microbiology. I have since asked for suggestions on Twitter and Facebook, and have begun to compile the following list.

  • The Invisible ABC’s by Rodney P. Anderson
  • The Magic School Bus #6: The Giant Germ by Anne Capeci
  • A World in a Drop of Water by Alvin and Virginia Silverstein
  • The Usborne Complete Book of the Microscope by Kirsteen Rogers
  • Jig, Jiggle, Sneeze by Joy Vitalis
  • Germs Make Me Sick! by Melvin Berger
  • Germ Stories by (Nobel prize winner) Arthur Kornberg (reviewed)
  • Invisible Allies: Microbes that shape our lives by Jeanette Farrell
  • Five Kids & A Monkey Investigate a Vicious Virus by Beth L. Blair
  • DNA is Here to Stay by Fran Balkwill

If you know of good microbiology books for children (ages 5-teen) please add them to the comments section, or email them to and I’ll add them to this list.

Update: Thanks to the readers who have sent in their suggestions. They are listed above in the order in which I received them.

Microbiology education and social media

At the Spring 2010 meeting of the Society for General Microbiology In Edinburgh I spoke about ‘Social Media in Microbiology Education and Research’. In my presentation I reviewed how I use blogging, podcasting, and other social media tools to teach the public about viruses.

Below is a video recording of my presentation. Many thanks to Prof. AJ Cann for the opportunity to speak about our efforts. I also enjoyed excellent presentations by Prof. Graham Hatfull, Cameron Neylon, Kevin Emamy of citeulike, and Jason Hoyt of Mendeley.

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.