WHO YOU GONNA CALL? The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta

Today I’m spending what promises to be an absolutely fascinating day at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The folks in Public Affairs apparently read my book and thought to themselves, “Hmmm …’don’t be such a scientist’ … who do we know that might benefit from such a message?” (hint: most research scientists) This is the same thing we went through last spring at NASA Goddard Flight Center. Basically wherever you find research scientists you’ll find communications folks dealing with the always-challenging interface between science and the public.

As part of my preparation I insisted on having phone chats with six key people at CDC including the Chief of Media Relations, Deputy Director of Communications, and the Deputy Director of the entire CDC (the #2 person). One of the interesting things they said is that whenever there is a breaking story — like a flu outbreak — the people the media most want to talk with are the scientists not the media spokespersons. Apparently the media love to hear the information from the mouths of the experts. Which is cool. But also a burden/challenge for the scientists themselves.

Also, with every visit I do to universities and research institutions I go with the goal of learning as much or more from them as they learn from me. This one is set to be the best ever.

I’ve always been fascinated by epidemiology. I think it might be the storytelling elements that are so inherent in the field which connect with my communication interests. After all, epidemiology is basically trying to “tell the story” of diseases — searching for the beginning, middle and end of a disease.

I’ve had a longstanding interest in the subject. In the mid-80’s, as I waded through the depths of the Reagan Era job drought as a marine biology postdoc I gave serious thought to doing a Masters in Public Health. A friend of mine had left his academic position in entomology and gone to medical school where he was seeing the start of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. His story intrigued me and in my first two years at UNH I became deeply involved in working with AIDS patients as part of AIDS Response of the Seacoast, a support group at the Portsmouth Regional Hospital.

And then a few years later, when I was teaching the Intro Bio course at U.S.C., I became infatuated with Carl Zimmer’s incredibly well-written book “Parasite Rex”, which I used for my “Disease of the Day” feature in my lectures (the book actually makes you a fan of parasites!).

So this is kind of a dream come true — to be invited to Mecca for the study of disease.

And the last thing to note is how amazing those phone calls were last week. These are the point people for the worst health crises that befall our country. They were kind of intimidating to speak with, and eventually I was forced to ask the inevitable question — “Are you guys sure you need to hear what I have to say?” Which drew the same laughter and response from each person — “Oh, yeah, even the CDC needs help with communicating science.”