Q&A and coffee mug giveaway: Plastic-decomposing mushrooms, allergy-curing hookworms, the end of the universe, and more!

Tiny Matters

This episode is outside the Tiny Matters norm — it’s a Q&A and mug giveaway! Sam and Deboki answer listener questions about science, like, ‘Can parasitic hookworms cure allergies?,’ ‘How do you measure the end of the universe?,’ ‘What’s the science behind why we can’t stand nails on a chalkboard,’ plus questions about how to make the leap to science communication (including podcasting). They wrap up the episode with a drawing where five lucky listeners win a Tiny Matters coffee mug!

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: Hi, welcome to Tiny Matters! I'm Sam Jones.

Deboki Chakravarti: And I'm Deboki Chakravarti.

Sam Jones: And today, we are doing something different from our typical episodes. We are actually doing a Q&A episode based on questions from you, our listeners, and then we are going to do a mug giveaway at the end of the episode.

Deboki Chakravarti: And we got a lot of questions, which is very exciting, and some of you guys sent a lot of questions within your questions, which was even more exciting. But unfortunately, we are limited to time, so we're sometimes going to condense those questions down. Everyone's going to be submitted for the mug raffle. If your question was answered, your name will be put in twice. So yeah, let's get to the questions.

Sam Jones: Yeah, let's hop into the questions. So the first question that I'm answering is from our listener, Doug, who wrote in saying, "I remember reading some popular science articles about five years ago about a guy who reduced his allergy symptoms by deliberately infecting himself with hookworms. Obviously that seems crazy, but are we still thinking that the reported increase in allergies in the last century is due to our lack of parasite load?"

So thank you for sending this in, Doug. When I read your question, it made me think of the first story that I heard about this approach, which was actually from about 15 years ago, where this guy named Jasper Lawrence, he had horrible seasonal allergies and asthma, and he'd read about a researcher who had infected himself with hookworms to alleviate his allergies. And so, Lawrence traveled to Africa, walked barefoot alongside open latrines in Cameroon to actually pick up a hookworm.

So hookworms, they live in the gut, and so they are then not so surprisingly found in your feces. That was the reasoning behind walking alongside latrines. When you do step on a hookworm, the way that it gets into is actually burrows through the bottom of your feet. And so, Lawrence was infected and his symptoms seem to really resolve.

Deboki Chakravarti: Wow.

Sam Jones: So of course, this got a lot of press. It's pretty interesting. But an important thing to know is that hookworms are actually really, really bad for people most of the time. So infection can stunt growth in children, it causes extreme fatigue, anemia, loss of appetite. It makes you at greater risk for picking up other infections a lot of times. However, there is an argument that is still very much alive that getting rid of intestinal worms, whether they're parasitic like the hookworm or non-parasitic, getting rid of them entirely is actually leading to an increase in allergies and other chronic inflammation associated diseases in western society.

That was something you asked Doug. This is still something that a lot of people do think. So I just want to take a minute to just talk a little bit about this because if this is a topic that you're like, "I'm sorry, what? Who stepped on worms outside of the latrine? What's going on?" The connection, the proposed connection between these worms and allergies or inflammatory diseases, a lot of it boils down to the fact that these worms seem to suppress your immune system just a little bit. So their goal in suppressing your immune system a little bit is to keep your body from attacking them so that they can continue to suck a little bit of blood from your intestines. But allergies and autoimmune diseases where you have this chronic inflammation, so things like Crohn's disease, celiac's disease, those are actually caused by a heightened immune response.

So the idea is that these hookworms could dampen that immune response, which would at least somewhat alleviate inflammation symptoms. Where does this research stand?

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, there's no hookworms on the market, I'm assuming.

Sam Jones: No. So at least, not that I could find and not in the US. So I will say that where we are, where Tiny Matters is located in the US, the US Food and Drug Administration, the FDA has not approved intestinal worm therapy, but they have granted investigational new drug status to several species of worms, including pig whipworm and human hookworm, which means that US researchers are allowed to test these worms in humans, but they are not something you can go and purchase somewhere.

Based on what I've read, the effective dose of a given intestinal worms, they're called helminths, is highly variable from one individual to the next. And I haven't come across any large studies that have shown significance for these worms in alleviating allergies, asthma, Crohn's disease, or other diseases. It's really a lot of case studies like this guy who went to Africa and got hookworms. And so, maybe there will be some sort of legitimate treatment one day, but having something work for a few people, it's like for me, I think of it as reading a testimonial on a website. I'm so glad it worked for those people, but I'm waiting for a huge clinical trial or a huge pool of data that's controlled, but there are ongoing trials throughout the world with these worms.

Deboki Chakravarti: Wow. Well, that was both really gross and fascinating. I am going to take on a question from listener Mike who asked what is used to measure the ending of a universe, which I think is a great question. I have said on this podcast, we have both blatantly admitted to just not having physics be our subjects, but I also sometimes like to subject myself to physics. I feel like it's humbling, it's fascinating, and part of why I was excited about this question is because it gives me an opportunity to recommend a great book by the astrophysicist Katie Mack called The End of Everything Astrophysically Speaking, where she goes through a few different theories behind how the universe is going to end.

And I'm not going to go through all of those theories. I'm going to focus on one, which I think is the one that most people think is most likely, and this is the heat death of the universe, which is a very appropriate but also misleading name because when I think of heat death, it sounds like the universe is going to blow up and be super hot, but it's actually not that, and that's related to Mike's question.

So what the heat death of the universe is, is it's based on the fact that our universe is expanding and that expansion is also accelerating, and we don't really know why this is happening. It's probably due to dark energy, but we also don't really know what that is, so there's a lot of question marks there. But as our universe is expanding, that means that the galaxies inside of it are getting further and further apart, which means that our universe is also getting colder, but also as the galaxies get further apart, they can't interact with each other. And that's actually really important for star formation. So that means as these galaxies are getting further apart from each other and their stars die out, they can't replace them anymore. So eventually, the galaxies are going to go dark, and that's going to lead to a bunch of black holes that are just radiating away energy as a sort of waste heat. And that's where this idea of the heat death comes in.

So at this point, everything is decaying and you eventually reach what's called maximum entropy, which is where everything is at maximum disorder. So at this point, the universe reaches what Katie Mack describes as the big freeze, and the good news, it's probably not going to happen for another 100 billion years from now, and Earth is going to be long gone by then. So we don't really need to worry about this, I think, hopefully.

But to get back to Mike's question, the thing that I understand as defining the end of the universe in this context is the second law of thermodynamics, which basically says that if you have this closed system, something that you can't just throw more energy into, things are going to get more and more disordered over time, which sounds exciting, except that it's actually really boring. And there's this great quote in a Scientific American article by John Horgan where he describes this point as, "Everything everywhere is exactly the same temperature near absolute zero and nothing ever happens." So I think that's a great description of it. And so, that's how I think of the end of the universe being defined is through temperature and entropy. Those are the big factors with this second law of thermodynamics.

Sam Jones: Yeah, that's so interesting because when you think of increased disorder, you would think like, oh, it's going to be crazy, it's going to be so exciting. But actually, it is a lot of the same.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, basically everything is just there, but frozen is the way that I understand it, but there are little fluctuations that can happen, where as she goes into it, you could technically get the birth of a universe. Again, it's a very low probability, but it is a thing that can happen according to physics, and that's why I like physics, makes no sense, but it makes sense to physicists, because they know when to stop thinking, I think. But it's what's fascinating about this to me, because it's like all of this comes from an equation where we're just like, well, this is what happens when things ultimately go to zero and you'd get these weird things happening to the universe.

Sam Jones: That is so interesting. Well, thanks, Deboki. I'm very proud of you for tackling some physics with that one.

Deboki Chakravarti: Thank you.

Sam Jones: So the next question is from our listener, Catherine. And Catherine wrote in asking, "What is the science behind those tiny sounds that irritate us? Why does the sound of nails on a chalkboard make us scream inside?" Agreed, absolutely. Makes me scream inside.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah.

Sam Jones: Okay. So those cringe-worthy sounds. Well, the first bit of research I came across is from 1986. Scientists at Northwestern University removed different sound frequencies from recordings of nails scratching on a chalkboard, and they found that eliminating the highest frequencies did not actually make them more pleasant, but instead removing the middle or low spectrum frequencies had people responding more positively saying they were less cringey, which is so interesting and kind of surprising. But then, it wasn't until 2011 that a team of researchers from Germany and Austria were able to actually figure out what that range might be, and it turns out to be 2,000 to 4,000 hertz.

And for context, humans can detect sounds in a frequency range from about 20 hertz to around 15,000 hertz, maybe 20,000 in some people. Knowing that range is helpful because previous studies had shown that the ear canal amplifies certain frequencies including those in the range of 2,000 to 4,000 hertz. So that screeching nails on a chalkboard is not only annoying because it contains this frequency that we seem to just detect as being annoying, but it also could be amplified within our ears, which makes it even more painful.

And then, in 2012, researchers looked into what's happening in your brain when you hear these screechy sounds, and they found that based on FMRI data, which shows changes in blood flow throughout your brain, that there is an increase in the interaction between the auditory cortex, which processes sounds and the amygdala, which is responsible for a lot of emotional processing, especially negative emotions like fear and anxiety. So it could be that those nails on a chalkboard are not only irritating because of their frequency and amplification, but also your amygdala is actually sending a distress signal to your auditory cortex. So yeah, nails on a chalkboard, they're terrible. I would say that scraping sound when you get your teeth cleaned at the dentist is equally terrible.

Deboki Chakravarti: I just got my teeth cleaned this week, and I was thinking the entire time that I hate this. I hate this so much.

Sam Jones: It's horrible. Yeah, I had no idea. This is a great question.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, I would've totally been like, "Yeah, it's those high frequencies," but-

Sam Jones: I know, it's surprising.

Deboki Chakravarti: Okay, so next up we have a question from listener Brian, which is, how does an organism cells respond to stimuli? It makes sense to me that the entire organism responds to stimuli using the nervous system, transmitting messages around the organism, but on a cellular level, what is directing the show? Is it purely just chemical chain reactions occurring via the reading of DNA? How does the cell know when to read DNA? Is it always reading DNA? I have to say, Brian, I think the last part of your question is honestly the most important part. The part about how does the cell know when it needs to read DNA, and also just in general, I love this question. In my past life, I was a synthetic biologist, so my entire life revolved around trying to make cells respond to a stimulus the way that I wanted them to.

And so, a lot of the ways that I was doing that was by trying to control the way that cells respond to their DNA, and that mimics a lot of what cells do in general. A lot of what we're doing in genetic engineering and synthetic biology is taking how we know that cells work and trying to recreate them in new ways and using parts from cells that we know will carry out particular actions and rewire them into something that we can then use to control the behavior of cells.

And so, a lot of what cells are doing when they're responding to a stimulus is processing that stimulus, and then oftentimes, not always, it doesn't necessarily have to get to the DNA level, but a lot of times what they're trying to do is then figure out what part of the DNA do we need to read, how much of the protein that it's encoding do we need to make? Is there going to be some other modification we need to make to the protein after that? There is a lot that's going into the signal that's being sent into the cell, and then how it's actually translating that signal into what it needs to do next with DNA.

And so, one of the most common ways it'll do this is through transcription factors, which are proteins that bind to a part of DNA called the promoter. And the promoter isn't a gene, it's not necessarily going to code for a particular protein, but it will control the expression of a gene. So a transcription factor might turn that gene on when it binds to the promoter, or it might actually turn the gene off, like turn off expression of that gene when it binds to the promoter. It depends on the transcription factors and sometimes other complicated things that are controlling these interactions.

Again, it can get super complicated, so I figured I would try to keep it simple with what I worked on when I was a grad student. And so, my work revolved around this treatment for cancer called CAR T, where basically you're taking a patient's immune cells. In my case, I was not working with the patient cells, I was just kind of working with model T-cells or T-cells that I took from blood, and basically teaching them how to recognize cancer cells so that they can kill them. So in the therapy, you take a patient's T-cells, genetically engineer them to have what's called a chimeric antigen receptor or CAR that can then bind to cancer cells. And so, when the CAR T cells are back in the patient, they find the cancer cell, the CAR will then activate the T-cell to do all its immune system things that will eventually lead to it killing the cancer cell.

My goal as a grad student was to try to create a tool that would allow doctors to control this therapy once the cells are actually back in the patient so that you could control, say, whether or not the CAR receptors are being expressed, how much is being expressed, all of these different things that you want to sometimes be able to control. So the way that I was doing this was by creating a system where you could add a drug and maybe change the amount of CARs on the cell from a low amount to a high amount. And so, in the system that I worked on, you could add a drug that would actually control a protein that would then cut and rearrange DNA so that it could change the expression level of the CAR. So it would change it from, say, making a small amount of car receptor to then making a high amount.

So in this case, the stimulus was the drug and it changed the cell's response by rearranging DNA so that the cell made more of the chimeric antigen receptor. I don't know how this sounds to other people because I was so enmeshed in it that to me, I'm like, this all makes sense. I think if it sounds complicated, just know that what nature can do is actually much, much, much more complicated. What I worked on, I think of it as simple, we're working with Play-Doh or Legos compared to what nature can do because nature can make these incredibly complicated pathways where you're controlling things through chemical modifications on proteins or they're interacting with each other in really complicated ways, and creating these circuits that are basically made out of proteins and DNA parts that are just, we're still learning how to understand them.

And so, that's frustrating when you're working as a genetic engineer because it feels like you're finger painting, you're just working with the basics. And then, when you look at what nature can actually do, it's so much. The actual example I was thinking of when I thought of this question was inflammation, which our immune system needs as a primary defense against infections, and there's actually a really complicated pathway involved with inflammation that helps us maintain this delicate balance in how our cells respond. And scientists have spent decades piecing together pathways like inflammation, and we're still working to understand it. But yeah, the idea is just have this complicated system of cellular parts that will control how things are being expressed at the genetic level, how things are operating at the protein level. It's so complicated.

Sam Jones: Yeah, I did in graduate school, I took some immunology courses when I was figuring out what kind of lab I would want to join for my thesis work, and oh my gosh, the immune system is, it's a beast. It is a beast. It's unbelievable. The two areas where I always think we know nothing is the immune system and the brain.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yep.

Sam Jones: We know nothing. Yep. Thanks, Deboki. I have a question from our listener, Tammy. Tammy is wondering if we'd heard of growing mushrooms that eat up plastics that are otherwise hard to recycle? Is that a real thing and what's the state of that research? Okay, so I think the first striking study about this came out in 2011, where researchers at Yale University tested the ability of several dozen fungi to digest the synthetic polymer, polyester, polyurethane, so it's a type of plastic. They found that several members of a certain genus were actually capable of degrading the plastic and converting it into organic matter. Very, very cool.

More recently, researchers have found that a bunch of different species are capable of plastic bioremediation including the common edible oyster mushroom, and so that of course has some people thinking or proposing it as a type of at-home recycling system. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Sydney actually found that two types of mold could be used to break down small amounts of polypropylene, which is a plastic that's used in to-go containers, ice cream tubs, cling film, tons of stuff, and they found that it took 90 days for the fungi to degrade 27% of the plastic tested and about 140 to completely break it down after the samples had already been exposed to UV rays or heat.

At this point, there are hundreds of records of fungi that are capable of degrading different plastic types, and they've been found to work in a wide range of conditions in different soils, rainforests, mangroves, deep sea. But the big challenge is there are a number of challenges. One of the big challenges is that it's going to be hard to scale things up, but then there are also so many different types of plastics and chemicals in plastics, and so you could have a fungus that really degrades one, doesn't degrade the other, not entirely clear sometimes if it's just broken down and not actually degraded and converted into organic matter. And so, are we really just releasing even smaller bits of plastic or chemicals into the environment? There's just a lot of questions still.

And I would say most of the work that I came across and reviews that have been written by scientists in the field said that understanding the magnitude of what mushrooms and other fungi could accomplish is still really in its infancy. So it's unlikely, at least a couple scientists made it seem like it's unlikely that it's going to be become some off-the-shelf solution where you can just go buy a bunch of fungus in a store that's known to degrade plastic and bring it home and stick anything that you've had that's plastic in it. But it is possible that maybe they will one day be used in large scale industrial applications or commercial applications like waste management facilities.

But there's also a very important massive asterisk here. This is not an excuse to use plastic all the time if it works. We are totally out of control with the amount of plastic waste that we create. It seems like this is not going to be a solution. We have to really, really, really cut back immediately, like 50 years ago really. But we really need to cut back and this is just sort of a helpful mitigation strategy, but it is not going to, at least it really seems like it's not going to solve all of our problems. It's just not going to.

I will also say that Tammy shared a tiny show and tell with us, which is of course mushroom-themed. So Tammy says squirrels can eat poisonous mushrooms without being affected. Therefore, it is incredibly unwise to assume a type of mushroom is safe to eat simply because a squirrel was seen eating one earlier, which is a great point. Humans process. There are so many things that other animals eat that we cannot, and so many things we eat that other animals cannot. I mean, think about chocolate. Dogs can't have chocolate. We love chocolate. Dogs also sometimes eat really disgusting stuff that would maybe send us to the hospital and they're fine. But yeah, so the red toadstool mushroom, that very cartoonish looking one where it's like a red top with little white spots, it's unbelievably toxic to people, but it's been observed that Japanese squirrels will eat them all the time.

Deboki Chakravarti: Oh, wow.

Sam Jones: Anyways, I thought that was fun. Thank you, Tammy, for throwing in a little tiny show and tell in our Q&A.

Deboki Chakravarti: That was great.

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Deboki Chakravarti: So next, I have a question from listener Bianca, who wanted to ask about the mechanism and ethics of gene therapy, like how it's done. Wouldn't it be easier to change the gene of someone before they grow into a fully differentiated multicellular organism? And also, how do we decide what diseases should be addressed with gene therapy and what do we think will be approved for actual use? Again, I talked about my background in CAR T-cell therapies. That is a form of gene therapy where you're taking a living cell and modifying its genes to be able to make it address some kind of issue, in this case, cancer, but there are a lot of other different types of gene therapies out there. So I also wanted to highlight one that was approved very recently, which is called Elevidys. I don't know how it's pronounced. It's manufactured by Sarepta Therapeutics and it was approved in June.

And this is actually a treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which is a genetic disorder where your body has a mutation in the gene encoding the dystrophin protein, which is an important part of the structural unit that makes up our muscle cells. So without the protein, the muscle cells die. The disease generally happens in children who are assigned male at birth and the symptoms will tend to show up at around six years old, and it usually ends up becoming fatal because it causes issues in the lungs and heart. But unfortunately, it's also been very, very hard to cure. And current treatments are focused on addressing the symptoms using things like steroids or physical therapy, and that's why gene therapy has been super exciting because it's giving people an opportunity to actually address the underlying cause of the disease, which is that issue with the dystrophin gene.

So the way that Elevidys works is that it uses a virus that isn't harmful to the body but can get to muscle cells, and inside the virus is a micro version of the dystrophin gene so that when it gets to muscle cells, it'll basically insert that micro dystrophin gene into the cells and help the cells be able to make the protein again. And so far, the therapy seems to work, though the FDA has only approved it at least as of June for kids who are four to five years old. It's also super expensive. It's a one-time therapy that costs $3.2 million. And this gets us into some of the issues with gene therapies because they're relatively new, so they're also very expensive. Making these viruses requires particular facilities so that you can make sure that everything is being made safely, distributing them. That's a level of infrastructure that we're still working, I think, on developing.

We also don't really know how insurance is going to cover these treatments, so they could end up becoming very cost-prohibitive for people. $3.2 million is a lot of money, and for this disease in particular right now, given the state of these clinical trials, there's also a lot of challenges. This is a disease where a lot of people die very young, so there's questions about how should we be treating the rollout of the therapy, especially when there are other gene therapies for this particular disease that are coming up for trial. And if you have this particular treatment, you probably won't be able to be enrolled in the clinical trials for those other treatments as well.

So getting to Bianca's question, there are gene therapies that have been approved, and I think the ones right now that are most likely to be successful are the ones where you can use a single gene to address the issue, whether that's the gene for a CAR T-cell or the micro dystrophin protein, and that's for two reasons. One, viruses, which we use for a lot of these gene therapies, they have a limit on how much DNA we can actually physically put in them. This was a huge problem for me in my research. It was very frustrating, because I wanted to throw all this DNA in there and the viruses will be like, "Nope, we don't want it." So you need to be able to put in something that is small enough to put into a virus.

The second issue is that what you learn very quickly, even in a flask, is that cells are very complicated, so changing even one small thing can have really big consequences for a cell. And then, when you translate that into a body, those complications can mount. Even in the case of CAR T-cells, there have been deaths in clinical trials, and then we get into the ethics of it, and that is a whole other thing.

I thought Bianca's questions about would it be better to be able to address these issues before someone has differentiated into an actual person? This gets into germline editing, and that's what He Jiankui, the scientist who did the CRISPR editing on human embryos that were then carried to term, that's what's going on there where we're basically trying to create these changes before someone is born. And I am so deeply uncomfortable with that for a lot of reasons. This is very controversial. I don't want to act like my opinion is the only one, but you're uncomfortable with it too. And I think it's because we don't know a lot about how to do this kind of thing responsibly, both in medical terms and in ethical terms. Those are not separate from each other, but they're just so wrapped up and I find it so uncomfortable.

Sam Jones: And it's not perfect. I think that's one of the big things that keeps popping up. When you edit a gene in a cell, there could be off-target effects that you are not predicting. And so, if you are working with an embryo that has so few cells compared to, or even a fetus that has so few cells compared to a grown human, I mean, it could be completely devastating. It's unclear what the downstream effects could be.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, I think that's a great point where you could be thinking you're fixing one issue and then creating a whole slew of other issues.

Sam Jones: The worst. Yeah.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, and I think this gets to what I think of as a bigger issue with how I think of the world of genetic engineering broadly, and I'm curious if you see a similar version of this from your background scientifically, Sam, from the genetic engineering side. I didn't feel like I got a lot of training in terms of thinking about what I'm working on fits into society overall, and especially as someone who grew up with a lot of privilege and grew up able-bodied. I didn't really necessarily think about how we think about diseases and how that plays into the ways that we think of genetic engineering as addressing problems for people, especially not thinking of diseases as not just a thing with the body, but also as a function of how people are treated, how we construct our world for people with different health concerns or ways of moving and living.

We just talk about what we're working on as something that will fix a problem without necessarily thinking of the broader society that surrounds that problem. I just didn't feel like that was a big part of my training, and I didn't realize how much of it was missing until after I left grad school and started working in science writing where you start to learn more about these issues from a broader level. And so, obviously, this information is out there. I just wish it was more a part of bioengineering and I guess engineering in general. It doesn't just come up in the context of germline editing or gene therapies, but that's just where I've thought of it as having the most impact in things I've worked on, especially because things can get so eugenics-y so quickly, like this is…

Sam Jones: Yeah. I feel like in grad school, I think they made us take one ethics course, but it's one of those things that they just want a check mark saying that all of their students have gone through ethics training, but really, this should be a ongoing discussion when you are working in any research fields. I do think it's something that people need to be thinking about a lot more, because yeah, there is that very uncomfortable, when is it treating disease and when does it become using gene editing technology for really for eugenics? We're moving forward with technologies, but we don't want to then at the same time move backward in ways the physical anthropology of the past, that kind of stuff. That was just straight up racism. So anyway, yeah, lots to think about. It's a great question.

Okay, so I have just one more question from listener Alessia. So Alessia asked, what can the general public do to help stop PFAS chemicals? So these are sometimes called forever chemicals from getting into the environment. Are there changes that we can make in our consumer habits to be better environmentalists in this regard? Great question. Thank you, Alessia. So PFAS, that's P-F-A-S, and it stands for per- and polyfluorinated substances, which are sometimes just referred to as forever chemicals. So PFAS are defined as human-made chemicals. They're typically fire-resistant. They can repel oils, stains, grease, they repel water, and they represent thousands of different chemicals.

And so, the main thing that makes them a PFAS is this strong bond that exists between the carbon and the fluorine. That's where the per- fluoro, polyfluoro substances, that's where that name comes from. They're used in jet engines, firefighting foams. They're also in really common stuff like non-stick pans, lining of fast food wrappers, even microwave popcorn bags so that they keep them from catching fire in the microwave. Or with fast food wrappers, if you have something like a burger, it's so that the grease doesn't soak all the way through.

And so, we actually did an episode on PFAS alongside super small, sometimes microscopic, broken down plastics called microplastics. So we did that earlier this year in March. If you want to really go on a deep dive and hear from chemist Imari Walker-Franklin, this is her expertise and she actually has a lot of great suggestions for people about PFAS, but even more so avoiding microplastics. But today, I will leave you with some great tips that are in part from Imari and from other research that I've come across on how to keep PFAS out of your body and the environment as best you can.

So not buying or using non-stick cookware that's coated in PFAS is one thing that you can do. Stainless steel and cast iron cookware are good alternatives, but of course, if you already have non-stick cookware and you don't want to or can't purchase an alternative, that's totally fair. I think the main points are just to not heat it at a super high heat. So the recommendation is never above 400 degrees Fahrenheit and to also never clean it with anything that could scrape it. So stay away from Brillo pad, stuff like that, because as you scrape the coating, that's how a lot of the chemicals actually come off. They slough off with that coating. When you're buying popcorn, if you're a big popcorn eater, pop it in a pot, not in a microwave popcorn bag because like I said, those usually have that PFAS coating and that can leach out.

Don't microwave plastic, just don't do it, and opt for metal or glass if you're storing food. A lot of dental floss is also coated in PFAS, so that's a good one to double check, see if that's the case for the one you're using. Also, a lot of furniture, sofas, chairs, as well as rugs are coated in stain-resistant sprays. Those are often loaded with PFAS. A lot of times, rugs unfortunately already come treated. If there's an option, like if you're buying a rug from somewhere like going to a store and buying it, you can ask for treatment-free rugs. A lot of times sofas and comfy chairs, they're not actually treated before you get them, but a lot of times it'll say, "Oh, you should spray them with some sort of stain-resistant spray to extend the longevity." And those sprays are, I'm pretty sure, always have some form of PFAS in them.

Remember, PFAS is a catchall term. There are thousands of chemicals that fall under that category. And then, I think one of the biggest things is when you buy stuff, whether it's clothing, pans, sofa, even cosmetics, check the label. If they say per- fluor anywhere or PTFE or PFAS or PFOS or anything in that category, I would do your best to steer clear.

Deboki Chakravarti: That is good advice.

Sam Jones: Yeah, I know. Yeah, it's rough, but I think forever chemicals, understandably so over the last decade, but even more so over the last few years have really made headlines and for good reason. And like I said, we did an episode on microplastics and PFAS earlier this year in March. So definitely, if you want to learn more about the connection between those things, it's all not great stuff, but there are actionable approaches to avoiding them. And Imari offers up even more in the episode when we talk with her.

So we want to say thank you so much to everyone who asked those science questions. I learned a lot doing the research and I learned a lot from you just now, Deboki, so thank you. And so, we are going to do the drawing in a couple minutes, but first we're going to just quickly answer some sci-comm questions that came in. So we had a lot of people that were writing in asking about how we got into science communication and a number of questions related to that. And so, we're going to answer a few now, but I will also say that at the beginning of 2022, we actually published a Q&A sort of getting to know you as a bonus episode. And so, in that, Deboki and I talk a bit about our journeys from academia to science writing, science communication. And so, if you want to learn even more, then definitely check out that episode.

But I think we're going to start off with a couple of questions that are somewhat related. So we have a question from listener Sydney. So Sydney wrote in saying, "I'm starting college this fall and science communication is my dream job. Any tips for getting where you are?" And then, a somewhat related question from listener will was, "Any advice for someone interested in sci-comm with only a bachelor's degree and a professional background in non-formal education?" Deboki, so I could kick this off if you want, or do you have anything immediately that you would want to share about tips for people who are interested in this field that are thinking, I want to get into it or I want to dip my toes in?

Deboki Chakravarti: One thing I just want to say, I guess from the start for Will's question, Sam and I both have PhDs, but I've talked to people who are worried that you need a PhD to get into science writing, and that's definitely not the case. I know plenty of people who have not gone that route. It's probably, I don't know about you, Sam, it's definitely been helpful for me, but I don't think that you should rule yourself out from it just because you don't have a PhD.

Sam Jones: Yeah, definitely not.

Deboki Chakravarti: And I know one of the routes that people take is sometimes doing a master's program in science journalism or science writing. So that's definitely one way to do it. Obviously, there's also informal ways that people have been able to build on like on YouTube or TikTok. Those are platforms that people have been able to use to explore what they're curious about in a way that also gets an audience. And I think for me, having a PhD is part of how I've learned to learn science, but that's not the only way. And I think there's a lot of value to science writing coming from people who haven't spent the time that we have in academia, because I think that can also be limiting in its way as well.

Sam Jones: Absolutely. I will add to that by saying that something that I found really great when I was trying to explore science communication as a possibility was looking for science communication groups where you live. So I'm based in Washington, D.C. I'm actually now president of the D.C. Science Writers Association, but there are a lot of science writer associations throughout the country, and a lot of times we will have different networking events. We have a pizza social coming up, and we have a happy hour next month, and that kind of stuff. So it's a really good chance to just get to meet people who are maybe doing things you're interested in. And I would say that if you do have people who you meet or whether it's remotely or at a networking event that you think, "Oh my gosh, they have a job that I want to do that, or How did they get there?"

That is a great opportunity for you to say, "Hi, can I buy you a coffee and just ask you some questions for 30 minutes?" Or even if it's virtually to be like, "I would love to just as a token of gratitude," be like, "I would love to buy you a virtual coffee," and you ask if there's a coffee shop near them and send them a $10 gift card or something to just chat with them over Zoom. There are a lot of online certificate programs, and I think, so this has increased even more since the pandemic because there was just a huge rise in virtual learning, and a lot of it has stuck around, which I think is wonderful.

When I was at UC San Diego where I did my PhD, I actually took a class, a science writing class through their extension school. And that for me was a game changer because I was then exposed to all different types of science communication. I could do a lot of networking, and I was able to meet someone who ultimately gave me a very small internship type thing, working with a public information officer to work on press releases and learn how to write for a more general audience versus this very niche academic audience, which the style of writing could not be more different. And then from there, I started volunteering to write for institutions around. For me, volunteering to write and receive mentorship through that was so essential, because then I was able to actually gather up some examples of my writing, and then when I applied for a full-time job, I could actually present something that I had done.

Deboki Chakravarti: And I think another part when you were saying volunteering that was making me think about is we're obviously, we tend to work in writing and kind of things that have content. There's a physical or a multimedia kind of thing, but there's a lot of ways to do science communication that doesn't have to be about writing. You can work as a museum guide or something else like that where you're working with people, and that is also a form of science communication.

Sam Jones: There are so many ways to get into science communication. I think the take home is you do not need a PhD to do it. There are many different modes. There are many different types of science communication. Find the people who are doing the things that you're interested in, ask them questions, take those opportunities to network and to meet people. You might be surprised. You might love some area of science communication that right now you have no idea exists.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah. And one other thing for Sydney's question about any tips, one thing that I would also suggest is finding a form or a subject that you're interested in and that you feel like you can stick with consistently for a while so that you can really work on building your skills with that. For me, in grad school, that was YouTube, just doing something that in that context, I wasn't necessarily talking just about science, I was talking about books and grad school and also science, but it was something that I enjoyed doing, I found a good community with, and also that ultimately helped me with getting an internship and jobs after I graduated. So something that is exciting to you and that you feel like you can commit to is going to help you in the long run, I think, because you'll be able to really hone your craft and find something that's exciting to you and that people will probably respond to as well.

Sam Jones: For sure.

Deboki Chakravarti: So our next question is from listener Xiao. PhD graduates increasingly work in non-academic jobs after graduation and often outside of their specific research area. As science communicators, what skills or experience outside of research did you find most impactful for you to carve a career outside of traditional academia? I mean, I just said that making YouTube videos was part of mine.

Sam Jones: Yeah, I was going to say, I think we covered a little bit of this, but I will say some of the skills or experiences that I found most impactful, I really do think it was finding other science writers. I wrote for a blog that was run by the neuroscience PhD program, so I was in biomedical sciences, but I had a lot of friends who were in neuroscience and they had this great blog all about different neuroscience research and answering questions in neuroscience. And so, I got involved in that. That was great.

Also, I don't know if this is too related to the research itself, but I do think the ability to really dissect a paper and develop that comfort in asking scientists questions, because I figured out how to really read academic papers in a way that was efficient, where I could really absorb quite a bit of information pretty quickly, was that I was able to also pinpoint things that didn't make sense. That has really informed my interviewing style, and it's allowed me to go into interviews having a general grasp of the information, but also knowing what stuff didn't quite make sense that I feel like if I don't address it, then readers or listeners will think that doesn't quite add up. And so, I'm able to see the things that don't quite add up before I get to the point where someone else catches it.

Deboki Chakravarti: And I think a big part of grad school is learning how to learn things, learning how to turn what you're learning about into a question that you can investigate. And that was something that took me a long time to grasp in grad school, but it's been something that's been super helpful for me going forward. Also say that I think we're both, I think pop culture junkies, and I think that's actually been something that's been very helpful for me as a science communicator. I don't think of it in terms of, "Oh, I'm going to write about this thing and compare it to Bravo reality TV," but I feel like it helps to be able to think about science without having that be your entire worldview. Having this other part of the world that I think about a lot made me think about too much, but having that be part of how I understand the world has weirdly translated over into how I also think about science and how I think about the ways that I want to talk about science. I just feel like trash is always helpful.

Sam Jones: Yeah, trash can be helpful for sure.

Deboki Chakravarti:
I'll just add one more thing, which is I think the intro part of Xiao's question, which is about the fact that PhD graduates are increasingly getting non-academic jobs. I think that's just super important as a thing in grad school in general for people to know. And I think if you're in that position where you think that you want to not stay in academia, having an advisor that will support you in that transition is really, really valuable if you're able to find one from the beginning who is open to that. It made a huge difference for me to have an advisor who was really open to the fact that not everyone was going to go into academia. There aren't even enough jobs for everyone to go into academia, but also that things outside of academia have a lot of value, and that coming from an academic background helps you bring something to that as well.

Sam Jones: Yeah, that's a really, really great point. Having that really positive mentorship and support is a real game changer. I'll also say now, just to give more things. I will also say that if you are in school, you're thinking about sci-comm or really you're just more or less thinking, I'm not sure if I want to stay in academia, go to every career fair possible. Really, anytime there was anything, because I had not even thought about science communication. I was a couple years into my PhD, I was realizing, I don't think I want to stay in academia. I also don't think I want to go into biotech. And those were really the two big ones that people were assuming that I would go into at that point. And so-

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, I don't know if this was your experience, but when I told people I wanted to do science writing, they thought I meant journal editing because that's still how narrow the scope is.

Sam Jones: Yes. Yep. No, totally, totally. And so, I actually went to a bunch of different career sessions where there'd be an hour and a half with people who work in science patents, and then people who are working at a startup or people who are working in this or that. And I went to a medical writing panel and I left it thinking, okay, so medical writers, they make a lot of money, but I didn't really want to work on that more technical writing, which is writing up phase one, two clinical trials. Medical writers are in charge of that kind of stuff, really valuable, important, not what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to reach a broader audience than that. And so, that's really what just made me start thinking about, well, I've always loved writing. I used to think I wanted to be a journalist, and now I'm in a PhD program for science. Could I combine these interests? And the answer was yes. And it's so silly to think about now. It's like, well, of course. But if I hadn't gone to that panel, I don't know if I would've figured it out.

Deboki Chakravarti: Totally. Yeah. I feel like networking and career fairs are so, they're so important. Just being able to talk to people and hear from people makes a huge difference.

Sam Jones: Yeah. And I will say that our answers to the previous questions that were from Sydney and Will, a lot of that applies as well. Looking for those sci-comm groups, reaching out to people who are doing the things that you're interested in, really volunteering to write. Like Deboki said, find something that for you feels authentic and is sustainable. And so, maybe that's once a month writing a blog post or once every couple of weeks having a TikTok video explainer come out, anything that really speaks to you, because that's going to help you also not just show that you are a science communicator, but it's going to help you figure out if you actually like that type of sci-comm. Because now, I've done video podcast and writing, and I won't get into it, but I definitely, there's a hierarchy in my mind.

Deboki Chakravarti: I'm excited to ask you after we record what your hierarchy is. You're going to be like, "Deboki is at the bottom of it."

Sam Jones: No, no, not at all. Not at all. I will say that I really do, I love audio. I love audio more than I thought I would, but again, I had to just figure that out.

Deboki Chakravarti: Totally. Yeah. And I think that's the... Sorry, I feel like we keep being like, "We're done." And then I'm like, "But one more thing actually." I just feel like that's so exciting to me about the internet. It's like there are so many opportunities to experiment and to figure out what you like. I think one of the things that was hard for me when I started looking at science writing is I knew I wanted to do something that was writing, but I wasn't quite in that headspace of I want to pitch articles to write to a newspaper. That's a lot of people's advice is I think sort of your experience of writing for institutions and stuff. And I think that's all really, really awesome. And it just wasn't quite right for me, and I couldn't articulate why that was. And so, it was through working on videos for myself that I figure out what was right for me. And it's so hard to know that without getting that opportunity to experiment.

And the great thing about the internet is you don't have to be very big to be able to do something that works well. When I was applying for my internship, my YouTube channel didn't even have 1,000 subscribers. It still is a very small channel, but it helped me just to show people that I know how to make a video. I know how YouTube works. I can work with editing software. And that ended up being super, super valuable to people who just wanted someone who knows about science and knows how to edit videos, never underestimate a small thing that is exciting to you.

Sam Jones: Yeah, absolutely. And people know when you're being authentic. If something is exciting and you seem excited, there will be people that also get excited about it.

Deboki Chakravarti: Right.

Sam Jones: Our final question that we're answering before we do the drawing, we promise we are going to do that drawing, is from listener Diana. So Diana asked, "Have you encountered gaps in knowledge while researching in academia or through science communication, like a missing perspective or a problem that hasn't been considered before? I noticed that there can be gaps in knowledge when it involves indigenous perspectives." I guess my answer to this is yes. I have more to say, but absolutely, yes.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, and I agree with Diana that I think indigenous perspectives is a big one. I think one of the things that's tough too is you can't just jump out and be like, "World give me indigenous perspectives," because there's just a level of trust there that you have to be able to build to ask for someone's perspective as well.

Sam Jones: So I will say, yes, this is a huge issue. And I do think it is something that we really truly try to think about with this podcast. Often you find with podcasts, video, print, whatever it is you're reading or listening to or watching, a lot of times you see the same prominent people talk about a topic all the time. It's not just that that can get boring because you're hearing the same thing. It's that you are missing a lot of perspectives, whether it's the perspective of an indigenous person or it's a perspective of just a new researcher in the field that has a totally different bit of insight that you would just never know about if you didn't reach out to them. So I really try in my reporting and in producing this podcast, to really think about who are we interviewing and why, what is the reason, and are they the person to tell this story or should somebody else be telling it.

And I definitely feel like there are points where I've worked really hard to try and get a certain perspective and it's just not going to happen. And part of that could be trust, which is totally understandable, where if someone feels like, I don't really want to speak to this because they're already underrepresented, they have something to say that maybe butts up against what other people in the field would say, or whatever it may be, whatever the context, which is totally, totally understandable. But I do think that it's so important because there are so many missing perspectives.

It feels really good when you see that there's a, say, a story about... I was just reading a story in The Washington Post last night about this racial brain collection that the Smithsonian has from forever ago. It's like thousands of human samples, hundreds of brains. And just thinking about repatriation, and we talked about this a bit in our episode about body farms, which are these anthropological research facilities where people ethically donate their bodies before they die to study their decomposition, but then thinking about bodies and ownership.

And then also, I could go down such a long rabbit hole with this, but I guess the point is that this story with The Washington Post really incorporated tons of different voices, and voices from a lot of indigenous people, who their ancestors' brains, not so long ago, I say ancestors, it's like this is happening in the early to mid-1900s. So their recent ancestors' brains or body parts were taken without consent after the person died and put in a facility, and they didn't even find out until decades later that this had happened. And so, felt really good to see that the focus was on those people and what was taken from them. And it wasn't just some random professor in their ivory tower commenting on something that they have no understanding of how much that could actually impact a person, a community. And so, that for me was an example where I felt like, wow, they really did their due diligence looking for these people and perspectives before putting this story out to the world.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, I think that's super important, because I think one of the things that can sometimes feel tough with science writing, I was actually thinking about it in the context of your answer to the worm question is there's such a desire for everything to be rooted in data these days. I think we really want everything to have data that says a definitive story that we can tell about science and the way our body works. But there has to be space to share stories that are not as rooted in data. So they could be something that is anecdotal or sort of like case studies, like you were talking about like this one guy who's like, his story doesn't tell us, "Oh, we should go out and get hook worms to deal with our allergies," that's not the point of that story. But there is something that we still get from hearing that he did that and that it may have worked for him.

And I think about this with the show I work on Journey to the Microcosmos, because I like to have to look up these obscure microbes where a lot of times all we have are amateur microscopists who are telling us what they saw. And you have to be able to find a way to talk about that, even though it's not something that's in a peer reviewed paper. And I think peer review has a lot of great things to it, but it also necessarily limits how much science there is to talk about. It means that the science we're going to talk about if we only focus on peer review papers are going to come from academic institutions, which are going to inherently reflect some kind of status quo. Getting away from that does open up some ways that you can hopefully solve the problem, but it still requires a lot of thought to be able to do that and to be able to do it without enhancing misinformation or giving voice to people who are not credible. It requires a lot of thinking.

Sam Jones: Yeah, and I think being outside of academia, being outside of the ivory tower and just being someone who's a microscopist in their free time and maybe they don't have any formal training, you could learn a lot from something that they find, or maybe it sparks a question that the field would've never considered otherwise. But again, yes, it's sort of like how do you balance out cool stuff that there's one instance of with a massive clinical trial where there's tons of data that's saying, "This is not significant." But yeah, I'm always on the lookout for perspectives buried by decades and decades of the same people saying the same stuff and not making room for people who are approaching a problem through a different lens or avenue. So I think it is time. Where's my little wheel? Oh, no. Here it is.

Deboki Chakravarti: So to narrate to our audience what's going on right now, Sam has an app that is spinning a wheel for her. But first, before we get to that, thank you again to everyone who wrote in with questions. It was so exciting to be able to look into all of these and think about them and then talk about them with Sam and have you guys all hear what we learned about.

Sam Jones: We're going to spin now. And just a reminder that we'll be picking five names, and if you are one of the five names called, then we will send you a Tiny Matters mug. The person is Sydney. Sydney, thank you for your question. You'll be getting a mug.

Deboki Chakravarti: And our second winner is Nitsan.

Sam Jones: Congrats, Nitsan. You'll be getting a mug. Our third winner is Alessia. Alessia, a mug is on its way, or it will be soon.

Deboki Chakravarti: Our next winner is Doug. Congratulations on your mug.

Sam Jones: Oh, rhyming with this one.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah.

Sam Jones: All right. And so, we have a final spin. This is the final spin. And our final mug goes to Lorraine.

Deboki Chakravarti: Congrats, Lorraine.

Sam Jones: Congratulations, Lorraine.

Thanks so much for listening to Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. I am your exec producer and co-host, Sam Jones. And you can find me on social media @samjscience.

Deboki Chakravarti: And I am the other host, Deboki Chakravarti. And you can find me on socials @okidoki_boki.

Sam Jones: And also, if you liked this Q&A episode and you want to see us do another one of these, let us know because we've got some mugs to give away, and I had a blast.

Deboki Chakravarti: And in the meantime, you can also get your own mug at our store.

Sam Jones: Yes, very important. So if your name was not drawn and you think I need a Tiny Matters coffee mug, I will put a link in the episode description. All right, we'll see you next time.