The Alberta Prion Institute has teamed up with science communicator Jay Ingram for a travelling lecture series on prions. Last night was the first of three lectures around the province discussing the infectious proteins.
Prions have dropped off the popular media radar in recent years, and yet most of us have certainly heard of at least one prion disease: Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) or more commonly, Mad Cow Disease. This disease is caused by prions. These are misfolded proteins that accumulate in the brain and result, invariably, in death. Prions are responsible for neurological disorders such variant and sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in humans, and have been implicated in Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s and Alzheimer’s disease. In the case of BSE, it can be transmitted to humans through consumption of infected bovine meat, but prions were first discovered through ritual cannibalism in Papua New Guinea. If you are interested in learning more about prions and the diseases they cause, I would recommend reading Jay Ingram’s recent book, Fatal Flaws. Ingram’s writing style is very inclusive to both scientists and those with a general interest in the subject matter.
I was so impressed by this lecture. It demonstrated a unique way in which scientists can highlight the relevance of their research to the public. This lecture seamlessly blended Ingram’s knack for captivating audiences through story telling with expertise from the researchers who work with the disease. At numerous times during the talk, Ingram would defer to one of three experts sitting in the crowd. They would discuss their broadly discuss their research, or their perspectives and experiences in treating and diagnosing the disease. In this way the lecture was both informative, but also highlighted the importance of ongoing research and understanding of prions and the diseases they cause. The format created a sense of urgency for more research. It clearly demonstrated what science knows, and what science doesn’t know about the disease.
While there were some technical difficulties with the slideshow, the graphics we were able to see were excellent, and perfectly supplemented Ingram’s engaging dialogue. Furthermore, Ingram’s mouse-trap analogy to visually demonstrate prion protein misfolding in the brain was genius. It is this kind of creativity that science needs to communicate its ideas to the public. All of these aspects, coupled with a curious audience that asked fantastic questions, resulted in a fascinating discussion after the lecture. This talk illustrated how researchers and communicators can work together to make science engaging and accessible to a broad audience.
The next lecture is scheduled for tonight at the University of Calgary, and the final talk commences on October 30 at Keyano College, I would recommend that if you are in the area to take an hour and take in this innovative talk.
Image CC NIAID on Flickr