“As long as I can still feed my pet leeches & grow parasites inside me I really don’t care.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr Michael Leahy
Where are you based?
I split my time between Oxfordshire and the West Coast of Scotland, but travel overseas quite a lot with my work too.
Who do you work for?
Over the years I’ve worked for Oxford University, the BBC and then free-lance for various adventure and travel magazines and websites, Sky TV, the BBC, and Nat Geo.
What type of science communication do you do?
For about a decade I worked as a television presenter. My first on-screen job was with the long-running BBC2 series ‘Rough Science’ before being offered several TV series in my own right. Most of the shows had the central theme of self-experimentation. TV is a powerful media, but all too often exploitative, inaccurate and sensationalist. On many occasions I’ve experienced those working within TV seriously undermine the intelligence of their audience, dumb down the science and patronise the viewers. I find this uncomfortable. When I wanted to use a TV show as a vehicle to outline the injustices in the UK strategy to protect women from cervical cancer, the resulting show focussed only on the risk of oral cancers posed to men by some sexual practices. Although I’m far from prudish, for me it was the final straw. We were supposed to be talking science, life, and unnecessary deaths, not producing a soft porn film! I do still present or write the occasional TV show, the latest being a special on natural disasters for the National Geographic Channel, but I’m very selective about what I become involved with. I now choose to spend much more time working at schools, colleges and science festivals, and find this work far more rewarding.
Who is your main audience?
Increasingly my main audience is made up of secondary school students, although I also give presentations to members of the public, at societies, universities and at primary schools. I love working with the Royal Institution on their school presentations. Within the world of television my audience is diverse and incredibly large. I am currently on TV in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Singapore, Iran and Saudi Arabia. I have nearly 100 Indonesian followers on Twitter, and it blows my mind to think that millions of people watch me on TV – some in countries I’ve never visited.
How did you get into it?
By accident! I was working at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University. I had a reputation for being loud and talking too much, and my hobbies were racing dirt bikes or sparring at Taekwondo. The BBC and OU were looking for a scientist/role model for Rough Science who was a little different to the public perception of scientists, and it appears that my reputation preceded me. I was hired!
Why do you do it?
My motives have changed over the years, but the work has always been fun. Increasingly I try to bring the stories and suffering of the World’s poor to the viewing audience by deliberately infecting myself with the diseases and parasites that they suffer from. This way I can achieve two things: firstly I can bring the fascinating life cycle of parasites to life from beginning to end, from being infected, through the symptoms they cause, to the cure. By simply filming sufferers we miss half the story! Far more importantly my approach means that such stories can be shown without exploiting poor, vulnerable and sick people. A side effect is that TV executives think audiences can relate to me more easily than to a dying person from another culture who may not even speak fluent English. Cynical? Me?
Do you carry antidotes with you?
No, I never carry antidotes, in part because I am very prone to anaphylactic reactions now. Many anti-venins are known to cause such reactions so the best place for me to be treated for a bite is in a hospital where the medics would be able to help me if I experience an anaphylactic shock. I’m well accustomed to visiting A&E departments while filming. Needless to say, insurance is a problem for me.
Are you more prone because you’ve taken so many anti-dotes or did it build up from all the bites you’ve had?
I’m more prone to alaphylaxis, in part because of the higher than average presence of Iga antibodies in my guts after growing so many intestinal parasites (these antibodies are linked to inappropriate histamine mediated inflammatory responses), and in part because I’m sensitised after being bitten / stung so often.
Does this mean you “get bitten” near a hospital?
We don’t plan to be near hospitals when bitten. Sometimes it is completely impractical, but we do normally carry medics with us. That said, being bitten and stung is proving to be more problematic for me. To be honest I don’t mind that. It’s never nice. As long as I can still feed my pet leeches & grow parasites inside me I really don’t care.
You have pet leeches and parasites…. What for? Where do they live? (YIKES)
I keep a number of animals that fascinate me, and which make great companions, although it must be said that they all earn their living as subjects of my educational talks. My cockroaches and millipedes eat any leftover food that would otherwise would go in the bin (which isn’t much), and my leeches are the cheapest pets in the world to keep. I simply change their water (which I leave to de-chlorinate and ‘age’ for a couple of days first) every so often, and then feed them on my own blood. The only significant expense to keeping leeches are sticking plasters, because I tend to bleed for hours after feeding them. I do enjoy growing intestinal worms, but they are of limited use for educational purposes because they remain hidden in my body.
It must be pointed out at this point that I’m not unusual – all of us are full of parasites. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, and even the very DNA that makes us human includes huge lengths of viral DNA. We are all one-person zoos!
Otherwise I have tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, lizards, snails and a few other little beasts. At present I have rather too may to cope with. I’m currently in ‘temporary accommodation’, living in the loft of a garage. This means I have to keep many of the animals in my wardrobe. Soon my big red Volvo Olympian double-decker bus will house both me and my animals as we cruise around the UK making appearances at schools and science festivals. I can’t wait!
How do the parasites affect your microbiome?
I love the term micro-biome. Basically we should see our bodies either as a huge collection, or community, of different organisms, or accept that the microbes that help make us into what we are should be considered as an essential organ of our body. To be honest I have no idea what affect adding another one or two organisms deliberately to communities already numbering countless thousands might have had on my microbiome. It’s probably more dangerous to remove parasites. For example most people are aware that by killing bacteria using wide spectrum antibiotics they leave themselves open to thrush (candida) infections caused by fungi already present on our bodies, but kept under control by bacteria.
How many stings or bites does it take to become sensitised?
Whether you become sensitised to a particular bite or sting depends on any number of factors. Some venoms are known to be particularly problematic. My first big anaphylactic reaction was to Fire Ants. Fire ants are generally found in groups, so you are likely to experience many bites at once, and each ant stings multiply, rotating between each sting before having another go, therefore it’s not just a single event. In addition Fire Ant venom tends to illicit allergic reactions more often than many antigens. In the USA it has been reported that around 1% of people who are stung by fire ants experience severe or life threatening reactions. One particular compound that is thought to cause trouble is piperidine, which causes a burning sensation giving the Fire Ant its name.
In the UK wasps are perhaps the biggest offenders with the ‘Euro Wasp’ (Vespula germanica) causing particular concern. It has been suggested that this may be down to the larger size of the insect, or the content of the venom, however a more important factor may be their behaviour because they are far more likely to be encountered during routine day to day tasks than the native wasp (Vespula vulgaris).
Whatever the differences, wasps kill between four and ten people in the UK each year. Only this week the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s annual report found that over the last decade bees and wasps have caused as many deaths as terrorism in the UK. Regardless there is one worrying fact that emerges from this, and it is also linked to influenza virus. Our body is very good at killing itself if our immune system reacts inappropriately. Although initially blamed on secondary bacterial infections it is now believed that the disproportionate number of deaths among young healthy people caused by 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ was due to a ‘cytokine storm’ whereby the victim’s own immune systems launched a huge inflammatory response resulting in a pulmonary oedema. In other words sufferers drowned in their own body fluids. Nasty!
I think you are extremely brave to do that, knowing that anti-dotes are no good to you!
Regarding being brave – sometimes I’m scared shitless, but I’m really never fazed by something dramatically bad happening, as long as it is filmed! I do have two very young daughters, and wouldn’t want anything to happen that would upset them, but otherwise I can be a little reckless I guess.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Science communication isn’t simply important – it’s essential. Science has an immense power for good. It can save or change lives! Perhaps most importantly, encouraging people to understand and embrace science, rather than see it as alien, will empower them. With knowledge and confidence, those with a sound knowledge of science – what is true, and what probably is dishonest or wrong – can help them make informed choices and weed out the bullshit in the press. We only need to look at recent irresponsible reporting about MMR and Wakefield in the Independent to see how important accurate science communication is.
What do you love about science communication?
I love working directly with real audiences whether only a few kids, or an auditorium packed with over a thousand people. I love bouncing off their comments, questions and energy. I love seeing them laugh or wince at some of my stories “penis invading fish anyone?” or “does a leech hanging off your testicles hurt?”
What has been your favourite project?
Although ‘Bite ME’ for National Geographic was fantastic fun to make, and the first series of ‘Rough Science’ has a fond place in my memory my favourite project is National Science and Engineering Week each year – manic, insane, thousands of miles of travelling, total exhaustion – but fantastic!
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
Yeah – two huge projects. The first is a 9.6 litre, 11.6 tonne double decker bus which I am converting into a mobile zoo, & conservation unit (as I said before). I hope to use it to reach remote and impoverished communities within the UK to talk science, global health, and conservation, in addition to my usual presentations. I’ll literally live on the job, as it will have a toilet, shower, and room to sleep. The second project is National Biology Week in October. I’m working with the Society for Biology and the Royal Institution to launch a Biology Week Roadshow. If anyone wants to get involved in the ‘ZooBus’ or join me for Biology week get in touch. The whole point for me is to promote science and bring like-minded people together.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Do what you’re passionate about! There are enough Charlatans out there without adding to the crowd. Talk about what you love, and what you know about. Think about what inspires you. Work as hard as you can physically endure. Give 100% – your audience can be inspired by you and deserve your commitment. Ignore the doubters, the cynics and those who want to manipulate you. This won’t make you rich, but you’ll will give you huge satisfaction.