Expert Spotlight: Dr. Tara Smith
1. We're big zombie dorks and you're known for incorporating zombies into your research and lectures! Why?! What do zombies and infectious diseases have in common?
In most of the modern zombie stories, zombies are caused by a microbe, so zombie-ism is an infectious disease. In 28 Days Later, the “Rage” virus came from laboratory chimpanzees. In World War Z, the Solanum virus appeared first in China and then spread globally. In The Walking Dead, we don’t know the origin of the virus, but it seems to infect everyone. In The Last of Us and Girl with All the Gifts, zombies are caused by a fungus. So I try to take advantage of this pop-culture phenomenon and use zombies as an entertaining way to talk about disease transmission and control.
2. What kind of research projects are you working on right now?
We have a number of things underway; most focus on antibiotic resistance and epidemiology broadly, and trying to understand the evolution and epidemiology of Staphylococcus aureus. We just published some student projects examining S. aureus on local beaches and from local geese populations, and are still analyzing data and working on manuscripts from larger projects of S. aureus in farmers. We’re also putting together a new science communication and education project focusing on vaccines.
3. On a scale of one to 10, one being apocalypse and 10 being utopia, how optimistic are you about society combating antibiotic resistance and superbugs? What do you think can be done - by consumers, policymakers, researchers, food companies, etc?
Oh boy. This changes daily, I think. Usually I’m at about a 5, +/- 3 points. It concerns me and obviously doing what I do, I think about it constantly. I have 3 kids and I don’t want to see them have to face a world without useful antibiotics. I’m optimistic that we can reign in inappropriate use of our current antibiotics, both in people and animals, and love that the World Health Organization has finally made that a key interest of theirs because in our inter-connected world, using antibiotics judiciously on a global scale is the only way we’re going to preserve them.
I’m happy to see consumers take an interest in antibiotic resistance, demanding meat that’s raised without unnecessary antibiotics and slowing down requests for antibiotics at their physician’s office, and to see large companies committing to buying more animals raised responsibly. I’m optimistic about new (and old!) technologies, like CRISPR and phage therapy that may help to provide new treatment options for bacterial infections. But I’m very concerned that funding for science continues to be a low priority for many of our lawmakers, and that our current government has little respect for scientific research. We can’t be complacent about antibiotic resistance.
4. We’re big fans of your Twitter account (@aetiology) for its updates on important science news. Do you think researchers like yourself have a responsibility to communicate their findings outside of the normal realm (i.e. research journals) so that the general public can understand emerging science and any implications?
Thanks! I definitely believe this. I love writing up manuscripts about our findings for publication, but I’ve done a ridiculous amount of work for a small payoff if only a few dozen of my scientific colleagues read them. Though I’ve always been interested in science, I didn’t know any scientists growing up, so I do think it’s important to both explain our science in ways that the average reader can understand, but also to show to the public what scientists actually do and who we are in order to break down stereotypes.
5. Now for a silly question. We LOVE The Walking Dead. You LOVE Zombies. Who is your favorite zombie and/or Walking Dead character?!
Funny you should ask. On my office shelf I have two Funko Pops! figures from The Walking Dead. One is the little girl zombie carrying the teddy bear from the very first episode. The other is Carol. I’ve loved her character development throughout the series, from fearful and controlled to a badass and a leader, even if she’s stumbled and made mistakes along the way. I want her with me in the zombie apocalypse.