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Columbia virologist and TWiV host, Vincent Racaniello, on improving science literacy and, you know, viruses

Vincent Racaniello: Higgins Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at Columbia University Medical Center and Host of This Week in Virology

Vincent Racaniello has been a virologist for over 40 years and currently works as a professor at the Columbia University Medical Center. Those not familiar with him through academic circles may know him as the founding father of MicrobeTV, a collection of scientist-hosted science shows that started with This Week in Virology — a show that began over a decade ago and has attracted tens of thousands of new listeners during the recent months of this pandemic. The reason for the influx in listenership is clear; Dr. Racaniello’s honest and thoughtful approach to science communication is a welcome voice in a time where misinformation is rampant and clear scientific perspective is in high demand.

An Expert on Giving Expert Opinions

With virology making news every day during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may very well have seen Vincent Racaniello’s name in the news recently. Nowadays he is regularly called upon to comment on the latest stories. Vincent doesn’t balk at opportunities to answer the calls of people who want an interview (like us at Once a Scientist). It is this willingness to put himself out there as an expert that in turn leads to more and more requests for his opinion — just one of many lessons that we can learn from Vincent about being an effective science communicator. Talk to people and more people will want to talk to you.

In addition to his scientific credentials and commitment to make time for interviews, Vincent is a valuable representative for science in the media because he understands how to talk to the press. It’s a skill that does not come naturally to many scientists, who as a matter of principle are trained not to deal in absolutes. A healthy respect for uncertainty is vital to any scientific endeavor, but it can translate to a noncommittal and unpersuasive opinion when the microphone is hot. When talking to the media, “you have to be absolute,” Vincent explains. “If you say ‘maybe,’ they’ll take that 5% uncertainty and run with it.” That’s why if you ask Vincent a question about the novel coronavirus — for example, was it made in a lab — he’ll keep his answer short and sweet: “Absolutely not.”

Vincent also knows how to strike the right tone when giving these kinds of interviews.He’s confident and straightforward in the information and opinions that he presents, but he isn’t alarmist. In his conversation with Nick, he explains the ongoing threat of new viral outbreaks that will continue as long as humans encroach on wild habitats, and the dangers of leaving vaccine and antiviral development in the hands of profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, but does so without making you want to give up on society by the time he’s done talking.

That’s why the science literacy in this country is so poor — we’ve made it boring.

Vincent Racaniello

At the opposite end of the spectrum, he doesn’t let a lack of sensationalizing the facts render them uninteresting, either. A scientist presenting a list of facts to a reporter (or, for that matter, to a classroom) isn’t going to make the same impact as illustrating the process by which that knowledge came to light. “That’s why the science literacy in this country is so poor,” Vincent shares, “we’ve made it boring.”

A Different Academic Landscape

Vincent started his lab at Columbia University in 1982 and describes his path to that landmark achievement as “totally unplanned.” He put in the work and stayed true to his affinity for science, but he didn’t have any clear goals to become a professor. He acknowledges that nowadays, the academic landscape has changed such that it’s unlikely anyone would find themselves landing a professorship without working towards it more intentionally than he did; the percentage of PhDs that land professor gigs is drastically lower today than it was when he started his lab. Still, he recommends that young scientists stick to what excites them and let the career follow, keeping an open mind to opportunities outside of the ivory tower. “If you want to do science, just think of that, and work it out as you go along,” Vincent suggests. “Maybe you’ll find something that isn’t a professorship that you like to do.” He does have a piece of more explicit advice for any career path, however undefined the goal may be: “Don’t make enemies. People will always remember.” You never know who is going to be reviewing your application for a grant or a job someday.

Fortunately, Vincent has seen academic culture change in ways more beneficial to young scientists as well. Compared to his early career days, he feels that fellow scientists have grown to be nicer to each other and more willing to help out. The competition for jobs may be fierce, but there are more resources and helping hands to be found along the way. “Just be patient,” Vincent advises. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Vincent’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

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Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.

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