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YSPH Postdoc Deconstructs the Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance with TV’s Bill Nye

January 15, 2018

When Yale School of Public Health postdoctoral associate Vincent Cannataro responded to a Twitter hashtag, “#BillMeetScienceTwitter,” created by scientists to enhance the work of well-known TV presenter Bill Nye, a.k.a. “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” He didn’t expect to meet the man himself.

“I thought the tweet was a way to meet other scientists, and introduce myself to the scientific community,” Cannataro, Ph.D., recalled.

Yet a short time later, in mid-July, he was on his way to Los Angeles to film a segment for Nye’s Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World. In the program, now in its second series, real-world scientists team up with Nye to demystify a wide array of scientific topics for a general audience. Cannataro and Nye presented a demonstration on the evolution of antibiotic resistance, and the power of superbugs.

At Yale, Cannataro, an evolutionary biologist, conducts research in Jeff Townsend’s laboratory, part of a team that focuses on the evolutionary dynamics of cancer. “We estimate the evolutionary pressures on the mutations that drive cancer growth,” said Cannataro. The lab also examines the evolutionary pressures on the resistance to chemotherapy, and the likely pathways of cancer recurrence after chemotherapy. A similar mechanism, Cannataro said, drives antibiotic resistance in bacteria, so he was well-placed as Nye’s expert on the evolution of antibiotic resistance.

In the lab, Cannataro uses mathematical models and computer simulations to show how cancer mutations sweep through a population. Yet on Nye’s show, he had to find a way to take his science from an equation and into the physical world. “The show is a great opportunity for science outreach,” Cannataro said. “Evolutionary pressure, selection: these terms are kind of amorphous. By using a physical model, I can help explain that.”

Cannataro collaborated with the show’s team of scientific writers and Nye himself to create a three-minute demonstration, which forced green liquid, representing bacteria, through an overflowing series of tubes, representing a human body, to show how evolution contributes to the development of superbugs. It was Nye’s touch, Cannataro said, to add little dolls, with happy and sad faces, to emphasize the real-world impact of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a population.

The show was a great opportunity to step back from my work and explain it to others, while still being true to the research.

Vincent Cannataro

“I grew up watching Bill Nye,” Cannataro said, recalling Nye’s 1990s PBS show aimed at kids, Bill Nye the Science Guy. The new show, he said, has a more sophisticated bent, aimed at the now grown-up Nye fans, like Cannataro himself.

Cannataro said he enjoyed the experience as it was a chance to teach, a rare opportunity for a research-oriented postdoc. In the future, if TV is not in the cards, he hopes to hold a faculty position, which will allow him back into the classroom.

“The show was a great opportunity to step back from my work and explain it to others, while still being true to the research,” he said.

Cannataro’s segment, Season 2, Episode 3, was released in late December on Netflix. He comes on at around the 26th minute. A Netflix subscription is required to view.

Learn more about Cannataro’s experience on Bill Nye Saves the World.

Submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on January 16, 2018