What Are YOUR “Big Idea” Germ Questions?

As you might expect, the last few weeks have been rather busy for me. The rapid expansion of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has led to dozens of interviews and several column entries.

I have to say, I am so pleased with and thankful for everything the media has done to help keep the calm.  I take each and every appearance seriously and make sure I do my best to move the mellow momentum forward.

One of the most fascinating parts of being given the opportunity to talk with the media is the continuing merger of microbiology and everyday life.  While these topics are not making headline news, there are several ‘big idea’ questions I find come up in behind the scenes.  The queries are fascinating and I believe are well worth addressing.

In light of this, I would like to know:

Needing a LIKE for the sake of Global Health

 What are Your Big Idea questions on the topic of germs?  

Are there any issues you feel need to be better understood to improve your lives?  How about the planet?  What about technology?

I’ve written and spoken on many of them and I’ve heard from many of you already.  A list of some of the questions follows:

  1. What are probiotics and how do they improve my health?
  2. Why do my kids always get sick and why is this a good thing?
  3. Why are we obsessed with a germ-free world?
  4. Are germs the way to make better medicines?
  5. Is it true we can use germs to improve mental health?
  6. Can we use germs in place of fossil fuels?
  7. Will germs help to save the environment?
  8. Is climate change fixable using germs?
  9. Could germs help us live on other planets?
  10. Will we ever have the killer pandemic?

These are just ten examples but I know there are others.

So, while I continue striving to spread the good germy word – and deal with all the questions relating to the Ebola crisis – I invite you to put YOUR BIG IDEA GERM QUESTIONS below in the comments or send them to me in an Email – As always, it’s thegermguy@gmail.com.

Looking forward to hearing from you…


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

When It Comes To sciPOP, Controversy Quells

Since I last wrote, I have been working hard behind the scenes on a number of projects and hope to have more updates soon. Some piece have come out including a rather fun video made with the amazing team at Huffington Post Canada.

We decided to look at staying safe in the washroom but wanted to make sure the tips were offered in a lighthearted way. The final result was released this week and you can find it here:



For those wondering, the amazing actress in the video is HuffPost contributor and my editor, the amazing Devon Murphy.  She is just one of the incredible group of people working hard to keep you informed and at times, entertained.

The comedic “war zone” theme was in my opinion a great way to convey the message using sciPOP.  It had all the elements of education, enrichment, engagement and entertainment – although the WC Fields reference only seemed to jive with those over 40 years of age.  Still, I’m thankful for the opportunity and hope more will come.

The most important criterion is the use of positive images and words to ensure the message is delivered in a way that avoids controversy. When it comes to washroom safety, there’s really little up for debate.  But that isn’t always the case and in some realms, controversy is inevitable and may discourage the use of sciPOP.

Taking on tough subjects is an important part of communication; balance is very difficult to achieve. In the last few weeks alone, we have seen several controversial acts leaving many no other option but to take sides.  Although this may immediately bring up some of the conflicts being displayed in real time by news outlets worldwide, there are other debates happening in the scientific world.

You’ve probably heard about the mishaps reported by the CDC involving rather nasty pathogens including anthrax, H5N1 and smallpox.  In all three instances, the microbes had somehow been mishandled potentially leaving lab workers and according to some, the public, at risk of infection.  The topic was so serious the government even held a hearing on the issue.

The concern is valid and something needs to be done. Unfortunately, this has led to a significant conflict between sides.  Some look upon this as definitive proof a lab-based pandemic might occur and that all research in this area should be stopped.  Others suggest this is not really a significant issue and a change not in research directions but in the culture of the lab workers to pay more attention to the rules will keep everyone safe.

It’s not an easy choice to make and no one will be happy at the end.  From a sciPOP perspective, sticking to the evidence – for which there is little publicly available – and trying to find a balance showing the pros and cons of each argument is difficult.  If you happen to agree with one side more than another – which admittedly in this case I do – then it becomes even harder.

Then comes the use of the 4Es.  In this case, there is little to use from the incident.  It’s a polarizing subject and no amount of analogy will bring about change.  Worse, if you happen to make an attempt, there will be fire from one or even both sides.  Inasmuch as it is a truly newsworthy event, there is essentially no room for sciPOP.  Any attempt would only end up in failure.

This is of course just one example. Others have also come about and will continue to arise leaving parties working against one another.  Eventually, as history dictates, the arguments will grow more heated and reach the apex of ideology.  When that happens, there is little to do other than have both parties appear on a split screen and have it at each other.  It’s a standard in politics and in economics; science is no different.

When it comes to using sciPOP, there is no better strategy than to avoid controversial topics that have the potential to head towards ideology.  Instead, if you wish to tackle issues, is to find something to which the 4Es apply and provide that as context. That way you can add to the information and avoid the problems.

As an example, I’ll share my experience regarding a specific topic: climate change  We all know there is a significant debate and the two sides of the issue have become polarized such that the arguments are more heated than ever.  When I was asked to write about the subject, I wanted to take a sciPOP angle using a story pulled from the PubMed Headlines to impact people as well as add to the discussion.

The result was the The Huffington Post article, Can’t Swim at the Beach? Blame it on the Rain.  The piece focused on a study in Sweden investigating the shrinking number of swimming days at beaches.  The reason for the reduction was the rain.  There was more of it leading to increased levels of bacteria in the water and closed beaches.

Now, why is there more rain?  There is some form of change in the climactic conditions happening or, if you wish, climate change.  It cannot be denied as it is actually happening and it isn’t a ‘scientific fact’ based on calculated statistics.  It’s an actual problem seen by people and causing them to lose out on an important activity.

From a sciPOP perspective, the article:

  • Educates on what has happened: the increase in rain;
  • Enriches by showing the trend in climactic change is real and affecting their lives;
  • Engages by giving the chance to ask questions about why this is happening, how the changing climate may be involved, and whether this problem is man-made or natural;
  • Entertains because the analogy is based on a Milli Vanilli song, “Blame It On The Rain.”

The article was well received without a hint of controversy.  Instead, everyone recognized there was a problem and action should be taken to remedy the problem.  In the sciPOP context, that is all you can hope to achieve.  While this end may seem weak to some, the goal is not to change minds but to give information to help initiate change. After all, this is about sharing, not advocacy.

As a final note, do I avoid getting personally into hot topics? Not at all. But I know never to mix in sciPOP.  For those of you who have seen me get involved in such debates, you know, there’s no room for the 4Es.  But, professionally, my vocation is to spread the good (and germy) word and I will continue to do so. Although it may mean staying away from certain topics, I hope you will continue to support me even in such times of silence.

Would love to know your thoughts…

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

What’s Your Personal Brand?

Hi everyone,

It has been quite the month since I last wrote here. I have been kept busy with a myriad of topics and stories ranging from MERS to polio to the pollen vortex and even the decline of bees. I am also incredibly grateful to the big players in the industry, CTV, CBC, The Globe and Mail as The Huffington Post who have asked me to be a regular contributor. I am eternally grateful.

I have also had the pleasure of travelling across Canada to share the germy word.  The experiences have been incredible and I have gained so much from each and every person I have met.  It has helped me keep sciPOP fresh and also bring new ideas to the table.

On that note, I was recently in Halifax where I teamed up with a colleague (and a friend) who just happens to be a PR maven, Kate Ottavio.


Kate Ottavio

We were at a conference focused on keeping patients free from infection, and hoped to take a lighter spin on this very serious topic.  This new concept in sciPOP was none other than a game show!

Yes, you heard me…a game show.  It was called…

BopoNJLIcAA4yRE (2)


Okay, to be honest, it was all Kate’s idea – including the T-shirt, which she also emblazoned during the conference.  She is a true genius and going places…I just hope she remembers me when she becomes the PR icon I know she will be. Please check out her website and follow her on Twitter at @KOttavio.

One of the most incredible traits Kate possesses is the ability to understand the brand not only of a company, but also of a person. It may appear odd to suggest a characteristic normally associated with business applies to the self but over the last few decades, there has been significant research and study devoted to the concept of the personal brand.

In the context of my recent experience, there is a link – although Kate didn’t know this at the time.  One of the ‘brands’ I was assigned about ten years ago when I was still in the microbiological world full time, was of a game show host.  I was dynamic, energetic, always loving the topic and most of all, challenging others based on their knowledge and experience.

What made it a game-show feel, though, was based in the nature of the discourse.  It was never about competition; it was about making us all work better together.  Of course, the rewards were never as luxurious as a brand new car, but there were always free coffees, lunches and the occasional offer to do some grunt work off hours.  So naturally, the ‘game show host’ persona was in a word, perfect.

Finding Your Personal Brand

Having a personal brand, whether you believe it or not, is a necessity, particularly in sciPOP.  The reason is quite simple: you are not the only expert in your field.  Take for example microbiology.  There are tens of thousands of microbiologists out there and many of them have taken to the public.  There are experts all over the world who share their knowledge in varying ways.  Some are all about increasing awareness.  Some focus on fear. Others focus on the science in the hopes the public will become more literate.

Each of these angles are manifestations of personal brands. Unless these individuals are living a lie, their version of sciPOP is founded in their beliefs, their mannerisms, and of course, the specifics of their unique lives.  They harness these traits and create knowing full well their biases, their likes, their dislikes and their loathes. Ironically, those who are the most balanced are the ones who know best their own personal extremes.

Although this analysis of the personal brand is accurate, there is little to actually help a person devise their own individual trademark.  There is a reason for that:  you have to find it yourself.  Believe me, it’s not easy but with a few simple tricks, there is a way to make the process smoother.  If you’re interested, I invite you to play along.

It’s time for…
(say it with me)


The rules of the game are simple. There are 10 questions below.  On a separate sheet of paper – or if you wish in the comments section – write down your answer.  When you are done, you will have a better idea as to the nature of your brand.

Question #1: Who/What are your favorite public figures or corporate entities?

Question #2: What traits would you like to emulate?

Question #3: What are your favorite non-work-related activities?

Question #4: What do you love about these activities and share with family and friends?

Question #5: What subject do you want to share (your sciPOP focus)?

Question #6: What aspects of the subject do you wish everyone knew?

Question #7: What aspects about the subject frustrate you?

Question #8: What do you believe needs to be known about the subject?

Question 9: How would the people/brands from Question 1 handle what you believe needs to be shared in Question 8?

Question 10: How would you do it differently, if at all?

Now, a little music to help along.  Just press play:

Deduce Your Brand

The first two questions relate to your style. It’ll give you the voice, the tempo, the flair and of course the stencil upon which to make your sciPOP activity match you.  You could enjoy the puppy dog enthusiasm of Jimmy Fallon; you might want to teach the world to sing like Coke; or you could merge the two as done perfectly by Sidney Crosby and Tim Hortons.

The next two questions relate to your voice.  We sometimes get too close to our work or main subject of interest and may be blinded from seeing the true potential we bring. It’s a good exercise to look at other loves, such as sport, arts, literature, politics, economics, philosophy and sociopathology (you know who you are). It enables us to step away from the subject of our vocation and realize the way we act and share our diversions. These are closer to our true selves.

Questions 5-7 focus on what you feel makes you unique to the sciPOP subject.  As I said before, there may be thousands or more people who work on the same topic but only you can make it unique. I mentioned several microbiology branches earlier. But for me, as many of you know, my brand focuses on something different…something unique: relationships.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen how dysfunctional this relationship happens to be and where we have gone both right and wrong over the years. There is so much I want to share not only to inform, but also to set the record straight.

The 8th question deals with what you believe your brand needs to share. This is an important part of developing a brand. If you try to reach further than your boundaries, you may lessen the impact of your message.  This is where the traditional dogma of ‘stick to what you know’ takes effect and I implore you to adhere to it. Also, if you believe something out of your scope needs to be brought to attention, ask someone who is in a better position to do so. It’s not easy at times to let go but it’s better for the message and your overall goal.

Question 9 is simple. If you had the ability to harness your favourite figure or brand to share your message, how would you expect them to do it?

That naturally leads into Question 10 which highlights the limitations of the inspirations and reveals the areas where you get to shine.

You’ve made it through the question rounds…now it’s time for…(say it with me)…



In the Bonus Round, you actually get to put a name to your brand. Unlike my experience, where The Germ Guy was given to me on live TV and stuck, you have the opportunity to find something that resonates with you.  While it may take some time to make it perfect, this will definitely get your started.

The first thing is to take the sciPOP subject and put that somewhere within the brand name. It could be a derivation of the official term; I study microbiology but in the public use the word, germs. What word or phrase would best describe your sciPOP venture?

The next step is to take either the inspiration public figures or brands and find a way to integrate them with the sciPOP subject.  A friend jokingly called me a rock star and back then, when I had longer hair, he called me Jason Bon Germy.  Of course, with the shorter hair, I have to find something a little more relevant.  One option: Jason Biebsteria. (yeah, I hate it too).

Finally, relish the brand name for a little while and see if it matches you as a person, as an expert in your field, as a sciPOP contributor and most importantly, as someone who will add to the overall discussion in the world.  It takes time and may undergo changes but eventually, you will find something that fits.

If you’ve played along, you probably have a least one idea for your personal brand.  If you are willing to take it to the next level, let me know in the comments.  If you do, I’ll be happy to share it here and with all my #sciPOP colleagues.  After all, we are all in this together and are growing as a community.  Whether you write prose or music, create works of film, or create fantastic pieces of art, you are part of the community and we all welcome you.  Perhaps at the end of the day, that is the real prize.

I’d love to know your thoughts…

(This is the 6th article in the sciPOP series which may one day end up being a book…ah to dream)

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Be Wary of Ideology

Although rare, the act of sharing science with the public will embolden certain people who are not amused with the information presented and choose to express their views.  When this happens, such as the cases of climate change, evolution and vaccines, resolution may never come.  The reason stems not from an argument of evidence vs. evidence.  Rather, these are perfect examples of the intrusion of ideology into the debate.

In the political context, such debates are easy to identify using something called Goodwin’s Law. It explains a phenomenon resulting from an argument leaving evidence and heading towards ideology – or, if you wish, gets more heated.  Eventually. one side, usually the one losing, will analogize the opposing side to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, which ruled Germany from 1933-1945.  At that point, the argument is effectively over and there will be no winner.

In scientific debate, this link is usually left untouched although there are other ways in which ideology can invade and take over the discussion.  Usually, it’s accompanied by a sentence many of us have probably heard:

thats_a_fact_wide (2)

The utterance of these three words or similar phrases is a means to suggest there is no further argument to be had and then debate has been won.  From the numerous debates I’ve experienced over the years, there is only one valid response.

2c0c8_ORIG-oh_really_now_tell_me_more (2)

Interestingly, when that happens, the fact chucker can do very little but to realize this isn’t the end and must choose to give up the goose or head down a path of personal attacks.  I’ve had an equal share of both and have to admit my skin is quite a bit tougher than it used to be.

Yet, thanks to sciPOP, there exists a third way to approach this unfortunate issue of evidence vs ideology.  It involves not engaging in a more heated debate.  Instead, the goal is to dispel antagonism through analogy.

One of the key issues with ideology is the base upon which it is built.  There may only be a few ways to explain the ‘fact’ because it is limited in its scope.  Moreover, many of the facts are cherry-picked in order to maintain a certain mindset.  Although this may seem inexcusable, it is actually a very good thing.

At its heart, sciPOP is story re-telling; the base is a compilation of mechanisms, statistics, observations, and future questions from continually asking, “Why?”  This set of fundamentals are the tenets to any human interaction, whether science, sports, cooking, auto mechanics, music, or literature.  By making the story and re-telling it in another context, the discussion can be shifted to demonstrate its applicability in another realm.

While analogy is an excellent way to drive a debate – and perhaps even win it – the exercise should be done cautiously and conscientiously.  Far too often ideologists have used analogy to their benefit by taking an extreme example unlikely to be seen in regular human culture.  However, in most cases, the links are ludicrous and lead not only to mockery of the analogy but also dismantling of the debate altogether.  Though there may be no winner, they at least can claim they did not lose.  It’s a strategy of leaving the door open and making sure it cannot be closed.

This realization brings up a very important point about sciPOP.  It is not about winning debates; it’s about increasing the knowledge of the community about the wonders of science.  Human behaviour cannot be controlled unless repressed and of all the vocations, science should understand that best.  It would quite simply be wrong to make an attempt to force anyone to follow a certain path simply because ‘we told you so.’  Ironically, that approach is no different than ideology.

Instead, use sciPOP to get the audience educated, enriched, engaged and entertained. With each new nugget of information shared, the robustness of the evidence increases.  As the number of voices amplifies, the value strengthens. But most of all, as the momentum grows, the mainstream will find validity in what you share and turn to you as a trusted resource.

As this happens, ideology will falter and those championing it will lose the spotlight. The group will find themselves in the minority and will struggle to be heard.  Eventually, they will have no other option than to express their discontent and demand to have ‘equal time’ to express their views.  As we’ve seen in the most recent case involving creationism and the television show, Cosmos, headlines may get written but that time may never come.

There’s an added bonus.  When the evidence becomes so strong, even the strongest opponents may begin to change their tune.  Just last week, Jenny McCarthy, hailed as the leader of the anti-vaccine movement, wrote an article stating that she is in fact, not anti-vaccine.  If anything, that is a reason for celebration of evidence over ideology.

On that note, one of the reasons for writing this piece is the rise in measles in Canada. We’ve known for decades vaccination is the key to prevention.  Yet there are some who conscientiously choose against this route and their actions have helped to bring a resurgence of this infection.  Although these individuals may never change their ideology, sciPOP can keep the rest of the public in the know about why this is important and how to stay safe. Yet, sciPOP should not be used to discriminate against these objectors, but instead ensure their message stays in the minority and their actions are met with the best evidence-based measures possible.

If you’ve encountered ideology in your efforts, let us know here.  I’m sure you will be shown nothing but respect and support.

(This is the 5th article in the sciPOP series on how to share science in the public)









Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Never Stop Asking Why

The curiosity of children is endless and so are their questions.  Amid all the attempts to assess and analyze the world around them, none is as confounding as the incessant interrogation of a single question…


No matter how convincing the answer, one can be sure there will be a subsequent query. The respondent is thus required to come up with yet another answer to satisfy the request and hopefully – but not likely – end the discussion. But as many a person has learned – and my parents would certainly agree -there is really only one option guaranteed to quell the inquiry:  “I don’t know.”

Although this may seem to be an inconvenient episode of dealing with the younger generation, the insistence to know as much as possible reveals the ambition of the child and the hope to be a success later in life.  Not surprisingly, “Why?” is also the core of scientific thought and acts as a fundamental base for sciPOP.

In the process of scientific story re-telling, the outward goal is to share relevant information in an interesting and meaningful way.  Yet looking inwards, the objective should be to learn as much as possible about the back story.  This not only invigorates the interest in the subject, but also adds a critical component to sciPOP: depth.

Here’s why:

Take any idea that you find interesting.  Now, ask the following questions…

  • What about it makes you interested?
  • When did it first interest you?
  • Who was influential in making it interesting?
  • How does it interest you?

I would say the answer to most of these questions is short, taking up little to no time.

Now ask yourself this question: Why does it interest you?

Perhaps this answer will be a little longer; a sentence or two.  Now take a moment and re-examine the reasons.  If the subject fulfills a need, why do you have that need?  If the topic satisfies a want, why do you have that want? If there is a passion fostered by the concept, why do you have that passion?

When you’ve answered those questions, continue the cycle, asking why and offering a response.  Eventually, you will hit a point where the answer will be, I don’t know.  When you’ve reached that point, work back to the topic of interest and see just how much you have learned about yourself in the context of the subject.

You have just conducted sciPOP research.  Inasmuch as the topic is the forefront of the discussion, the back story is what gives it POP.  You can use as much or as little of that information as you feel necessary in your initial offering.  But don’t feel the information you’ve gained will be lost.  Questions will undoubtedly come and most will deal with aspects relating to the back story.  You’ll be well prepared to respond and engage.

There is another reason asking, “Why?” works:  it filters out the noise.  Far too often, especially in science, a flood of information can confound a message and hurt any attempt to share.  “Why?” allows you to focus on the scope of the topic and stick to what matters. Although this may seem unnecessary, when your sciPOP work is challenged, this exercise is a perfect way to be prepared.

The most relevant example is the change of subject in which questions or concerns appear to be moving the topic away from your point or message.  This is a strategy used in many a political pundit argument and can effectively kill any chance at ensuring the public are education, enriched, engaged and entertained.

However, with the “Why?” exercise completed, you have the ability to point out the lack of appropriate scope and the attempt to move the conversation away from the topic.  This probably only happens when controversial subjects are discussed but one never knows when someone will make this attempt.

Personally, I go through this process for every sciPOP action.  As soon as I see a subject I feel would be of interest to the public, I head straight to the scientific literature (education) to learn as much as I can about why the subject has been published and its relevance to the public (enrichment).  Then I head into the world of the internet to read personal accounts, blogs and news to get a handle on why this topic might bring action (engagement) int he community.  I finally attempt to find a good link in the cultural world (entertainment) to find out why this subject is not merely academic but already a part of our world.

I admit this is rather time-consuming at the start.  I would take a day or two just to get to the point where I felt comfortable writing.  Other sciPOP-ers seem to be having the same timelines as they establish their journeys.  Yet, as you find your groove, the time will lessen and you will soon find yourself enjoying the process.

My hope is eventually, as you become comfortable, you will find asking “Why?” second nature.  Whenever you are faced with something – anything – new, you’ll ask and answer and ask again incessantly.  Although “I don’t know,” is inevitable, the journey of learning will provide a combination of information for the present as well as contentment for the future…until the next interesting thing comes around.

Much like those amazing, endearing and curious children.

(This is the fourth installment of the sciPOP series of articles which I hope you are enjoying.  If you wish, leave me a comment to tell me what childhood curiosity still brings you joy…) 






Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Tremendous Honour For The Germ Code

Hey everyone,

This is a short post and I promise I’ll get back to the series on #sciPOP soon.  Right now, I just wanted to share some news I received today.

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association is a national organization made up of professional science communicators who strive to bring science to the Canadian public. The CSWA was founded in 1971 and has since grown to be one of the leading institutions in the world.


Every year, the CSWA celebrates science communication in many ways, including a Book Award for outstanding general audience book published.  Last year, the winner was Fatal Flaws, written by Jay Ingram, who used to host Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet.

This year, along with five other fantastic tomes, The Germ Code has been placed on the short list for the 2013 award.  Wow.

While I had always hoped the book would relate to the general public, I never expected this level of accolade. I am truly honoured by the selection and the inclusion to this acclaimed list of authors who have put their heart, souls and expertise to paper.  I can attest that making the jump from short pieces, academic papers and other media to the incredibly difficult book format is laudable in and of itself.

Personally, this mention is not only exciting, but humbling.  Inasmuch as I might be the person up for the award, without all of you out there supporting me, I would only be a voice and an apparently well written book.  The sentiment may seem cliché but it is the truth: I succeed as long as you let me and I am and will be thankful for every moment.

As always I would love to know your thoughts.

P.S. You can read more about the award here: http://sciencewriters.ca/2014/04/01/cswa-book-awards-shortlist-2/


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Rescued by a Dark Knight on my Island Escape

Jason "Germ Guy" Tetro:

I’ve written quite a bit about the benefits of chocolate over the last few months. But never had I dreamed the perspective my friend and colleague Barbara Bussey would share in her blog, Pharmistice.

Please give this a read and let her know your thoughts.

BTW, her first post is also incredibly compelling. She is a fantastic human writer…

Originally posted on Pharmistice:

I stand in the middle of my own island while the lens through which I view the world zooms out, rising upward into the expanse of the grey-blue sky above me until I am but a small existence within time and space. This is my island of safety, where the drone of the waves creep slowly around me until I am comfortably numb and closed off from all excitation. I come to this island to find shelter from the storm that rages around and within me.

This snapshot in time has been a regular part of my life, particularly through the circumstantial challenges over the last decade. I thought I was alone in this escape but learned years ago I was in good company; although I would never have expected it to be Sir Winston Churchill.

Few do not know of this great man who served his country in the…

View original 1,424 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment