On Scientific Story Re-telling

It’s been close to three months since the release of The Germ Code and I continue to be overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the tome.  It’s been an incredible experience and I am truly grateful.

Admittedly, the attention to the book – along with the commitments to Huffington Post, Popular Science, Globe and Mail, and other writing endeavours – has taken me away from this blog. That being said, I feel safe to now devote this site to more personal insights and perspective on this journey that would not have a place anywhere else.

Over the weekend, I was in the lovely city of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.

Whitehorse at dawn

It was my first time to venture so far north in Canada and I was amazed at the cordial nature of the people and the incredible spirit each of them possesses.

WP_20140126_060The White Pass in the Yukon

I gave talks to both the general public – thanks to the Yukon Science Institute – and to a group of students at a local elementary school.  It was yet another first for me; I had never talked to such a young group of people.  Both audiences were not only excited, but also engaged.

At one moment during the first talk, a person happened to ask me a very simple question:

“How do you make something so scientific so interesting?”

My response was equally as simple:

“I don’t talk about germs, I talk about relationships.”

The facial expression was that suggested there was another question about to be posed.  Sure enough, it came out:  “How?”

“I tell stories.”

The answer was pithy yet seemed to suffice as the individual went on with an inscribed book and a smile.

On the trip home, I had 12 hours to think about my response.  Why was telling these stories so effective?  It was an interesting retrospective both on my career as a researcher as well as my current direction in scientific storytelling.

Throughout our history, humans have told stories as it is the basis for the majority of our entertainment.  Depending on the format, there is a particular protocol involved.  Music has a score, dramatic arts have a script, novels use prose and reality programs including documentaries use human challenges and other situations.

Could storytelling also be the common denominator for science?  I’m sure that for many, that answer would have to be certainly no.

But I’ve learned it is actually quite the opposite.  In fact, of all the genres of expression that exists in the human realm, science is in itself devoted to storytelling.  The problem is that over the years, the format has changed so much that one need to be trained to appreciate these purely ‘academic’ tales.

The standard story structure is as follows:

Intro – Conflict – Action –
Climax – Resolution

In science, the format is as follows:

Intro – Hypothesis – Methods –
Results – Discussion/Conclusions

There is one additional element in science and indeed in most academic literature:  the citations section.  This is where the two genres diverge.

In a standard story, unless it is part of a series, everything needed to understand the plot, its arcs, its characters and its environment is presented within the structure.  In science, one can cite a previous paper – another scientific story – to provide context.  While at one time, citations were few and only offered perspective with the majority of information contained within the text; today, there may be dozens to prevent the research findings from turning into novellas.

Underneath the complex and jargon-filled offerings and citations, the narrative can be rather dramatic and indeed fascinating.  What’s more is that many of them can be directly related to the concerns and needs of the general public.  But much like an incredible story told in a different language, it’s almost impossible for the majority to understand.

That’s where scientific storytelling – or perhaps, re-telling – comes into play.

Just think about the following.

A researcher comes up with a question. He or she spends countless hours assembling a team, developing grant proposals, optimizing experimental procedures and focusing the work to ensure the results provide a meaningful answer.  There will be heartbreak with failing results and elation when experiments work.

Over the coming months and years, the question may become dynamic, changing slightly to accommodate the observations.  Eventually, when the decision is made that there is enough data to make a valid conclusion – which is never a given – the attempt to publish begins.  Rejections, modifications, requests for more work will undoubtedly happen.  Then there is the risk of the completely devastating realization that someone else already did your work and published it first.

Finally, after what may seem an eternity, the story can finally be told on paper, at presentations, and hopefully in the media.

This is what researchers must face and in my view, it is an honour to share their vocations to an audience far wider than the readers of the journal or the participants of a conference.  But rather than develop an entirely new story, I choose to re-tell the work, just in a different format. Think of it as a public-friendly remix of what has been done in the lab.

Or, if you wish…this:

Granted, my contributions are somewhat different than many expect from traditional science communication.  But my ramblings, like many other remixes, go beyond traditional borders to open up new paths for broader thinking and possibly, collaboration. In essence, I may be painting outside the lines but I always strive to bring those who read and watch me some…well…glee.

Feel free to groan…then let me know your thoughts.


P.S. This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of SciPOP – a new concept whereby the goal is not only communicating science, but also making it the talk of the day – at the water cooler, the dinner table, the gym, the dance hall and perhaps most importantly, the bedroom – okay, maybe not there but you get the point. 

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Guest Post: Sewage and health: an opportunity for change

Hey everyone,

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been happy to have a spirited discussion with one of my colleagues, Keith Bell, who is with Sanitation Circle, which is devoted to the promotion of dry compost toilet technology.  I’ve asked him to write about his passion here and invite you to not only read but also share your views.


Geography of PhysiologyGraphic Artist: Kyle Bell

In sanitation issues, we have a powerful intersection of health and environment overlooked by medical experts and nations.  Yet have you ever considered poor sanitation as cause of the diabetes epidemic in Canada and the world? Evidence is steadily mounting that diabetes is a matter of microbial imbalance. In Canada, diabetes rates have doubled over the past decade. One in three Canadians are projected to have diabetes or prediabetes by 2020. In sanitation-challenged India, people still believes its rampant diabetes epidemic a matter of diet and exercise.

Yet there may be an alternate perspective. Consider how gastric bypass surgery rapidly halts diabetes via removal of infected duodenum, the first section of small intestine after the stomach.  How could this be the case?  What is really going on?

To get a better idea, let’s take a ride into uncharted territory: the inner space of our small intestine. It’s the center of all health, directly between our liver and pancreas. The lining of the small intestine is called the most important quarter-inch of the body. It’s here where our nutrients are absorbed…or malabsorbed. Most people believe starvation a matter of malnutrition, but it’s more accurately malabsorption syndrome, meaning it’s not necessarily what we eat, but what we can absorb based on intestinal health. Evidence over the past decade is strongly mounting toward the understanding that intestinal health is reliant on balanced flora.  This microbial balance, or homeostasis, is the driver for all health, physical and mental.

To put it another way, have you heard of the gut-brain connection? The major gut diseases such as Celiac, ulcerative colitis, IBD and Crohn’s are all associated with mental illness. We’re learning that this is directly related to our gut and that relates to the microbes to which we are exposed.  If that microbial population is antagonistic to our heath as evidenced by poor sanitation, then we all lose out.

To put it another way: sanitation is sanity.

The problem is most people still believe our water-based sanitation systems, flushing toilets, are an improvement. Modern sanitation has been voted the most important medical advance in the history of science. But it’s now obsolete, guided by obsolete law. We purposely multiply the wrong kinds of microbes in the name of sanitation and this is affecting us.

It’s time to end mixing our waste with water.

Now let’s look at another aspect of sanitation once believed to be a hallmark of our modern society:  activated sludge.  Once the toilet has been flushed, it heads to a centralized facility – for the most part – where it is thought to be made safe by dewatering the sewage and then treated the solid section, sludge, until there are no signs of infectious microbes.

The technology was born in Manchester, UK, 1913 and it was great in its first 50 years, lowering deaths by acute illness. But we’ve traded that for something far more ominous: chronic, long-term non-communicable diseases, NCDs which are now the global health focus. We now know poor sanitation may be the driving force behind global non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cancer, autism, heart and lung disease. But this has been completely overlooked by the United Nations. The UN General Assembly held its first meeting on health in a decade in 2011. The last such meeting was 2001 about AIDS. In 2011, the focus was NCDs, yet sanitation was not on the agenda, a lost opportunity. The World Bank still builds wastewater treatment plants while UNICEF builds groundwater-polluting pit latrines. 

What’s really needed is to promote dry compost toilet technology.

This is not new information. The world’s first physician, Hippocrates, stated “death begins in the colon.” Yet we disregard intestinal health at every turn, polluting water and soil, abusing antibiotics and fueling microbial overgrowth on a diet of refined carbohydrates. We’re now born predisposed to obesity, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s, cancer, anorexia and rickets. All NCDs can be explained by flora imbalance beginning in the gut.

Studies show gut dysbiosis (imbalanced flora) using new microbial DNA detection technology called microarray. Yet modern science still holds belief the fetal gastrointestinal tract is sterile without evidence. But truth is being revealed as what was once thought sterile is actually teeming with life. This includes the brain, amniotic fluid, urine, eyeballs, meconium and breast milk all not sterile and were never meant to be sterile. That’s right, even the brain relies on balanced flora, just like the gut.

We have polluted the world’s microbiome, shifting the balance. We need to retain and repair what we have to prevent these environmental health problems.  And this starts with our water. Our oceans are merely a thin film stretched across Earth’s surface and we need to protect them from ourselves.

A rallying call for change.

So, while dry compost toilet technology may be the answer, we should look to reducing diabetes as a rallying call for improved sanitation.  Based on studies out of China, which leads the world in diabetes, we know the causes are not poor diet or being sedentary, but due to rampant pollution in soil, water and air pollution.  We are learning every day that this disease is not only about diet and exercise; it’s also about our waste.  We need to end mixing waste with water if not only to improve our lives but also of those for generations to come.  

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Taking Germs Back to Ottawa!

Well, since the launch of The Germ Code on November 5th, it has been quite the ride. 

germ-codeAs of today, the book is the #1 bestseller in Basic Sciences on Amazon.ca and listed as a Hot New Release as you can see above!

For all of you who have purchased the book, I am so grateful! For those of you thinking of buying it, check out this Stellar Review in the Toronto Star.

* * *

As part of the promotion for the book, I headed back to Ottawa and was immersed in what eventually became a homecoming for me.

WP_20131118_002 (1)

It all started with a giant feature on me in The Ottawa Citizen which was fantastic although I wasn’t made aware that I was also on the front page.


While this may seem extremely exciting, it made for an interesting morning.  I decided to head down to the restaurant for breakfast prior to getting dressed for success.  When the people at the hotel were surprisingly nice to me and calling me by my first name, I started to get a bit nervous.  It was a concierge that pointed out I was on the front page of the paper.  Needless to say I escaped back to my hotel room and didn’t leave until I was ready to be seen in public.

Over the next few days, I had some incredible moments but none were as special as my return to CTV Ottawa where it all began.  I did the morning show where I talked about our relationship with germs and even toasted them not with an adult beverage but a bottle of my favorite probiotic drink.  You can see the entire interview here after the advertisement:


But the real treat came when I returned to CTV Ottawa News at Noon where it all began back in 2008.  It’s been close to 6 years since I first sat in the studio taking calls from the public.  The moment was both amazing as well as emotional.  I had to hold back a few tears during the two segments with Leanne Cusack.  It was without a doubt the high point.

Here are the two segments:



Yet that was not the end of the festivities.  On Wednesday, I had the chance to take germs awareness to Parliament Hill for an event I dubbed #GermsOnTheHill.


I went with a few colleagues and showed off some of the ways people could improve their relationship with good germs.  I was visited by MPs, Ministers, Senators and a number of staff, each of whom was happy to share their interests, stories and support for the work I am doing as The Germ Guy.

Twitter1bb7a92_jpgHon. Dr. Carolyn Bennett & The Germ Guy! 

The event was organized by the Honourable Dr. Carolyn Bennett who was at one time considered the Minister of Handwashing and I am eternally grateful to her.  But it wasn’t just a red-coloured event.  Amidst the dozens of visitors, other friends such as MP James Lunney from the Conservatives and MP Peter Stoffer came.

jason-lunneyDr. James Lunney & The Germ Guy!

Peter Stoffer (he was camera shy!)

What took me most by surprise was not the amazing cordiality and grace shown to me and my colleagues by the members of the Hill but that many were aware of the need for good germs and probiotics.  They all appreciated the concept of a better relationship and how we should be getting closer to good germs in order to improve our health, our environment and our economy!

There was one other surprise.  Many of those who visited knew of one of the products featured, Bio-K Plus.  In fact, there were times where my colleague, David Christie, was more popular than me with the various Ministers and MPs that visited.  It was almost surreal to see their knowledge and support for the probiotic.  There were going to be quite a few happy guts that night!

jason-david-lunneyDavid Christie, Dr. James Lunney and The Germ Guy!

Alas, it was all too short a time and I was rushed off to the airport even as I was having an awesome chat with the Honourable Maxime Bernier.  Yet, even as we departed, I managed to say hello to a few more members who knew me and left feeling completely enriched.

There are a few people I need to thank in addition to those I’ve mentioned.

  • While I was there, my guide and confidante, Jennifer Tiller kept me sane and warm throughout my stay.  She also kept everyone in line and never left my side.  Thank you!
  • My good friend and at times partner in artistic crime, Jason Gilbert, was a great companion and helped me stay grounded even when it seemed like I was going to end up in the stratosphere.
  • My esteemed colleague, Cathy Stafford with whom I’ve worked on grants, events and what I like to call bad germs removal activities (ahem!) was the perfect event organizer and made the event on Parliament Hill look and feel like a reception.  If you need someone to make an event come to life in Ottawa, give her a call!
  • I have to thank the University of Ottawa Press and Dr. Robert Smith? for organizing, hosting and carrying out the great Zombies vs. Germs event.  We had such a blast and I honestly believe we could take the show on tour!
  • Finally, I need to thank my brother Matthew Tetro who only saw me briefly but gave me such wonderful words of kindness and support.  He’s also a translator although instead of science, it’s English and French.  If you need anyone to give your copy the same kind of engaging effort as I do, you have to give him a call!

As always, would love to hear your thoughts…

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The Book and The Bio-K

Well, it is finally here…


After almost two years to the day that I first walked into the offices of Random House Canada, the book is finally available.

It has been a long journey and I want to thank everyone who has supported me, both personally and professionally.  I am truly grateful for all the encouragement, discussions and at times, advice as I wrote, re-wrote and then waited.

There is one professional organization I wish to thank for their collaboration and financial support over the year and especially since I left Ottawa.


Bio-K Plus International

Over the last few weeks, I have been in discussions with the company and have reached a collaborative agreement to help improve our relationship with germs through the evangelism of good germs, specifically probiotics.

As part of the collaboration, I will be using this blog as a resource for information on probiotics.  The goal will be to answer questions that I face continually when I’m out in public as well as shed light on issues that are either groundbreaking or muddled in debate.  The information will be based on scientific literature and articles that one can find using PubMed (many of them will be free too).

As per the collaboration, when there is the opportunity to demonstrate Bio-K Plus as an example of the facts presented, I’ll be making the connection.  While this shouldn’t come a surprise, there is obviously one question that arises as a result of this announcement:

Why Bio-K Plus?

The reason is quite simple and yet for me, imperative for any association.  The company and its staff regard research as paramount and will not make any bold claims without ensuring there is ample evidence exists.

To epitomize this, they have conducted several clinical trials and continue to work scientifically to demonstrate the benefit of the product.  Also, they are the only probiotic company in Canada with an actual Health Canada claim.  Having been in the regulatory world whilst at my previous position, I understand just how tough that can be.  But most of all, they don’t extrapolate their data or its interpretation, which is rare in the corporate – and to some extent even in the academic – world.

In the coming weeks, the blog posts will start to appear and I would ask that you check them out for two specific reasons.

First, I would like to know how the information comes across and also if it is useful.  I always enjoy feedback and will always listen and reflect on any comments that are made.

Second, and more importantly, I want you to hold me accountable to the data in relation to Bio-K Plus.  While I believe in the product and also know that it works (I use it regularly), I don’t want this site to be an advertisement.  The research is the most important factor and I want to be sure that this holds true, regardless of the sponsor.

If you have any comments, I would love to hear them.

As a final note – for all the microbiologists and germs enthusiasts out there – if you happen to find something in the book that strikes you as interesting, make sure you send it in an Email to me at thegermguy@gmail.com. After all, when it comes to “Golden Eggs”, you don’t want to share them with everyone.

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An Honour and More Germy News…

Every day, I find several Emails in my Inbox sent by people wanting to talk about germs and our relationship with them.  I’m always excited to see the diverse opinions and the occasional word of encouragement.

But today, I received an honour that left me smiling from ear to ear.  The team at ScienceBorealis have a feature called the Canadian Science Blog of the Day (#cdnsciblog for you Twitterholics).  Today, I saw this:

The tweet has now led to even more people checking out this site and I hope taking a few moments to look at the collection of articles and videos I’ve posted over the years.

To all of you browsing here for the first time, Welcome!



As many of you know, the book is just over a month away from being released and I have been happy to hear that pre-sales are going well (you save 28%). Over the coming weeks, I’ll be working with Random House Canada to arrange for appearances and media interviews.  As they come in, I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.


utmStarting October 1, I’ll be joining the team at Popular Science with a column called, “Under The Microscope”.  It’ll take a more scientific look at the world of germs and provide more detail on the unseen world.  The topics will be different than those at The Huffington Post but I am sure they will interest you and keep the spotlight on the fascinating microscopic world.  

When the official link comes up, I’ll make sure it’s posted here.


Over the summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with a champion for hygiene in Australia, Keith Gregory.  He has started the Children’s Global Hygiene Foundation which will work to empower children to not only learn more about hygiene, but become engaged in making hygiene a priority.  He has both celebrity and political supporters in Australia and I am happy to support him in these efforts.  This work is so valuable and I encourage each of you to check him out.

Keith has also started what I feel will be a revolution in engaging children in hygiene.  It’s called GrimeStoppers and is a multimedia platform to increase awareness of hygiene and it’s need in health.  The Grimestoppers also have a champion although I won’t mention that person here.  Instead, head to the website and take a look for a familiar name on the right hand side of the page.  I’m sure it will also bring a smile to your face.

Over the coming year, I know the Grimestoppers will grow into a movement and with continued support from organizations worldwide become a place for all children to not only learn, but also join in and become Grimestoppers themselves.


As you can see, it’s been a very fruitful summer and I look forward to what is to come in the fall and 2014.  But I need to stress that without all of you who continue to support and encourage me, I would never be where I am today.  So, as always, while I continue to succeed as a Germevangelist and now Germs Relationship Therapist, I am always grateful and humble for everything you have done for me.

Cheers and as always, feel free to leave me a comment below.

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Sympathy for the Bees and Kudos to the Media

Last week, I had the opportunity to write about the recent bee losses that have put the food industry on notice.  You can read it here:


It generated quite a bit of response and allowed me to explore the topic even further on radio and also internet TV.  I thought I would share these with you to see how one small story can lead into a rather large discussion.

Here’s one of the dozen or so interviews I did for radio.


And here is an interview I did while presenting at a conference.  I look a bit haggard as it was a long day but I hope the message came across clearly.



One of the most interesting aspects of the journey was the fact that each interview, whilst having similar trains of thought, allowed me to explore different horizons, from the use of natural means to prevent pests to the concept of GMBs – genetically modified bees.

What also made me smile was the fact that the journalists were all engaged.  We may not think much about bees but when it comes to our food security, there was nothing but interest and also a search for options.  There was no condemnation or even fear mongering.  The discussions were all positive and not once did I feel there was an angle presented that would lead to further unwarranted political or ideological debate.

While I am happy that I had this chance to share, I am even happier that despite all the harangues about the media at large, those who interacted with me were fantastic and adhered to the respect and conduct that I have grown to love from them.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky but after six years of being “The Germ Guy” I am grateful for the kindness shown to me.  To wit, I hope that one day, I can join their ranks to explore The Germy World and The Germ Code as a host of a news or reality-based program, either on radio or TV.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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A Place to Call My ‘Ome…

Last week, I had the chance to follow a scientific conference online. The topic was to no one’s surprise, the microbiome and the continuing efforts of research to understand how germs affect our lives. While the presentations and discussion offered some great perspectives and a few tidbits for future keynotes and lectures, I was amazed at how one particular suffix seemed to be mentioned ad nauseum:


For those who don’t know, the ‘ome (and its close cousin, ‘omics) in research refers to the entirety of a particular branch of science.  It had a rather modest start, with the word that almost everyone knows today, the genome and the study of the genome, genomics.  Back then, there was little fanfare; everyone was happy with the name and went about their lab work.

But for some reason that still befuddles me, other research streams decided to create their own version of a universal, all-encompassing word to describe their work.  The protocol was easy: take the word that most easily describe the nature of the research and add either ‘ome’ to describe the subject or ‘omics’ to point out the research being conducted.

Almost as fast as Gangnam Style became a one-hit wonder, the popularity of ‘ome’ and ‘omics’ exploded.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the list of ‘omes.

As you can see, some are completely ludicrous.  My favorite conflagration of logic is the Aniome, which is not a character in a Marvel superhero comic book, but instead the entirety of biologically relevant things in the universe.  For those wondering, the omniome was already taken.  However, there are some that have taken off and made their mark in the world.  Some of the most popular ones include:

  • Protein research, mutated to form the proteome and proteomics;
  • Study of lipids – fat molecules – expanded to become lipidomics of the lipidome;
  • All the sugars in the body, the glycome, is studied by glycomics;
  • The nonsenseome, which isn’t the compilation of Jenny McCarthy‘s anti-vaccine messages, but rather the totality of non-mutated DNA in the body, studied as nonsenomics;
  • And of course, the microbiological composition of a body or environment became the word I most likely tweet the most, the microbiome.

Of course, what would ‘omes and ‘omics be like without one to encompass the entirety of them?  Yes, if you want to be the Ken Jennings of this part of the science knowledge base, you can focus on the omeome and study omeomics.

At first, I was completely against the whole ‘ome’ and ‘omics’ world but perhaps I’ve been thinking this all wrong. Maybe there is purpose behind all the ‘omics’ and ‘omes’ out there. Moreover, maybe I should embrace the concept and even come up with my own ‘ome.’

And I have…


For those of you who might believe this has more to do with the status of a piece of skin on a male phallus, think again. In this case, the gentillome refers to the union of beneficial pathways to improve health. The term etymology stems from the French word meaning kind:  gentille; and there is a double entendre that is homonymous with another French term: gentille homme, or kind man.

What is the scope of the gentillome?

“The gentillome is the entirety of all processes,
whether they be biological, chemical, physical or metaphysical,
that are beneficial to life, the universe, and everything.”

That’s quite the statement, I know.  But, when you’re making an ‘ome, you have to think vague and bold to start.  But to give an idea of what might in the gentillome (provided that it has applied and proven itself to be so), here are a few examples:

  • the influence of immune response to fatty acids in the gut produced by probiotics.
  • the formation of electrochemical signals in the brain that make us giggle with joy.
  • the smashing together of musical waves causing what’s known as harmony.
  • the effect of meditation on the body.
  • chivalry (as long as it’s not dead).
  • and the all-encompassing joy of gathering together to achieve a common goal that improves all of our lives.  Or as many like to call it, tweetups.  Yes, every time you sit down for a pint to discuss the online discussions in person to improve our society in a grassroots way, you are demonstrating an act of gentillomics.

Of course, like many ideas, inventions, patents, and really awesome ideas brainstormed over a moment of boredom while scanning social media, the gentillome may not have much of a chance to survive. In fact, there is more likelihood that a new species of bacteria will be named after me.  But, in some avenues of life and tabloid headlines, it’s not how long a particular idea lives, it’s who thought of it first that counts. I have made an official record of my claim as the first – and quite possibly the only – person to use the term.

I’d love to hear your ideas and whether you might like to learn more about the gentillome and ideas I have for research that may lie ahead.

Oh, and for anyone who is thinking of using the antonym to gentillome, the villainome, be aware, someone’s already on it.  Shout out to ya, Patricia!

UPDATE: You can see another take on the ‘ome and ‘omics world at the Hashtags of the Week website.  A great read I recommend.

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