Biofilms, Gangs, Jelly and Science Communication

Article from Biofilms and Microbiomes on Swedish morning television

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A recent article from npj Biofilms and Microbiomes was featured on the Swedish TV show Gomorron Sverige (Good morning Sweden).

Real-time optotracing of curli and cellulose in live Salmonella biofilms using luminescent oligothiophenes

On the show, which aired on the 23rd of November at 7.45 in the morning, the lead author of the study, Professor Agneta Richter-Dahlfors was interviews by the two hosts.

This was great publicity for our group who is based at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm but I think that the whole TV segment can teach us something about how we can communicate biofilm research.

Science communication

I was responsible for pitching our story to the TV station. I showed the first pitch I wrote to a journalist friend who was less than impressed. As politely as he could he said, "Do you realise that nobody knows what a biofilm is?"

Ouch! It stung a little but he was totally right. The problem is even worse in Swedish. The word "bio" means cinema and the word film means... well, "film". So to the average Swede, a biofilm means 3D glasses and popcorn.

I had to be a little more creative. I re-wrote the pitch to hardly include the word biofilm, instead, explaining about bacteria that can cause disease living in communities to protect themselves. Much better.

In the paper, our group developed a new molecule for binding to cellulose and curli in the Salmonella extracellular matrix. I couldn't exactly say that to the TV station! My friend had the idea to say that we had invented a covert molecule that we could send in to spy on the bacteria to see what they are really doing. This was the hook that the TV station needed and it was the line they used to open the TV segment. Great!

Another thing my journalist friend told me is that science communication is much more effective if you have strong visual aids, especially on TV. Unfortunately, the day before we could't think of anything that wasn't to small or too dangerous to take into a TV studio. However, at 10pm the night before, Agneta had a stroke of genius. She looked round the kitchen for raisins and gelatine to make a model of bacterial cells embedded in an extracellular matrix. It went down a storm and is a great analogy for how the extracellular matrix looks.

The final thing we can learn from this way that the hosts and Agneta both relate the abstract principles from the paper to make sense in real life. References to bacteria forming gangs and scientists making detection devices that look like the hand-held scanners at the supermarket made all of the concepts very relatable. It sounds trivial, but it's easy to forget that most people don't spend all their time thinking about living beings that are far too small to be seen with the naked eye.

I hope you found this useful. If you have any other analogies that you use to describe your research, I'd love to hear about them.

Ben Libberton

Science Communicator, Freelance

I'm a freelance science communicator, formerly a Postdoc in the biofilm field. I'm interested in how bacteria cause disease and look to technology to produce novel tools to study and ultimately prevent infection.