Posted: Friday, 28th October 2011
A TEAM from Science and Engineering are using vampires and zombies to help people learn how infectious diseases are spread.
Professor Joanna Verran and Dr Naomi Jacobs believe literature and cinema can enlighten learners about science and medicine.
In essence they take a popular story – say Dracula – and use it as a vehicle for teaching microbiology to undergraduates, the public, amateur scientists and most recently families, through the Manchester Science Festival (MSF).
“It started with a book club,” says Joanna, “and then we had a zombie-fest night where we discussed the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and we screened the three film versions.
"We are also reading World War Z by Max Brooks for this week's Manchester Science Festival (October 22 – 30), which is another zombie text. These films and books are all about illness, our attitudes to it and fear of it, and we are using them to help people understand how and why disease is transmitted.”
They admit they’re cashing in on the current popularity of Twilight, Shaun of the Dead and such but it seems to be working, with 60 people turning up to their Monsters Pub Quiz on Monday.
A series of spoof zombie lectures for MSF, featuring live demonstrations on how outbreaks might occur, attracted 150 adults and children. They also coaxed professor of Gothic literature Sue Zloznik and colleague Dr Linnie Blake out of the English department to talk to microbiology students.
Some students have even set up their own book clubs. "One group read and discussed the book Aids Sutra by Amartya Sen which talks about Aids in the Indian sub-continent," Professor Verran said.
Science and creative writing
"It brings the subject out of the textbook and lecture hall and into the real world. It also gets them to think about the subject in a different way, and I think it helps them commit themselves more fully."
Inspired to brush up her own skills, Professor Verran, who was given the Communications Award by the Society for Applied Microbiology this year, has even taken a course on teaching creative writing at MMU.
Dr Naomi Jacobs, of the Nano-Info-Bio project, which encourages interdisciplinary innovation, has been working with Joanna on what they call ‘Monsters, Maths and Microbiology’ together with Mathematics PhD student Matthew Crossley, a researcher in the area of crowd behaviour.
“Matthew is now using agent-based modelling to simulate the spread of disease in zombie and human populations,” said Naomi.
Added Joanna: It’s all about encouraging people to reflect on how science can be communicated and to use their personal talents to enhance this communication."