Although scientists may not typically find themselves in the theater spotlight, the increasingly popular Technology, Entertainment, and Design independently organized (TEDx) program offers a fresh venue for informing a wider audience about groundbreaking research. When TEDxDurham planned its first event, organizers tapped NIEHS program director Frederick Tyson, Ph.D., to be one of 20 presenters at the July 9 gathering in the iconic Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, North Carolina. He was one of only four scientists on the program.
Each speaker was challenged to craft a fast-paced, informative, and entertaining talk up to 18 minutes in length. TEDxDurham organizers selected presenters from a pool of 180 nominees, with a vetting process that involved three auditions and careful editing for plain language and visual impact.
When NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., learned of Tyson’s involvement, she was enthusiastic about the institute’s participation. “How exciting,” she said. “This is a wonderful way to engage the public in NIEHS research.”
Toxins in oceans, lakes, and rivers
Tyson oversees NIEHS grants in the Oceans and Human Health research program, which includes collaboration with the National Science Foundation. A major focus of the research is to better understand how harmful algal blooms (HABs) cause detrimental health effects, such as immune system dysfunction, diarrhea, respiratory illness, liver cancer, and neurodegeneration, or degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.
“Harmful algal events are not new,” Tyson explained. “What is new is that the frequency, persistence, and duration of the events are increasing.” He pointed to two conditions, associated with human activities, that may cause algal blooms — climate change and nutrient load, or the process of too many nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers and sewage, entering waterways.
Organizers wanted to challenge the audience to think about their community, both Durham and North Carolina as a whole, according to Jack Derbyshire, TEDxDurham lead organizer. While algal blooms in area waterways have not typically included toxic species, Tyson said, people in the area have reason to be concerned about Jordan Lake, a drinking water source for some 300,000 people, and a recreation and fishing site for many more.
The lake has been listed as polluted since 1983, just one year after its creation, and recent technological interventions have failed to curb algal blooms. Jordan Lake feeds into the Cape Fear River, where HABs have been detected downstream by researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Research to uncover toxicity and predict outbreaks
“Why should we be concerned with HABs at this moment?” Tyson asked. Showing satellite images of red and brown tide, and blue-green algal blooms, he described the threat to health and economic well-being from uncontrolled HABs, which can sometimes stretch for more than a hundred miles.
According to Tyson, NIEHS and other agencies are funding research to understand the mechanisms of toxicity, and to predict outbreaks using deepwater sensors and satellite imaging. The goal of that work, he explained, is the translation of data into policy and information that people can use to protect their health.
Tyson pointed to the most recent example of research translation involving the algal toxin domoic acid in the hugely popular Pacific razor clam in Washington state. Researchers worked with public health officials there to strictly warn pregnant and nursing mothers, and children, against consumption.
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)