ScienceIamA scientist who has spent my entire career studying terrible diseases - Ebola, smallpox, rabies, anthrax and many others. I'm here to answer your questions on infectious diseases of biodefense. AMA!
Apr 19th 2017 by Poxdoc • 37 Questions • 71 Points
My short bio: I was born in 1942 in the village of Barta, then Romania, now called Plavnia in Ukraine. My father was drafted into the Romanian Army (then allied with Nazi Germany) in 1942, eventually coming home after the Battle of Stalingrad, only to be drafted again in 1944 but this time by the Red Army after the Russians took the Romanian region of Basarabia.
We were now part of the Soviet Union. I grew up in a house with my Mother and Grandparents. I had a total of 7 brothers and sisters, 3 of whom eventually succumbed to hunger and diseases around 1946, when the Soviets started taking all our food to send back to Russia. My Grandpa also died of hunger when he refused to give up his horse. Back then we relied on roots and small rations of soups as everything was for the collective.
In 1956 I finished 7th grade in the local school. I wanted to study, but everything was far away, we had no roads and no chance to reach any other schools so I started learning how to sew from my neighbor in her improvised shop. This unfortunately didn't help our condition as I couldn't earn any money with my skills.
Once Stalin died, a lot of deported men and women where allowed to go back to their homes, and in 1962 I met one of those men, who wanted us to marry. We did, but I set a condition: I would only become his wife if I we moved to his village, Cuza-Voda, since they had a high-school and I could study 3 more years.
Having finished high-school, I moved to the capital city of Moldova, Chisinau, to become a pharmacist while my husband studied in the Music Collegium. We eventually moved back Cuza-Voda, had a daughter and lived through the Soviet Union, after which our country became the independent Republic of Moldova in 1991. It is indeed weird to see all these countries named in such a small region; now imagine having 3 different identities throughout your life: Romanian, Soviet and Moldovan.
My family was always very patriotic and I'm a big History and Geography fan. It'd be my pleasure to answer any questions you might have.
Bill, what was it like collaborating with Tyler, the Creator for the theme song for the new show? What made you choose him initially? Do you have an ongoing friendship with him?
In those tough times, was there anything that brought you happiness? Some moments that was enjoyable?
Good question. None of them seem too weird to me anymore. But a couple might count. First is rabies. It is spread from the bite of an infected mammal in the saliva. The virus is specifically adapted to transmit that way, so it's not just happenstance like the bacteria that normally just live in the mouth infecting the bite wound.
The other might be a bacterium called Francicella tularensis. You can get it from the blood of an infected animal (from hunting for example). But it can infect protists in water, and you can get it by drinking that water. And you can also get it by aerosol. There was one case where a person got infected while mowing a lawn and they hit the carcass of a rabbit that died of the disease. They breathed in a tiny amount of aerosolized tissue and blood containing the bacteria and got the disease. Gross.
Oh we hang out all the time. He comes by The Planetary Society; we talk about the cosmos and our place in space.
I didn't know what happiness was. I was happy when I had a little bit of bread.
Of all the years you've lived through, which has been your favorite, and why?
I believe so.
Not my choice. Please ask the Disneynians to refresh the ride. It was a fun job. It was sponsored by Exxon, while they still owned a division that made bearings for wind turbine generators, and before their climate denial documents from 1977 were discovered and published in the New York Times. I'd love to do a new show though.
Good years were when I had my grandchildren, when I had goats, sheep and turkeys and I made cheese. I had land and worked it but now I'm old things are harder for me, but still I'm happy because I'm proud of my grandchildren who are studying.
He and is companies are shaking things up in a great way. Some disclosure, he served on the Board of The Planetary Society for a while, but has had to recuse himself as SpaceX became Yuge. (I gave him a ride to the airport once.) The Tesla outperforms conventional gas-powered cars (as does my new all-electric Chevy Bolt). If the reused lower stage of the Falcon rockets proves profitable, it will change space exploration in great way. Go Elon! (He's an immigrant to the U.S., bt-dubs.)
After slaughtering a lamb, we take the gall and let it ferment. We use it afterwards for making goat and sheep cheese. That's my favorite. Do you know how to milk a sheep? You have to milk it from behind, under their tails. We often mix goat and sheep milk.
My granddaughter is in Germany and my grandson is in the USA.
God that seems scary. Do you get extra vaccines to make sure that if a monkey does chew your suit, you're a bit safer?
Hi Bill, thanks for doing this - I've got a question, I know that maybe it's not specifically in your field, but I would still appreciate your thoughts as someone trying to "save the world".
To what extent do you envisage automation replacing common jobs anytime soon, on a large scale? If this is accomplished do you think it will be a current player (amazon/google/tesla), something completely left-field no one expected, or a community effort from thousands of small to medium sized enterprises working together?
No, because there are no vaccines for BSL-4 agents. But, there are filters between the suit and the air hose that are designed to catch anything that gets into the hose.
Self-driving vehicles seem to me to be the next Big Thing. Think of all the drivers, who will be able to do something more challenging and productive with their work day. They could be erecting wind turbines, installing photovoltaic panels, and running distributed grid power lines. Woo hoo!
What has been the most difficult time in your life? Especially since you have lived through so much.
Probably, but your 'friend' should show them to his doctor and ask. Please don't send the pictures to me!
Go for it! People seldom regret what they do; they, or we, regret what we don't do!
When I finished school and I didn't have where to continue with my studies. I was too young to go anywhere, we where 'naked' (didn't have any clothes) and bad food. I started to go to another village but coming back hungry through the snow was too difficult. Everything felt hopeless then.
What are some ways diseases are spread by animals and plants to humans? Which disease are these and does this happen in the USA and what is done to stop and prevent it?
First, thanks for making science class so great in middle school. I still have that theme song stuck in my head.
What is our worst case scenario assuming nothing gets done to save the world and what does the timeline look like? How much is my life going to be affected? My kids? I know we need to do something, but what if it doesn't work out?
The quality of life for people everywhere will go down. There will be less food and less clean water available in the developed and the developing world. It's reasonable that this will lead to conflict: more violence, more war. Here in the super-developed US, people will have to abandon homes in Miami, Galveston, Norfolk, and other coastal towns. It will lead to defaulted mortgages and people looking for jobs inland. Where will those jobs come from? Sooner we get to work the better.
Take a three month-old chicken that you raise yourself, you fry onions, put some carrots and then the pieces of the chicken. Take some home-made red pepper paste and two or three spoons of flour. Add some water just to cover the meat and let it simmer. At the end add some parsley and some dill. Serve it with mamaliga (polenta), salt and pepper. Serve with kompot.
Well, it does make for excellent cocktail party talk, even if people do tend to take a step back from me when I tell them what I do. I sometimes have to work very long hours or get called in on the weekends when there is a problem. And I tend to be hyper aware or sick people and sources of contamination around me. But, no, not much.
Infinitesimal. If you think you want to live on Mars, try living in the dry valleys of Antarctica for a few years. And to play fair, you have to bring your own air to breathe. Inhaling the local atmosphere on Mars would kill you in an instant. You'd never go outside, not really. You'd live in some dome, and when you go out, you have to be in a spacesuit, which is just another dome, only really tight fitting. Oh, and there is absolutely nothing to eat.
Have a strong will. Don't want to much. Go ahead and study and take the best from life. I had a goal my whole life: to work and have a family and a good education.
Yes, quite a few.
Nope. When you get your job as a dancer on broadway, don't ever tell people who your favorite dance partner is. Otherwise, you won't get a chance to dance with anyone else. There is something in every episode that I just love. The spit take in Ocean Life cracks me up as does the screaming skull I'm holding in Bones & Muscles. And, who doesn't love passing out in a fighter plane pulling 7.5 g's?
We have very good climate, good soil and very welcoming people. Come and visit!
Hello! If you could go back in time and stop anything, anything at all, what would it be?
Those are outside of my core areas of expertise, but I am very interested in astrobiology especially. And that specifically crosses my areas in two ways: first is concerns about alien pathogens infecting humans, and the other is in us contaminating alien environments with our microbes and thus confounding our search for life. I'm not all worried about alien microbes - their biology is likely to be so very different from ours that there will be no real chance of an infectious relationship. The second is very real and is why NASA goes through extreme measures to sterilize spacecraft that are going to land places.
The fossil fuel industry has successfully introduced the idea that ±2% is somehow the same as ±100%. Just as the cigarette/cancer deniers, did, only global and affecting billions rather than millions. Sooner we embrace renewable energy sources, the sooner we can bring the military home and be energy independent. Let's go!
- When the Soviet Union collapsed, I would unite Moldova with Romania.
Hi! Do you have any regrets? Or anything you would have done if you had the chance?
Yes. It's a smaller group. Everyone does everything, down to mopping the floors and handling the trash - no janitorial service in a BSL-4 lab. And that includes most equipment maintenance, since it is a process to decontaminate equipment out of the lab for service. People are generally really good about watching out for each other. And because of the space suits and hearing protection, it's more isolated and 'quiet', which can be really nice.
Thanks for your support. I don't have a favorite (favourite). Saturn is beautiful. And, I am fond of the Earth's Moon.
I would've liked to study further. For now, I would like to have more work, have a better sight, sew more! laughs and take care of my great grandchildren. (Comment from granddaughter: she can never stay still!)
Edit: I would've liked more children.
First, I wish I knew a good answer for this one. I think it depends on what they perceive the issue to be with vaccines.
Autism? That has been thoroughly debunked, the paper withdrawn, the author's medical license taken away and convincing proof put forward as to how he made up the results on behalf of a law firm prosecuting vaccine injury cases.
Bad reactions? The vast majority of vaccine adverse reactions are due to allergic reactions. Doctors monitor for these and can intervene if necessary.
Vaccines cause allergies? There is no evidence whatsoever that childhood vaccines, or any others, cause allergies later in life. Anecdotal, but I have received more vaccines than most people realize exist and I have no allergies. This effect is simply not true.
Trying to describe herd immunity and why an ever-growing population of unvaccinated people puts at risk a larger and larger swath of people is difficult.
There are some good resources out there that are easy to under stand. This web site talks about the lowering of morbidity and mortaility by vaccines. And this is a simple short discussion from the CDC about what would happen if we stopped vaccinating.
As for my proudest moment as a virologist, I think that was spread out on my work on an antiviral drug called Tecovirimat, a drug that works against smallpox. I ran the drug screening effort that found this drug when I was at USAMRIID. Then later at other jobs, I ran the animal studies that showed that it could protect animals against poxvirus infections even when they were really, really sick. This drug got Emergency Use Authorization and was given to a small child who caught the vaccinia virus from his service member father on accident after he was vaccinated with it and was about to die. Tecovirimat saved the boy's life. It is now part of the Strategic National Stockpile to be used in the event of smallpox being reintroduced.
As for my career goal, well, I'm pretty much doing it right now!
Plant-based diets are the future. I look forward to food preparations that are not "derivative bits," as we say in comedy writing. Instead of "coconut bacon," for example, I hope there is just delicious stand-alone coconut preparations. Cooking is a competitive business. I look forward to the emergence of new plant-based dishes.
Sweetest memories are with my grandchildren. Seeing them singing and playing music with my husband. I've always really enjoyed sewing, so every time I've finished a piece, I feel a lot of satisfaction.
QUESTION: If there was one thing you could say to the youth of today, what would it be?
Thanks for taking the time out of your day to do this. Much love from California.
Scares me personally? Probably Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus. It kills about 60% of those it infects and most of the survivors end up with permanent brain damage. There is no treatment and only an experimental vaccine that very few people ever get. It's normally transmitted (here in the US) by mosquitoes, but you can also aerosolize it and breathe it in and get it that way, hence why we study it for biodefense. Very nasty.
For others? Rabies. 100% fatal once it gets into the central nervous system. We have a vaccine, but it is not very good and is very expensive to make. But it is simply a brutal disease.
(This is her granddaughter now. She couldn't believe she got greetings from California, thanks a lot!)
Greetings from Florida! The Australia of the United States.
I wish I knew. I wish anyone knew. Right now, nothing. And that is scary.
I know Texas but I've never heard of Florida. Is it Trump's? I know he has a lot of money somewhere.
Edit: I have a map of the United States, I wish I was closer and further from Russia.
What was the worst thing you experienced and what was the best thing you experienced in life?
Not just BSL-4, but BSL-3 as well, and even BSL-2. But yes, in order to work with the most dangerous pathogens and those with the greatest potential for misuse, you have to be vetted. I and my staff have high-level security clearances, go through psychological evaluations, random drug tests and a bunch more. We also work in 2-person teams to help prevent bad actors. It's not certain, but it helps.
After the insider who we think sent the anthrax letters, we take this threat very seriously.
I hope people coming of age have a respect for the process of science in part because of my show(s). If not, I guess I've failed, but I did and continue to do my best. Checkout Bill Nye Saves The World, which starts on Friday on Netflix. There are 13 episodes. Binge 'em, and turn it up loud!
Hunger and cold was the worst that's ever happened. We didn't know about candies like now, there was nothing to buy. The best thing was when my daughter was born after seven years of trying to get pregnant.
Are there biological toxins that have been created by man just for the sake of biological warfare? If so, are there instances where they have been "released" to collect data on the infectious outcome?
Hi Bill!! You're doing great work.
My questions for you are:
What is your favourite element and favourite subatomic particle?
What scientific mystery do you most want to solve?
No, not really. We're not good at developing things like that from scratch yet. Nature has done a much better job than we can at making really toxic toxins. The neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum is literally the most toxic substance ever discovered. i have held enough of that toxin in my hand to kill every person on the planet, it's that toxic.
Not surprisingly, governments and a few other rogue individuals or groups have tried to use that and other toxins for biological warfare or biological terrorism. We certainly don't do any open-air tests of those kinds of things anymore for multiple reasons. But, back in the days of the offensive biological warfare programs in the US and USSR, yes, they tested biological weapons and toxin weapons in releases to collect data. Now, we can do that much cheaper and safer in lab experiments to get good enough data for defensive purposes.
Favorite element? Don't have one, but I am fond of the compound water. In fact, now that I've sipped it, I don't think I could live without it. Subatomic particle? Not sure, but I'd sure like to know if there are particles associated with dark matter. Darkons?
It's my home country. I've always wanted us to be one whole country, I grew up with Romanian radio and even during Soviet times I was dedicated and aware of everything that was happening in Romania, educated my children and grandchildren with a love towards the Romanian Nation and they've now regained their romanian citizenship.
Grandma, where is one place in the world you have always dreamed of visiting?
No, not really. The bacteria, viruses and toxins that we used to use for biological weapons have been around for a very long time. If they were going to wipe out all humans, they have had plenty of time to do so. Humans have selected the most pathogenic of them, and learned how to put them in the air and keep them alive for longer, etc. But I can pretty much guarantee that there is not going to be a global plague that kills of the human species. There may be one that kills a lot of us, even a majority, but not all.
Be sure you can do algebra. It is a key to success in a technical field. I work in a writers room these days. If you want to do what I do now, look for a job as a television writer. Thanks for being a member of The Planetary Society. We advance space science and exploration. Let's know the cosmos and our place within it!
I've always felt weird about people here who just wanted to go to Russia or France but I want to know Romania, such a beautiful country with lakes and forests. My husband died, with his dream unfulfilled of seeing his country from the other side of the river Prut.
Have you studied the brain eating ameoba that enters through the nose from warm water like lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers?
As the area you are from seems to have changed hands many times in your life, which country/ethnic or cultural background do you most identify with?
And also, what were some of the repercussions and effects of these territorial changes?
While growing up and during my teenage years, my village was part of Soviet Ukraine so I started to identify myself with that, learning a few ukrainian words. Moving 40 km away from there with my husband meant I was now living in Soviet Moldova. It's always been hard to talk about these things because I felt restrained and had no freedom. (Granddaughter: even now it takes her time to think about these things and give a concise answer)
In my science class, we are currently learning about genetics, is there any interesting facts about the diseases that you listed that somehow fit with genetics that I can share with my class and teacher?
Is there anything you dislike about the present society, something that wasn't present in your younger days?
You bet! But keep in mind that bacterial genetics are a bit different than Mendelian genetics (pea plants and such) that you are probably learning about. A great example of genetics in bacteria is antibiotic resistance. One bacterium gets exposed to a low level of an antibiotic and that increases it's chance of becoming resistant. If it does become resistant, it may be able to pass on that genetic trait (resistance) to its offspring by cell division (this is called vertical transfer). It might also be able to transfer the resistance gene to another bacteria, or even another bacterial species, by conjugation or other means (horizontal transfer). This is a great example of why we need to limit the use of antibiotics to limit the development of resistance and it's spread among bacteria.
I don't like that the laws are not respected, everything is falsified. People are very greedy and materialistic. Values have shifted, even concerts and artists have nothing for the soul.
Edit: Before, the name of your family was very important. When you did something, your family's reputation was at stake.
What was your major and how did you know this is what you wanted to do on your life?
When did your hunger "break"? Do you remember the first big, satisfying meal you had after being in hunger for so long? What was it and how did it feel in detail?
I majored in Molecular biology. I knew it was what I wanted to do because it was interesting and fun for me and I found that I was good at it. And then I started to learn about the virology and the high-hazard pathogens and they are so fascinating, so challenging and we need to know so much more about them that they really caught my attention. I found that my molecular biology background really trained me with an excellent set of tools to study these organisms and all work on all the associated technologies.
A week after easter, we go to the cemetery to remember the dead. My grandma baked a turkey and we all ate it there and we even had enough to share with other people. Smiles
We don't burgers, we eat ghiozlomele, which are actually turkish laughs. I've never had a burger and I can't because I don't have teeth laughs again.
Is your granddaughter married? May I ask for her hand?
She's dating a Mexican.
How do you feel about Socialism as a system of government having seen its effects first hand?
I don't like it. It's a lying system. I like bi-cameral systems like in England, not like the communist party where everyone has to raise their hand. Socialist still have communist things in themselves. Marx's theory didn't bring us anywhere.