How Two Entomologists Landed on TV With Bill Nye
By Laura Kraft
Entomologist Dalton Ludwick, Ph.D., packed his pressed slacks, dress shirt, and a few carefully bundled corn roots into his luggage and stepped onto the plane bound for LAX. Unbeknownst to everyone but his wife traveling beside him, he was headed to Los Angeles to appear in the newest season of Bill Nye Saves The World.
How did Ludwick, along with fellow entomology graduate student Natasha Agramonte, get plucked from obscurity to end up on a Netflix show watched by viewers around the world? Simple. They tweeted their science.
The Hashtag Heard ‘Round the World
Back in early May 2017, there was a lot of discussion on Twitter among scientists and science communicators over the concern that celebrity scientists like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson had large followings on social media but were not experts in every field. This frustrated other science communicators when these celebrity scientists would tweet about research outside of their field and inadvertently make mistakes about the subjects they were tweeting about.
In an online discussion between Ludwick, Melissa Marquez, and Dani Rabaiotti, Ludwick proposed that a hashtag could be used to call attention to the myriad scientists of all backgrounds on Twitter and make them available to talk with celebrity scientists or non-science Twitter users. “There was a lot of grumbling on Twitter about how to contact these people, and I made the joke that we could use #BillMeetScienceTwitter, and everyone started to use it,” explains Ludwick, a graduate student at the University of Missouri at the time and now a postdoctoral associate at Virginia Tech and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
— Dalton Ludwick (@EntoLudwick) May 19, 2017
After the original tweet went public, the hashtag quickly became viral, with scientists around the world tagging Bill Nye in short posts including photos of themselves doing their science with a brief description of their research. The hashtag was used 18,000 times and generated more than 1.2 billion impressions, including Bill Nye himself.
After the success of the hashtag, the production crew of Bill Nye’s latest television show, Bill Nye Saves the World, reached out to several different scientists, many of them graduate students, who had tweeted at him, and they included a short segment at the end of every episode featuring their research.
An Insecticide Resistance Demo
Natasha Agramonte was one such graduate student. She first started using social media for science communication when there were concerns that the Zika virus would reach the United States. At the time, many of her friends on Facebook were beginning to start families, and she worked tirelessly to quash myths and conspiracy theories about mosquitoes and Zika and be open to questions and comments from her friends.
Agramonte, a Ph.D. student in medical entomology at the University of Florida, had moved to Twitter to try and reach more of the general public, where she decided to share her own science using the hashtag campaign developed by Ludwick and others. Then, a month or so later, she received a suspiciously vague email inviting her to share her research on a science show. “Initially, I ignored the email,” she recalls, “but, by a stroke of luck, I mentioned it to my husband who had worked in TV production for years.” Her husband recognized the production company that had sent the email and encouraged Agramonte to go to the filming in late July.
To appear on the show, both scientists had to sign a confidentiality agreement, though neither was phased, as they had signed similar agreements previously when working with industry partners in their careers. The agreement, though, prohibited both scientists from telling anyone of their appearance on the show until it was released on Netflix, including their respective advisors and even friends they visited in Los Angeles.
Agramonte, who studies mosquito resistance to pesticides, thought long and hard about the best way to present her science for the demo featured on the show. As she pointed out, “a lot of people talk about pesticide resistance, but they don’t really know what it means.”
She ended up creating a demo showing the evolution of multiple generations of mosquitoes acquiring and building populations of resistance when one type of pesticide is used. In a stroke of brilliance, she realized she could use thermochromic paint, which changes colors in response to heat, to display the mosquito’s genetic resistance. She painted plastic mosquitoes for the show, then sprayed them with hot water, labeled like a pesticide bottle. Plastic mosquitoes painted black then glow red when sprayed, showing they carry resistance genes. Agramonte explained to Bill Nye that natural selection then kills off the mosquitoes without resistance genes and sprayed the second generation of mosquitoes, revealing that a higher percentage of the population glow red.
The Damage Done by Western Corn Rootworm
While Agramonte used plastic mosquitoes to explain her science, Ludwick packed up two corn root stalks from Missouri to display the damage wrought by his study subject, the western corn rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera). While the producers asked if Ludwick could bring along the rootworms themselves, Ludwick knew better than to carry pest insects across state lines without a permit, and so he left them at home in Missouri.
After reading some of Ludwick’s publications before meeting him, I had to ask if he was ever disappointed that he couldn’t include the finer details of his research, for example the details about the Cry proteins involved in Bt resistance in western corn rootworm. He gave a surprising response. “A surface level of understanding is fine if [others] get the purpose behind it. Knowing the protein names isn’t going to come in handy for most people, ever,” he explains. Letting go of those details may just be the reason why Ludwick and others so excel at tweeting their science, in 280 character blocks at a time.
If you’d like to watch Dalton Ludwick, Ph.D., and Natasha Agramonte present their research, check out Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix and look for Ludwick on Season 3, Episode 6, “What is your pet really thinking?” and Agramonte on Season 3, Episode 4, “Recipes From the Future.” Both are featured in the last 5-10 minutes of the show during the #BillMeetScienceTwitter segment.
Laura Kraft is a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. When she isn’t traveling the world, she spends her time making science more accessible through science writing and outreach. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org