One Dazed Snake, an Envelope without White Powder, and the Scientist Searching YouTube

One Dazed Snake, an Envelope without White Powder, and the Scientist Searching YouTube

Dr. Joseph DeRisi of UCSF began his 15-minute talk with an anecdote involving a letter, white powder, snakes and eternal gratitude.

Last night at the Outbreak Nightlife event at the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. DeRisi's short lecture captured the multi-generational audience's attention span.

He suggested searching YouTube for "My Snake is Sick" videos joking that's just good science. He laughed as he recalled making odd, awkward calls to local vets asking them to contact his lab if any of them were euthanizing any snakes with cancer. He asked for volunteers who wanted to go to Africa to collect pythons. 

Throughout his remarkably conversational presentation, he wove the science.

Since the 1990s, snakes have contracted this weird disease where they weave and bob their head around. Seriously, check the YouTubes for "My Snake is Sick" videos. Many of these sick snakes die from this disease. Sadly, if other snakes have had contact with the sick snake, they too will contract this disease identified as inclusion body disease (IBD). They are euthanized.

Dr. DeRisi and his team discovered a previously unknown virus. Their report "Ball Python Nidovirus: a Candidate Etiologic Agent for Severe Respiratory Disease in Python regius" will help scientists figure out the role of this newly discovered virus in causing the disease IBD, ultimately trying to help zoos and snake enthusiasts control IBD in their snake populations.

I sensed a sigh when Dr. DeRisi's allotted time was up; we wanted more. As much as I enjoy The Big Bang Theory, those characters help perpetuate a stereotype of nerdy science lab geeks with little social intelligence. Perhaps if Dr. DeRisi's science style went viral, then more people might get excited about science and discovery. Maybe science funding could be more consistent. Maybe more students would be attracted to science careers.

Oh, and Dr. DeRisi's opening remarks? He described receiving a letter several years ago; a letter that he joked he was relieved did not contain any white powder. However, there was a photo of a woman with her pet boa constrictor wrapped around her. Her snake was sick and she was reaching out to Dr. DeRisi for help. She could not fund his research, but she offered her eternal gratitude. 

While it's encouraging that there are scientists who value Karma, wouldn't it be more encouraging if basic science research were consistently and adequately funded?

The California Academy of Sciences within Golden Gate Park. UCSF and Sutro Tower in the background. ©Tim Griffith

The California Academy of Sciences within Golden Gate Park. UCSF and Sutro Tower in the background.

©Tim Griffith

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