When I was a university lecturer in microbiology, I tried to encourage my students to think about how best to tell others, particularly non-scientists, about their studies. In order to describe their subject clearly, then needed to understand it themselves – so this activity supported their learning as well as their creativity! We used art and literature as vehicles for science communication, making the subject accessible, attractive, engaging – and less scary!
This exciting and inspiring cross-disciplinary work led me to establish the Bad Bugs Book club in 2009. The aim of the book club was to get adults, whether scientists and non-scientists, together to read and discuss works of fiction where infectious disease formed part of the plot. By having a novel as the common denominator, all book club members have something to contribute to discussion, whether it is about the plot, the characters, the disease or the pathogen – we all learn something!
The meetings of my book club usually take place in pubs at the end of the working day. Sometimes, the meeting is combined with another activity. We have had guided, film screenings, and more customised activities that support festivals or events (such as World AIDS Day, or World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (WAAW)).
The book club website contains reading guides and meeting reports for almost 70 novels, addressing diseases from leprosy and plague to polio and influenza – and zombies! (Zombies are a great topic for discussion around infectious disease epidemiology.) We have read thrillers, science fiction, historical fiction, romance – and even a couple of non-fiction works.
In terms of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and superbugs in that context, there are not so many novels. I wonder if this is because AMR is, as is often said, a ‘hidden pandemic’, affecting individuals quietly and separately, unobserved by many. Nevertheless, during WAAW 2020, we discussed The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith, in a meeting also attended by the author. The event was advertised by various microbiology organisations as part of the WAAW events. Parallel meetings took place in other countries, and the subsequent Twitter discussion had over a million impressions!
So, a little meeting of around eight interested people can have an impact on much larger numbers! I must admit, I have learnt a lot from the book club – not only from reading much more widely, but also from the inputs of book club members, particularly non-scientist members of the public. It started as a labour of love, but has become an integral part of my life! Do get in touch if you would like to discuss anything!
Professor Joanna Verran, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology, Manchester Metropolitan University