Interview: On doing science and bringing others in

Postdoctoral researcher Caleph Wilson talks to Eureka! Lab about his work in immunology and on raising the profile of science in African-American communities

This week I had the chance to interview postdoctoral researcher Caleph Wilson. Dr. Wilson is a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. He studies how to help the immune system fight off infections like human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and diseases like cancer. In his free time, Caleph is part of the National Science and Technology News Service, a site devoted to increasing interest in science, technology, engineering and math in African-American communities, and which is on Twitter as @TheDarkSci. I talked with Caleph about what he does, what inspires him and why outreach to African-American communities is so essential. Here is a video of our conversation, and a transcript follows!

Bethany: Hi! My name is Bethany Brookshire. I’m the author of Eureka! Lab. I’m here to talk to you about loving science, working in science, and finding out what careers in science, technology, engineering, and math are all about. Welcome to our second Google Hangout talking about science careers. Today, I’m here with Doctor Caleph Wilson, a postdoctoral researcher in immunology. He’s at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicineat the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute. He’s on Twitter as @HeyDrWilson. He’s here to talk to us today about what he does in his job, why he loves science, and why you should, too!

Hi Caleph!

Dr. Wilson: Hello, how’re you doing?

Bethany: Pretty well, thanks for coming on!

Dr. Wilson: You’re welcome, good to be here.

Bethany: So I just wanted to ask, what is your job? What is a postdoc and what do you do?

Dr. Wilson: Think about a postdoc like an internship or an apprenticeship. After we get our doctorates, we need a little more training before we become professors. This is our chance to do something different than the work that we did for our Ph.D.

Bethany: So you study immunology. What exactly do you study?

Dr. Wilson: First let me define what immunology is. It’s the study of the balance between disease and health. The body is always in the process of being healthy and fighting off all types of disease. It could be fighting cancer or something from within. Or it could be fighting bacteria, parasites or a virus from the outside.

Bethany: So we’re always fighting off diseases?

Dr. Wilson: It’s a constant battle throughout your life. Your body tries to do everything it needs to do to stay healthy, but also keep bad things out.

For what I do, I work to teach T cells to find cancer cells and HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus. I teach them to find these cells and kill them.

Bethany:What are T cells?

Dr. Wilson: T cells are a type of white blood cell.

So T cells will coordinate the response. They are like the quarterback of the immune system football team. Or the point guard of the immune system basketball team. So the quarterback calls the plays, gets everyone lined up correctly, and says, “This is what we need to do, you go here to execute this play. The play would be the immune response.”

Bethany: So the T cells are the quarterbacks organizing the defense against the bacteria or infection. Or in this case, you are looking at organizing a defense against cancer or HIV?

Dr. Wilson: Yes.

Bethany: That’s pretty cool. So, that’s what you do overall, what do you do on a day-to-day basis? What’s your life like?

Dr. Wilson: So I come in every morning and there’s always some T cells in culture.

Bethany: What does that mean?

Dr. Wilson: So I mentioned that we teach T cells how to find and kill cancer and HIV. To get T cells, we have healthy people come in and donate blood. We take their blood and do what’s called fractionating, dividing it into different parts. The part I get is the T cells. Some people may order B cells or they may order other types of cells. I use T cells from actual people, called primary T cells. For instance today’s Tuesday, I’ll put an order in, get my cells later today. I put them in a plate or a dish, like a petri dish. I give them a solution that has nutrients and other things that stimulate the cells to grow and do what we want them to do.

Bethany: Do people give blood for science? Does it come from a blood bank or do you have volunteers?

Dr. Wilson: It’s not from a blood bank. We have people that are called “healthy donors” they don’t have any known diseases, cancers or infections. They come in every 6 weeks or so, and give blood on Tuesday and Thursday. We cycle through a list of people. These donations are just for scientists. Some people donate blood to hospitals for patients, but we don’t use that. This is separate blood just for research.

Bethany: Have you ever donated blood for science?

Dr. Wilson: Actually I have! A couple of years ago we were doing some large-scale experiments for a clinical trial. They wanted samples from as many people as possible, so I gave blood to that. It’s probably published somewhere. I guess someone has access to my DNA out there.

Bethany: But that’s dangerous, isn’t it dangerous to you? Do you have to wear protection, lots of equipment?

Dr. Wilson: Yeah, we have a tissue culture room that is specifically for human samples. Some people are looking at live HIV strains that can infect you. We wear lab gowns, double gloves and eye protection. We make sure that everything is bleached and try not to do anything that puts you in danger. But it is a danger. Say maybe a donor has an infection, like hepatitis. What if they don’t know it and donate blood, and then someone comes in and uses the blood? We get vaccines for a lot of these diseases, but you always work in safe way, take your time and be careful.

Bethany: What do you do then? So you get your cells, and then what happens?

Dr. Wilson: So we get the cells, and we have to activate them. We have these small metal beads covered in proteins called antibodies. We mix the beads with the cells to activate the cells.

Bethany: These antibodies are like a trigger for T cells?

Dr. Wilson: These antibodies bind to proteins on the T cell surface.

The proteins on the T cell are what activate them. It’s mimicking a T cell receptor.

It’s kind of like a handshake. Whenever there’s an immune response, in order for the T cell to know what’s going on, the cell goes around shaking hands with other cells. If you had a coin or something in your hand and shook other people’s hands, they would know how to respond based on what was in your hand. T cells go around and shake hands with other cells called antigen-presenting cells.

These antigen-presenting cells take bacteria and engulf them like an amoeba. They pull them in and chop them up, like on a cutting board in a kitchen. Then they take portions of the chopped-up bacteria and put them out as a protein like a “hand.” The T cell will come along and shake the “hand” and learn what it is. It’s a way of communicating to the T cell that here’s a problem, this is what the problem is. The T cells can then figure out what to do with it.

Bethany: So now you’ve activated your T cells with your handshake, what else happens?

Dr. Wilson: We wait 24-36 hours, and we do something cool. We take a form of HIV, to put genes into the T cells.

Bethany: HIV is the virus that can cause people to suffer from AIDS.

Dr. Wilson: Exactly. So this form of HIV doesn’t have the real virus in it, it won’t make more HIV. It’s just a way to take a gene the T cell doesn’t have, and give it to the T cell. I’m teaching T cells how to recognize HIV and cancer. One of the issues with cancer is that cancer is within your own body. In general the body doesn’t attack itself. Remember the T cell is going around shaking hands. One of the things is does is go around to other cells in the body, shake hands, says “OK, you’re cool, you should be there.”

Bethany: “I know you.”

Dr. Wilson: Yes, it recognizes what we call self, or part of you. So since cancer is from your own cells, often T cells can’t recognize cancer as a problem. It’s how cancers hide themselves, they are stealthy. So we use HIV to insert DNA into a T cell. And that DNA is a specific type of “glove.” Remember the handshake? We give them a glove so the T cell can recognize cancer. We tell the T cell, “now you have the ability to recognize cancer.” For HIV, we give them a gene to be a different kind of glove so they can “see” HIV. It’s called genetic engineering. Before we give the T cell those genes, it doesn’t have the ability to see cancers or HIV. We give them that ability by giving them DNA. The HIV we use in the lab is just a way to give the DNA to the cells, to give them the gloves that allow them to recognize cancer or HIV.

Bethany:So what you do is you take the virus HIV, which can inject genes into cells, and you use it to inject genes into T cells. And then the T cell has that DNA, like a glove, and will be like “Cancer cell, I can see you!  You’re going down!” That’s awesome!

Dr. Wilson: “Cancer, you can’t hide, we’re going to find you, and you have to go.”

Bethany: So you’re working with cancer, you’re using HIV, you’re using human cells in the laboratory. How did you get to where you are now? How did you become a postdoc, how did you get into science as a career? What steps did you take?

Dr. Wilson: Going back to high school, I was interested in biology. I did really well in biology classes, and all the science and math classes. When I went to college, I actually started out as an undecided major. I did well in STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. But I also had experience in a couple of different phases of construction. I learned how to operate heavy equipment, bulldozers and stuff. I learned how to do carpentry, build cabinets and build houses. So I had these divergent interests. Although math and a lot of science are used in construction, we don’t think about it that way.

When I was in undergrad at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, I excelled in the classes. I decided to major in biology. Most students, when you think about biology, what you are familiar with are becoming a physician or nurse or maybe a science teacher. Those are the types of careers that you think about.

 But then I had an interesting experience. A professor from the University of Wisconsin came down to give a science talk. It was very exciting. He was studying this parasite that’s found in Africa. The parasite lives in a fly, and when it bites someone, it gives them the parasite, and it causes sleeping sickness. It was really interesting. I talked to him about it, and he said “why don’t you come up and work in the lab over the summer?”

Bethany: Wow!

Dr. Wilson: I was like “whoa!” I was excited. I remembered in high school and college looking in the back of my textbook. At the end of each chapter there are references. Those references are for research papers the author of the book got together into a coherent way so you can understand the biology book.

Bethany: The research papers that determine what we know about biology.

Dr. Wilson: Exactly. So that’s one of the things I think about when I’m generating research papers, that one day it will help therapy for HIV and cancer. It can also give general knowledge about how the immune system works.

So I go to Wisconsin, I work in the lab, learn all sorts of things. Now this is the coolest thing. Very few times in life do you actually do something that’s part of a bigger picture, and you’re the only person that knows it. I did an experiment. We were infecting mice with this parasite called Trypanosomiasis. After doing the experiment and collecting the data and analyzing it, I’m looking at the data and I think “wait a minute. I’m the only person in the world that knows this!” This is data! WOW, no one else in the world knows this, I did this experiment and I’m the only person in the world who knows it worked! That was the eureka moment, that I could spend my career finding things that no one else knows. That’s what science is. You’re constantly trying to answer questions.

Bethany: You’re spending your career creating new knowledge.

Dr. Wilson: That’s the coolest thing about it! Every time I think about it, it’s really exciting.

If you take a textbook, there’s information in the textbook. But let’s say the book was written 2012, so there are experiments that keep coming out after the book has been published. The next time they make the textbook, new information will be in there.

Bethany: So you might be in a textbook someday!

Dr. Wilson: I hope so! It would be cool, if it’s in a book, that’s a big deal.

Bethany: You really love science and the process of discovery. Are there any parts of being a scientist that are more difficult? Or that are not so positive?

Dr. Wilson: Failing. There’s a lot of failure in science. When you think about how to set up an experiment, you create a hypothesis, and you try to disprove it, you are trying to fail. Sometimes experiments don’t work. You realize that things may be more complicated than you thought. That’s what we in a very nerdy way call the re in research. You have to repeat the experiment, make sure it’s actually what it says it is. You spend a lot of time doing that.

And sometimes it’s slow. I think about science as a wave. Sometimes things are calm, and then there’s a wave, and the peak of the wave is where the energy is. You try to ride that wave as long as possible, but eventually there’s space between that wave and the next. The best case is having a lot of waves in my career, but there are calm spots. You spend a lot of time reading, trying to figure out what to do next.

Bethany: You went to college and did research. Then you went to grad school and are in a postdoc doing more research. What are you going to do next?

Dr. Wilson: I’m looking into faculty positions. So I want to work at a university and teach other students to do the things that I’ve been able to do, to recruit them and get them excited about science. I’m also interested in policy, trying to decide what we’re going to do research on, where the funding should go. Prioritizing shapes science.

Bethany: Because science takes money, and there’s only so much money.

Dr. Wilson: Exactly. That’s the main thing. Science is expensive. I think scientists should do is spend more time talking to the public. It’s their tax dollars funding my research and my career and basically the entire scientific enterprise. To spend time to help people understand what we do. We’re doing cool things, we should spend time helping the public understand why.

The other big thing I’m interested in is outreach. When I started college, there were a limited number of careers that I knew about. There are limited things people think about when they think about biology or science. One of the things I try to do is spend time on outreach. I interact with students, the community and other groups to help them with science and help kids get in to science. Because it’s cool!

This is why I love science. I get paid to think. I get paid to learn stuff. I get paid to do experiments and try to figure out things that no one else knows. And in most cases, kids are very interested in learning and are inquisitive. I try to interact with student to help boost that and maintain interest.

For example, I didn’t meet a scientist until I was in college. I was in late teens, early 20s the first time I actually talked to a scientist. And that was because they were my professors. I want to reach out to students in elementary middle and high school, give them the opportunity to meet scientists, so they think about science a little differently. We want to recruit students from various backgrounds and socioeconomic states to get them into science. The best way to do that is to go and interact with them. That’s what we do.

It’s the same way if people are interested in being a carpenter. You don’t just get into your 20s and become interested in it. You get into it as a kid, you build stuff. If you can meet a carpenter or meet someone who can start teaching you and help you learn more about it, then your interest piques and builds and you go into it. So I think it’s easier for students to get into science if they interact with scientists as early as possible.

Bethany: You’re already doing some outreach stuff. You do a group on Twitter called TheDarkSci. What is @thedarksci?

Dr. Wilson: Early in 2013, there were some other scientists and journalists I was interacting with on Twitter. One of the things we were concerned with was that if you look at African-American communities, when it comes to science what you hear about are all the negative things. The negative health implications. High cancer rates, obesity, diabetes and life expectancy. And we were becoming frustrated with media outlets, particularly media outlets that cater to the African-American or minority communities. We thought, “there has to be more of a positive spin on this.” To get communities interested in science in general, the stories behind the science and thinking about health from a different perspective. If you’re constantly bombarded by the negative, you begin to internalize it. As opposed to thinking about what does it mean to have this health issue, or what you can do to prevent it and change those perceptions.

Bethany: So you want people to focus on positive ways they can impact their health, as opposed to the negative things that are happening.

Dr. Wilson: Exactly. Health and technology in general. There are statistics that show if you look in social media, women and minority groups use social media at a higher rate than white males. So minorities are actually using those platforms more. There’s an opportunity to interact and to get information directly to people on social media. If you think about it, usually science is going on at universities and research institutions. Unless you are near or have an ability to get to those, you don’t have a connection to science. So we said look, we are going to remove that barrier. We are going to go directly to people.

Bethany: You use social media to help connect people with science.

Dr. Wilson: It’s about being available. So if someone’s watching this video, they can say, wait a minute, I don’t understand some things that Dr. Wilson says. Let me contact him on Twitter. We start a twitter conversation and I can direct you to more information. Or we can have some conversations to help you understand it. And that could be anyone, a student or a teacher. It could be from somewhere here in Philadelphia, or across the country. They could even be in another country. That’s the beauty of social media, it allows people to interact when otherwise we would have no way of accessing each other.

So eventually we created an official name for @theDarkSci. It’s now the National Science & Technology News Service. The group of scientists andjournalists write articles about science issues or health issues. The goal is to build a repository of experts for media outlets who want these stories. So if someone has a story about HIV or cancer, and they want an expert doing that kind of work who can give an expert opinion, they can reach out to me. If they are looking at science communication they can reach out to Danielle Lee, @DNLee5 on Twitter. So basically if you have a question, we have people that can answer those questions. Media outlets and editors can reach out. Or if a member of the public reads a story, and says “what is the deal with this story on genetically modified foods,” we can put you in contact with someone who can explain that.

The major thing for the media outlets, particularly the ones catering to minorities, is that it’s beneficial to find a scientist or a journalist that looks like someone from that community. We make that easier. In the history of science and medicine in the U.S., African-Americans are a bit skeptical. An example is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a very bad chapter in medicine and science, where men in Tuskegee, Ala., had syphilis infections. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that’s very dangerous. And they weren’t treated. So the disease was allowed to progress, they became very sick.

Bethany: And this was done without their knowledge. They got syphilis and were not told, and then not treated. It was not a good time in American history.

Dr. Wilson: That’s the horrible part about it. They thought they were being treated. It was almost 40 years of this happening. There is skepticism that comes from that. So anytime someone from outside the African-American community is talking health and health related science there is skepticism, they remember those horrible and atrocious things that were done.

Bethany: They think, “why should we trust the medical community, they haven’t done good things to us in the past.”

Dr. Wilson: Exactly. And often times, the medical community does not look like the (African-American) community out there. It’s easier for me to go in and have a conversation because some of the skepticism won’t be there. They may think that I’m part of the medical establishment, but I can probably have a conversation easier and get more into having things flow than someone who didn’t look like me.

Bethany: You’re able to connect people with experts that can identify with, as opposed to experts that they may not necessarily feel a kinship with.

Dr. Wilson: A lot of it comes down to trust. If we want underrepresented communities to move into science, they have to trust. I mentioned the use of technology, but we also have to have conversations about the impact of science and health that happen in these communities. We need to be able to connect. As I said before, with a personal background we can have conversations about aspects of life and growing up, and if you connect with someone like that it’s easier to have a conversation.

The person doesn’t necessarily have to look like you or be the same gender or be from the same community. But if you find a way to connect with them, the conversation is easier and you can convey information. So we’re trying to reach out through @theDarkSci and increase science communication within under-represented communities.

The conversations are different. I’m going to have conversations based on my experiences, you’re going to have conversations based on yours, they will have it on theirs. So if I’m the only person leading the conversation, there’s only my perspective. It takes other people participating with different perspectives so I can say “oh I didn’t think about that, but what you’re saying makes sense.” We can improve health and our general understanding based on our experiences. We can all learn from this.

Bethany: We’re running a little out of time. But do you have any advice for people who might think that what you do is really cool and might be interested in what you do?

Dr. Wilson: Try to learn as much as possible. If you’re interested in fighting heart disease or something, you want to help people be healthier, learn more about it. Use social media to reach out and find a researcher who is doing that work. Have a conversation with them. Through social media you can get an informal mentor, someone that can help you guide your career. They can help you learn the things they learned and avoid the mistakes they made. Find the information and read.

The hardest thing as a scientist is helping people understand how to do science. The easiest way to do it is to find someone who is doing something you are interested in doing and have a conversation with them. Social media is the easiest way to do this. You can send an e-mail, send me a tweet or connect with me through Google+ or Facebook. I have a Facebook page called First Generation STEM, because I’m the first in my family to get into STEM and the first person to get a Ph.D. So I am trying to encourage and pass the information along. I would say use social media. Scientists are out there we are willing to have conversations. Talk to us!

Bethany: And we like talk about science!

Dr. Wilson: We love talking about science! If you don’t love talking about science it’s hard to do it. And it’s often better and more exciting to have conversations with people who aren’t into science as much. Then we have to make sure we are communicating that science. With other scientists we have jargon and can talk about things that make sense to us. But with nonscientists we have to talk like every day folk and I like doing that. I like people to understand what I’m doing, not just scientists but everyone.

Bethany: Thank you so much for coming on today and talking about your work! You can talk to Dr. Wilson at @HeyDrWilson. I also have links to his Google + account and his Facebook page on First Generation STEM. Thanks so much for talking to us Caleph!

Dr. Wilson: You’re welcome, thank you for having me.

Power Words

antibody Any of a large number of proteins that the body produces as part of its immune response. Antibodies neutralize, tag or destroy viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances in the blood.

biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

cancer The rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. It can lead to tumors, pain and death.

cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. It is typically too small to see with the naked eye.

cell culture  How cells are grown in the laboratory outside of the body or their natural environment.

diabetes A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

doctoral degree Also known as a Ph.D. or doctorate, these are advanced degrees offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

genetic engineering The direct manipulation of an organism’s genome. In this process, genes can be removed, disabled so that they no longer function or added after being taken from other organisms. Genetic engineering can be used to create organisms that produce medicines, or crops that grow better under challenging conditions such as dry weather, hot temperatures or salty soils.

graduate student Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

hepatitis  A viral infection of the liver that can cause liver cancer.

HIV (short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus) A potentially deadly virus that attacks cells in the body’s immune system and causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

immune system The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infection.

immunity The ability of an organism to resist a particular infection or poison by producing and releasing special protective cells.

immunology  The study of how bodies fight off infection.

mentor An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students, helping them refine their research questions. Mentors can also offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research. 

microbiology The study of microorganisms.Scientists who study microbes and the infections they can cause or ways that they can interact with their environment are known as microbiologists.

Ph.D. (also known as a doctorate) Advanced degrees offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

sexually transmitted disease An illness that is spread via sexual contact with another person.

sleeping sickness  A disease from Africa that is transmitter by the tsetse fly. It causes fever, headaches, joint pain and itching, as well as confusion and changes in sleep.

STEM An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

syphilis A bacterial infection that is spread through sexual contact. It can produce skin ulcers, rashes and other symptoms. It is currently curable with antibiotics.

T cell  A type of white blood cell that plays an important role in the immune system. There are several types of T cell. Some of them kill infections directly, while others may serve to direct the immune system in fighting off a disease.

technologyThe application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment  A clinical study to study the effects of syphilis that performed unethically from 1932–1972. African-American males with syphilis believed they were receiving free health care from the government, when in reality their disease was allowed to progress without being medicated. Numerous men died of syphilis, and their wives and children became infected. The reaction to the study led to new ethical rules for studies done with people.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.