Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Shelli Carter, Faculty Director, School of STEM
Pursuing a career in science can be an exciting journey fueled by passion and discovery. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU STEM Program Director Dr. Shelli Carter about her fascinating science career that ranged from conducting groundbreaking research that helped identify neurotransmitters linked to epilepsy to innovative forensic work for the federal government. Learn why it’s so important for everyone to pursue scientific literacy and dispel myths that prevent people from pursuing a career in science or STEM.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking with Dr. Shelli Carter, Program Director in the School of STEM. And our conversation today is about her career in the STEM field. And welcome, Shelli.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Thank you very much for having me, Bjorn. It’s always a wonderful opportunity to talk with you.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m excited to, to hear about the journey that is your research career and the jobs you’ve had, and so let’s go ahead and jump into it. Can you give us an idea of what you’ve studied in your graduate studies?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely. So I will say, I was always one of those dorky children that was destined to be a bench scientist, or a research scientist. And when I was growing up, I was influenced, I think, same as a lot of people my age, by “Jurassic Park,” well, maybe not too many people, but I was definitely influenced by “Jurassic Park.” And I was going to help recreate an extinct species, or help with an endangered species. Around the same time, there was a lot of work going on with the California condor, for example.
I went to undergrad in biology. Never wanted to go to medical school, so I avoided a lot of the typical pre-med courses and just focused on research-relevant courses, and then went to graduate school for molecular biology.
But very quickly towards the end of my undergraduate, and as I was entering graduate school, I decided that I didn’t want to pursue that gene splicing to bring back an extinct species, and instead I moved into biomedical research. And what I researched, actually, were genes that, in humans, predominantly play a role in the movement and the migration of neurons.
So if we think about the human brain, it sort of has this typical image of a wrinkly structure. It looks kinda like a cauliflower on the outside. And that happens because neurons migrate on top of each other, and they do this in order to increase the surface area. You can pack more neurons into the same space. They also are closer together, so when they’re passing signals back and forth it’s quicker.
And the genetic pathway that I studied, or the genes that were in that genetic pathway, are involved with the way those neurons migrate. Well, those same genes, like many of the other genes in the human self, or human species, are also found in other organisms, including a microscopic worm called C. elegans, was, which was actually what I did my graduate work in.
And so I studied those genes and their activity in C. elegans, and we identified that they were involved with movement of cells in C. elegans just like they were in humans. They were involved not only with the movement of neurons in this microscopic worm, but also the movement of materials between neurons.
And so they had a role in what’s known as neurotransmitter recycling. And if your neurotransmitters aren’t recycling quickly enough, in humans, it can lead to epilepsy, and epileptic-like convulsions. And in C. elegans, we saw the same thing.
So my graduate work actually helped identify some of the first connection between those neural migration genes and epileptic-like convulsions in a microscopic worm. They also played a role in the actual division of cells, so we were able to identify some connection to cancer cell growth.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s wonderful. There’s a lot there, and the first that’s exciting was that you were inspired by Jurassic Park. Is that correct?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Yes, that’s correct.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, which is a wonderful movie. It’s funny when, when I first saw Jurassic Park, I was inspired by the score from John Williams, but that’s because I’m a music nerd. Were there other movies that, from a STEM or a science perspective, that really inspired you? Say, when you were in your youth.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Yes, actually. I’m really dating myself with some of these, but “Medicine Man” with Sean Connery the way that that movie, in particular, not so much the details of the movie, but the voiceovers, if you will, associated with that movie. Talking about all of the untold chemical wonders in the world around us, and how we don’t understand the biodiversity that we have, and we don’t necessarily understand the resources that nature can give us. And that all directly ties back to in some ways, my field, or biomedical research, at least. But yeah. So, “Medicine Man” was also informative.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Nice. I don’t think I’ve seen “Medicine Man.” In a previous podcast with Dr. Kevin Harris we talked about one of the movies that inspired him, which was Hackers, from 1995.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Yes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And it’s wonderful, because I think when we look at the movies that inspired us in the past as they age, we’re like, “Well, it’s not the best movie, but it inspired us for the time, which is wonderful.”
And the other thing that really stuck out to me was that you really started working with worms. And I’m sure, as a young adult, and you’re thinking, “Okay, I’m going to go into science. I’m going to research.” And you just started working with worms, but I’m sure it’s quite amazing to see how connected worms are to other organisms.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Nature, if you will, is one of the, the great recyclers. So if something works well in a particular organism, through evolutionary history, it’s not going to be recreated using completely different parts.
So we see that when we look at genes, and we see that when we look at genetic pathways. There’s often a significant amount of overlap in how something works in different species.
So you don’t have to study in humans, because obviously that’s unethical for a whole host of reasons, and instead you can work with research animals. And there’s a lot of benefits to it.
For example, C. elegans in particular has a three-day lifespan. So I could study hundreds and thousands of animals in the course of a year, which is much, much quicker than we could do with other research organisms, like mice.
Developing new research systems is really great, because it allows us to do a lot very quickly, and especially if we take it to modern times in the combination with high throughput computing, and things that we can do through simulation. We really can advanced in leaps and bounds compared to the olden days, where we were doing research studies in primates.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s wonderful. I really liked how you talked about how, with the worms. Did you say it was a three-day?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Yes. Three-day lifespan.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, a three-day lifespan, which is crazy. And I was watching a special about studying flies, and I think their lifespan was pretty short.
Dr. Shelli Carter: It is. So, yeah, when I was in graduate school, actually, there were some fly labs as well. They were on a different floor of my building, and the worm people liked to make fun of the fly people because when our research subjects got loose, they quickly just dried up in the lab and you never noticed, because they were microscopic. But when the flies got loose, they ended up in everyone’s coffee.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s hilarious. And, and I’m glad we talked about the worms and the flies, because throughout history, there have been, of course, unfortunate examples where scientists and medicine have done experiments upon humans. And obviously that’s unethical, because, you know, it’s not ethical to test out drugs and everything on humans. And so can you expand on why it is unethical to, say, use humans as subjects, for the most part?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely. So I think one aspect of it is sometimes overlooked is, we all know that doctors swear an oath to do no harm, and their focus is quality of life and helping people. And what a lot of people don’t realize is, research scientists, while we don’t officially swear an oath, we hold ourselves to the same standard, and we don’t want to cause undue suffering or undue pain.
But the simple truth of the matter is, we don’t know how certain things work unless we break them. So I could induce a mutation in this microscopic worm to see what would happen to the worm, which I would never be able to do in a higher organism, because it’s going to be either lethal or it’s going to induce some type of defect that is going to cause a very poor quality of life.
I mean, this is not even talking so much about humans. We can just consider primate research, which is definitely something that is done very, very rarely now, because we have so many what we would consider lower organisms to do studies on, but the data is still valid. The genes still work the same way, or we can look from worms, and then we can kind of go up the chain, if you will, to flies. And we see, okay, these are still working the same way.
Then if we need to, we can go to something like zebrafish, or we can go to mice, and we can say, okay, all these things are working the same. And then if we use computers to analyze genetic code, we can see the genes look almost exactly the same between mice and humans, so we can extrapolate the same thing is probably happening in humans, or the same thing would happen in humans.
And in that way, we can, again, test what happens when I deliberately break something, or we can test what happens when I want to test a new compound. You know, harkening back to Medicine Man. Maybe I’ve isolated some compounds from nature and I want to see their impact on the way cells grow. I don’t want to do that in an organism that is going to then have pain and suffering. C. elegans don’t have pain receptors. They have mechanical receptors, they have touch receptors, but they don’t have what we would consider to be pain receptors.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a wonderful explanation, and as a non-scientist myself, I don’t know what has, or does not have, pain receptors, so it totally makes sense on the different categories of life forms. And obviously, throughout the history of medical science, and especially research, there has been various ways in which they have experimented on different animals. And today, I think a lot of the medical community and scientific community they’ve learned lessons on what to use and what not to use.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And that transitions to the next question, and can you describe your experience working with multidisciplinary teams?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Certainly. So I will say, after a very passionate start in biomedical research, by the time my graduate career was drawing to a close I had decided that bench research, as it’s envisioned, or it comes into play in an academic setting, was not going to be right for me.
So the folks that I knew that were academic, molecular biologists were very, very focused on, for example, that one genetic pathway, and that’s what they would do for the entirety of their career. And that depth of knowledge was really essential to get those all-important research grants so that you could pay for your host of graduate students, and you could pay to continue the research and push that frontier of knowledge.
But that continual deep dive over the course of what becomes fundamentally decades wasn’t what I was passionate about, or am not passionate about, and instead I’m passionate about learning new things, and putting knowledge into use in different and unique ways.
And so towards the end of my graduate career, I began to investigate alternative career paths, if you will. And in my academic background, you either stayed an ivory tower academic, which meant you stayed in a traditional research university. Or if you really wanted to sell your soul to the dark side, you went to pharmaceutical companies or big drug manufacturers.
And then there was a very tiny percentage of us that did something completely different, and that was to head towards government service. And so I decided that, perhaps, would be an interesting calling for me.
Now, on the way to joining government service, I actually took my foundational knowledge in DNA, not so much in worm DNA, but just DNA in general, and I went to work for a private forensic company.
Now, we weren’t, you know, “Who’s your daddy?” Jerry Springer kind of paternity testing forensic company. We did advanced research on behalf of the government, and we were actually investigating, sort of still emerging field called forensic geolocation.
And what we did was, we were doing research into the host of geologic and chemical and biological signals that are around us in the world, and the way that you could use those various data repositories and various scientific knowledge to basically assemble almost like a Venn diagram of, “Okay, I have these particular rocks, and I have these particular chemical signatures, and I have these particular pollen grains, and I have these particular DNA samples, and if I overlay all those together on a map, this is the location that it came from.”
And so that’s what the research effort I was working with when I was at the private company was for a time. And then I parlayed that experience into joining as a, a civil servant, or joining the government directly as a program manager. So I moved from doing the actual developmental research to then sort of identifying what was the horizon. Where did we need to push scientific knowledge to be able to address government needs?
I specifically worked in the intelligence community, and I started off working projects that were still connected to that forensic background, were still connected to my biology background. But when I joined my government office, I actually was the first molecular biologist they had ever hired, and so right away, I’m in the room with chemists. I’m in the room with particle experts. I’m in the room, actually, at times, with nuclear physicists and mathematicians and statisticians.
And very quickly learned that my niche knowledge of how worms have seizures, wasn’t useful, but my sort of general understanding of the way that we could put biological information to use for us was extremely useful. Or random biological facts that I happened to have accumulated over the years could then be put to unique problem-solving when taken together with all these other team members.
That was a really great, and really fun and interesting time, and I really enjoyed the work. I had an opportunity to work forensics. I actually at one point in time, briefly, managed some virtual reality programs. They needed someone to step in and take over the programs and by random chance I happened to be the only person in the office who played World of Warcraft, and so they’re like, “You know how virtual works. You can lead this program.” And I’m like, “Uh, I know to play a night elf druid.” You know?
But again, it was my ability to think as a scientist which was really what they needed and my ability to function as a program manager. And so I worked virtual reality for a while. I worked advanced materials, which, as a molecular biologist, I have a fairly strong foundation in chemistry as well, so I was able to apply that kind of combination of knowledge in looking at new materials.
I interacted a little bit with NASA on some of their specialty materials, and what they need to do to make sure materials can withstand the pressures and the extreme condition that they’re exposed to. And it was, it was really great and dynamic and fun time. Interacted with a lot of different people that I never would have interacted with had I stuck with what was a sort of typical career path for someone with my academic training.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So thank you for going over your backgrounds. A lot done back there. I guess the first question as a follow-up is, why is going in, into pharmaceuticals… What did you say?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Go selling your soul to the dark side.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Selling your soul. Now, I get that, because, I mean, pharmaceutical industry makes up billions and billions and they also produce great, great drugs. But most pharmaceutical companies are for-profit. Nothing wrong with for profit, but when you have the for-profit drive, that also means that certain decisions are made. So can you expound, I guess you can say on the research scientist view of pharmaceuticals?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Yes. So I think you hit it on the head with sort of that idea that the big, bad pharmaceutical companies are driven by a bottom line, or a profit margin. So at the time that I was in graduate school, because I would certainly argue that I don’t think many people think this anymore, but when I was in graduate school, there was this perception that if you went to work for a profit-driven company that there would be someone, say a suit who may or may not know any biology, that was going to come down and tell you, “You have to stop this research project because we don’t think it’s going to return sufficient profit for us.” And it could be to you, as the bench scientist, the most intellectually stimulating project you’ve ever envisioned, or ever set upon, path of discovery, but someone else is saying, “You can’t do that.” And so that’s why there was sort of this view that pharmaceuticals was the bad way to go. But
the flip side of that was, in some cases, there was a little bit of understanding that you might go down that path because you wanted that secure paycheck, and you wanted maybe a slightly better paycheck, especially right out of graduate school. But very, very few people would’ve considered going a government career track, because you got no glory and you got no money.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s funny, because the government, from my perspective, always has seemed like a really good option, besides the fact that you’re working for the government, say state, federal, whatever. But you’re also really helping out the country. And I don’t know if that sounds naïve, but I think some people’s views of the government is stuck in, like, the DMV, where you go and get your driver’s license.
Or, you know, you’re watching the news and you can’t stand the national politics, because, well, it’s national politics. But there are literally thousands and thousands and tens and thousands of hard-working government workers who are there to do excellent work every day, and to very little fanfare.
Now, when you’re in the government, and it sounded like the team that you were on there was truly multidisciplinary, that must’ve been very intellectually stimulating, and I’m assuming creative at times.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely it was. I once joked that some of the best ideas I had ever seen, research ideas I’ve ever seen sketched out, came out on, like, cocktail napkins. Not necessarily literal cocktail napkins, but we would be sitting around, and just everyone’s unique background, and everyone’s different way of viewing the world, someone would say one little fact or one little piece. You know, “Hey, this is an outstanding question that I’ve always wondered about.” And someone else from a completely different discipline would be like, “Well, you know, that actually sounds like this circumstance in my particular field of expertise.”
And pretty soon you’re, you’ve got this hours-long conversation going, and you’ve sketched out a way to incorporate astrophysics and molecular biology and to identify explosive particles. I made all those up, please, may everyone note. But you know, that was the kind of conversations that we would have. So yes, it was very, very stimulating.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For me, that’s one of the things that is one of the best aspects of collaboration, is when you are able to talk to a scientist, a STEM person. And then if you’re able to then talk to a philosopher or a theologian, or whatever, a historian, and you’re able to really bring together everybody’s expertise.
And just by talking, you can find those connections that by yourself, of course, you’d never be able to have those connections. And that’s why it’s so important to always be working towards innovation. It’s so important to be open to new ideas, and that leads us to the third question is, can you describe how and why you transitioned to higher education?
Dr. Shelli Carter: Certainly. So, again, this is kind of a funny aspect of my particular path, but when I went into graduate school I was very firmly set on I was going to be an academic bench scientist. And to most academic bench scientists, you take a teaching job because you need a regular paycheck.
So you’re going to work for a university. They’re going to pay you while you’re trying to do your research, while you’re trying to get grant money, and hopefully you get grant money, and you can actually have summer salary. But in exchange for that, the university’s going to require that you at least see students.
In many cases, and in heavily research-driven universities, not in all, but in many heavily research-driven universities, teaching is definitely secondary, and teaching is definitely not the priority of most professors and most faculty members. And I went in with that same kind of worldview. “Teaching these students is taking away from my time to do research.”
But then I had the opportunity, but the particular research grant I was on ended, and therefore my advisor was not able to support me as an RA, as in a research assistant. Instead I had to take one of the department’s teaching assistantships, and I had an opportunity to teach some upper-level undergraduate laboratory class. And, and they were truly discovery-based.
So I was guiding the students in how to come up with unique research studies, and how to do tests using the worms, and using yeast, and using other things, and I began to really enjoy that. And then I happened to become connected to a different department at my university, where our interdisciplinary bachelor’s program lived.
Originally, this was the program where you got to design your own major, so people would study very, very niche things, and they would come out with a bachelor’s of science in, you know, Japanese anime applied to middle eastern culture. Whatever they wanted to do.
And they had just a limited number of interdisciplinary science courses, and it was really focused on that connection between the different disciplines of science, and how science builds on itself, and it was focused on those aspects of, “What does this mean for society?” As opposed to, “Can you dissect this microscopic worm?” And they needed someone to teach some of their science courses, because the professor retired suddenly.
And somehow or another, I don’t even remember how my name got put in the hat, but I ended up in my final year of graduate school teaching these courses for that program, and I truly loved what I saw from the students.
These were students who were embracing science because it was interesting. They were not the pre-meds who just wanted to know, “What do I need to know to pass the MCAT?” They weren’t in the classes because they had to take the classes. They were in the classes because they wanted to take them.
And seeing them sort of light up as they understood how science worked, and how wonderful, encompassing and innovative science can be, really just reunited my passion for the field as just a concept, if you will, as opposed to an activity of going to the bench every day.
And so I moved to northern Virginia to work for the private forensic company, and as a result of going from graduate student hours of 10 to 12 hours every day in the lab to having sort of a traditional job, if you will, where I worked kind of set hours, and there were eight hours a day, and no weekends. And I’m like, “I’m kinda bored.” So I contacted a local community college, and I started to teach introductory biology for them for the non-majors.
So again, it was that population who who opted to take this class. Yes, to address their natural science credit that they needed to take, but they chose biology over the other options. And they just tended to be more interesting in why the information mattered to them.
We talk about, for example, biological macromolecules, and biology majors are like, “Oh, yeah. You put together these, these and this, and you get to this biochemical pathway.” Non-majors tend to be like, “Oh, so this is why I need a certain mix of fat, protein and carbohydrates in my diet.” And it just really has a different relevance for them, and I really, really grew to love that.
And so I’d, I adjuncted for most of my professional career, at the community college level. I also continued to teach the interdisciplinary science classes for my old university. We converted those to online, so I actually was part of the longest-standing online program in the state of Alabama.
And originally, they were what we would call correspondence courses, so the students just emailed me papers and I emailed back comments, but then we moved them into sort of more interactive courses as we envision online now.
And just I really was impassioned by that, but I also began to very much feel lacking in my own skills. Again, I was trained as a bench scientist. I wasn’t trained to be an instructor. And I realized that I wasn’t serving my students very well, because I just didn’t know. I didn’t know how to help them learn the information. I didn’t know how to assess them. You know, coming out of graduate school, I thought, “I stand up here. I lecture. I’m going to give you a really, really long test, and you’re going to spit out a bunch of facts for me.” Well, that’s not necessarily the best way to demonstrate knowledge.
And so as I was working for the government, and as I was teaching, I actually went back to school myself. I am perhaps dangerously overeducated at times. But you know, even with my PhD, I went back to get a Master’s in Education and Instructional Design, because I wanted to understand more about how to reach learners, and how to structure courses and materials so that it has maximum positive impact on the students.
And then through a whole host of life changes, I decided to leave government service, and at that point in time, I had become more active in teaching for a variety of universities in different formats. Online competency-based education, hybrid systems. I had done a lot of course design work. I also had done, some instructional materials development for different publishing companies, and so I decided to return full-time to higher education, and that was about six years ago now.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent, and honestly your career sounds similar to mind. Not the science part, but when I was in graduate school, I was probably insufferable, honestly. Completely egotistical. And music was the only thing that was important, and my world was only going to be around other people with doctorates.
And everything changed when I taught that first community college class, and I was able to really teach students who really wanted and needed to learn, to go on and get their associate’s and get on their bachelor’s and then get jobs.
And higher education, and especially graduate education, is great, but it’s also a very small percentage of education in which, I guess you can say, highly driven and motivated academic people go on and do stuff, which is wonderful.
But really one of the best things to do is, is to really teach and, and help teach everyone so they can on and fulfill their needs for themselves and their families. And I really like what you were talking about, especially with biology, because I always talk about information literacy.
And you know, with scientific literacy, what you’re talking about with the fats and the carbohydrates, I would’ve been one of your students where I’m like, “Oh. That’s the mixture of proteins and carbohydrates that you need for healthy living.” Do you notice that, as far as students go, that they have good scientific literacy, or is that something that always still needs to be improved?
Dr. Shelli Carter: I definitely think that’s something that still needs to be improved. I think I don’t really know when it happens. My guess is sometimes in you know, grade or perhaps middle school. People begin to sort of form this self-image in which they are either a geek or a science person, or they’re not a science person. And that begins to influence a lot of their outlook and a lot of their pursuit of knowledge.
And so depending on how they’ve kind of incorporated that mindset, science becomes something that they call scary. Just talking about science, they’re going to kind of shut down, because they’re like, “No. This is something I’m not good at. This is something that’s scary. This is something I don’t need to listen to.”
I mean it truly shocks me to hear anyone say, or, for example, put in their intro discussion “I don’t really see the relevance of science,” or, “I don’t really see how this class is going to matter, but I had to take a science class.” This person right here, this is my target for this class. This person is going to leave this class understanding everything that science does for us and that it’s not scary, and that it is all around us, and every time you go to the store and you’re trying to decide, “Do I wanna buy the organic or do I wanna buy the non-organic?”
“Do I, you know, vote for a politician who talks about green energy? What does green energy even mean?” All of that requires a little bit of scientific literacy, and I think that we do have the tools and the resources there for students, but we need to just kind of break this idea that you’re a science person or you’re not a science person.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really love that. Science is oftentimes coupled with math, and people will think of themselves as either, “I’m good at math,” or, “I’m not.” Or, “I’m good at science,” or, “I’m not.”
And again, with music, I see it all the time. People are like, “Well, no, no. I can’t learn piano,” or, “I can’t learn guitar, because I’m just not musical.” But as with anything, I think, with math, it’s about systematically learning the fundamentals slowly, over time, and then guess what? You can do it. You can do that with the guitar. You can do that with math, and you can do that with science.
But I think there’s a lot of cultural norms in which people expect scientists to be smart and nerdy, and you know, scientists are just like everybody else. They just have passion for something, and anybody can be a scientist. They just have to put in the time.
Now, how much math have you had to become proficient at? So you know, up to trig, beyond trig?
Dr. Shelli Carter: In terms of some STEM disciplines, I will say many biology programs do not require the same degree of math as if we consider something like an engineering field. So in most biological sciences, you will take math through at least Calculus. You may take Calculus II, but Calculus II is less common.
And instead, after you’ve completed Calculus, so some higher-level math, you then would switch into taking more statistics courses. So still mathematical reasoning, mathematical approach, but you will not take as much trigonometry, or you wouldn’t take all the way to Calculus III, whereas that might be necessary for a physics program or an electrical engineering. So when I was in undergraduate, I did take, completed Calculus, and I also completed a two-course series in statistics.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s wonderful. I personally think everybody should, you know, instead of—this is my own personal opinion I’m going put that out there—instead of everybody always taking algebra for an undergraduate, they should take statistics.
In the news you consume every day, they use statistics, and so understanding what stats mean and what those numbers mean and the variance, and instead of inferring, and really digging deep into numbers and stats. That would be really excellent, for people to become better at it, and it’s really nice to hear that at least in your field, statistics is more common than, say, trig or calc.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely, and I would agree. I wholeheartedly think we should have statistics as a core in any education system. We just think about where we are right now in the world and when there were initial discussions about mortality rate associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding what those numbers mean, and understanding what statistics means.
You can’t take a pool of 100 and pick out three to get your 3%. You’ve got to consider, you know, in some groups, it’s going to be much higher than three out of 100, and in other groups, it’s going to be much lower than three out of 100, and that’s just how statistics work. And it’s sad to boil down human impacts to numbers, but conceptualizing it differently, I think, would be easier if we had a broader foundation of statistical education.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, I completely agree. We can both agree on one thing it’s, you know, statistics are important and, just like you were saying with COVID, and you look at the data, different age groups are much worse impacted. The older you are, especially 85-plus, 75-plus, it’s quite devastating, and you get younger and younger, then it’s not.
Then you even get to different aspects of race, if you’re white or Black or Hispanic, COVID has impacted those populations differently. There’s many different sociological reasons, you could go into that. But when you look at the raw stats, you can see a difference. And, and then from there, you can have a conversation. You can have a scientifically literate conversation, and then also hopefully a policy conversation on how to head that.
Now, since we’re talking a little about, a little bit about COVID: What are some of the common misconceptions that you’ve heard about COVID? From a science perspective, that you’re like, “Hmm.”
Dr. Shelli Carter: Sure. I will tackle probably the most timely misconception I think is going on right now. So just after we have approval in the US for one vaccine, I believe earlier today there may have been approval for a second vaccination. But I have heard repeated, a disturbing number of times that the vaccines were rushed. Coming with sort of this perception that there’s an 18-month pharmaceutical development cycle.
The truth of the matter is, a large percentage of that 18 months has always related to the red tape that keeps the government running, if you will. It’s bureaucracy. You know, things come through, they sit on someone’s desk for a couple weeks. “Okay, I got my service level agreement. I’m gonna look at these and, you know, I’ve got so many months to look at these, or I’ve got so many weeks to look at these, and I’ve gotten hundreds of different applications, and hundreds of different datasets that I have to look at.”
The community and society and everyone who could came together in this case and said, “We are not going to sit on things associated with coronavirus vaccinations, or coronavirus treatments. If something comes in with that tag, we’re going to look at it immediately.” And just that focus and that commitment to immediate review, thorough review, expedited the process. It did not rush the process.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is a wonderful observation, and I’ve heard that too, about being, “rushed.” And, and it makes sense that when it comes to bureaucracy, as with anything, there are certain processes that are in place, and it’s not to improve efficiency, but it exists just because it’s there, if that makes sense.
Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely. We were talking earlier about that perception about government. The DMV kind of mindset. “I’m going to go to the DMV. It’s going to take me all day to get my driver’s license.” That’s just kind of the idea we have, you know? Why rush? It’s good enough for government. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And, and the funny thing with life is not many things actually have to be that way, but it’s very difficult to facilitate, of course, and sometimes to encourage change. Been wonderful conversation, Shelli. I, of course, apologize for being a little sick, but any final words?
Dr. Shelli Carter: I just want to say, again, thank you for inviting me and encourage everyone or anyone listening, don’t be afraid of science. If you have any questions, find us. Find a friendly neighborhood scientist and ask them.
There are a lot of resources and a lot of scientists who are, who truly are passionate about public education and helping people understand. And so if you have a question, just find the right person to ask.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is wonderful, and I will be asking you many questions very soon. And today, we are talking to Dr. Shelli Carter, Program Director in the School of STEM, and of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer.