#FEMSmicroBlog: Boosting microbial literacy with the Bad Bugs Bookclub


People love reading books; we need more people literate in microbiology. These two arguments motivated Joanna Verran to set up the Bad Bugs Bookclub. In regular meetings, they discuss books in which infectious disease forms part of the story. Due to the corona pandemic, these meetings went online while membership and awareness increased as recently published in “Using fiction to engage audiences with infectious disease: the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on participation in the Bad Bugs Bookclub” in FEMS Microbiology Letters. Founder Joanna Verran talks on the #FEMSmicroBlog about her first-hand experience of setting up the microbiology-focused #BadBugsBookclub and maintaining it through the pandemic. #TheCulturePlate


Why we meet to discuss microbiology-focused books

I set up the Bad Bugs Bookclub in 2009. My aim was to see whether reading and discussing fiction about infectious disease could encourage and enhance public engagement with science.

The reading group comprises scientists and non-scientists, and membership has remained steady at around eight. We agreed that this seemed the optimum number to retain informality and ensure that everyone was able to contribute to discussions. Over time, some members left while new ones joined.

We meet around six times a year, usually in a social setting in Manchester. We talk about how we enjoyed the book from a literary standpoint, and also about its microbiology aspect. A focus lies on its accuracy, translatability – to current and/or alternative scenarios – and value in terms of ‘microbial literacy’.

On occasion, we have combined bookclub meetings with other microbiology-focused public engagement events such as a guided walk, exhibition, science festival activity, or even a meal. For example, we arranged a discussion about The Island by Victoria Hislop, about a leper colony of the coast of Crete – combined with a Greek meze!


Increasing microbial literacy by reading

Twelve years later, the Bookclub is still going strong. By now, the website contains meeting reports describing our discussions for more than 70 books! You can also find reading guides to trigger questions to support discussion.

All resources are available for anyone to download. You might want to set up your own bookclub, suggest reading material for existing bookclubs or just see what we thought of a book you are about to read or have read.

Also, a survey conducted amongst past and current members revealed benefits to scientists, non-scientists – and authors! I have certainly benefited massively from reading more widely than previously – new authors, different genres, and even new thoughts about how pathogens are used in fiction.

Joanna Verran and her Bad Bugs Bookclub meetings
Joanna Verran presenting her Bad Bugs Bookclub meetings.

For example, how the changing virulence of influenza virus strains affects the progress of post-apocalyptic narratives. And how the nature of the zombie, a personification (zombification?) of an infectious agent, often evolves within a text to become a more empathetic/less aggressive entity.

Bookclub discussions are always wide-ranging, with every member bringing something to the discussion. It is certainly not a one-way movement of information from scientist to non-scientist. With all members being self-selecting keen readers, contributions are rich and diverse.


The Bad Bugs Book Club goes online

Over the past year (2020 – 2021), the impact of coronavirus and the pandemic has affected the bookclub. Our meetings have gone online, but membership has increased and expanded internationally.

We have been able to extend our discussions about every book we have read. This helped a lot to encompass our feelings and attitudes towards lockdown, social distancing, clinical trials, community initiatives and living during a pandemic.

During the pandemic, our Bookclub meetings helped people with their feelings about lockdown, social distancing, clinical trials and living through this period.

On two occasions, the authors even joined our discussions – again enabled by being online. During World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (2020), we discussed The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith. The novel describes a realistic near-future world. Antimicrobial resistance is commonplace, governments make difficult decisions and populations are forced to modify behaviour. The author joined us for a bookclub meeting and a Twitter discussion and sure, we had plenty to talk about.

So, if you enjoy reading fiction, and love microbiology, have a look at the Bad Bugs Bookclub website and see if there is anything you fancy! Our next meeting will likely be on International Microorganism Day, so keep an eye out for our recommended reading.


About the author of this blog

Joanna Verran is Professor of Microbiology (Emeritus) at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her lab research focuses on the interactions occurring between microorganisms and inert surfaces. She has also received awards for her teaching and public engagement work. Both utilise interdisciplinary approaches that incorporate humanities and the arts with ‘the science’. Most recently, Jo received the 2019 AAAS Mani L Bhamik award for Public Engagement with science for ‘her commitment to devising and delivering innovative microbiology-focused public engagement with the same rigor as laboratory-based research, with attention to appropriate design, thorough evaluation and wide dissemination’. Her microbiology engagement project Bad Bugs Bookclub is always grateful for book recommendations, feedback or comments. (j.verran@mmu.ac.uk)

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