Director of the Center for Neural Engineering; Brush Chair Professor of Engineering; Professor of Neurosurgery; Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics
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Cole Hons: Greetings fellow homo sapiens, and welcome to The Symbiotic Podcast. We're here in our third season, streaming live from our studio at College Heights in State College, Pennsylvania. Thanks so much for tuning in. It's my pleasure today to introduce you to our guest, Dr. Steven Schiff. Welcome, Steven. Dr. Schiff is a pediatric neurosurgeon and Brush Chair Professor of Engineering here at Penn State. Great to see you, Steve.
Dr. Steven Schiff: Good to see you too, Cole.
Cole: So, are you over your jet lag from coming back from Africa this latest time?
Steven: Mostly. Still getting up at four in the morning, each morning. Which does get me to start my day early, but it also ends pretty early.
Cole: How often are you running back and forth to Africa these days?
Steven: Well, before the pandemic, it was every three to four months. During the pandemic I made it back once. And then this was the first more normal visit where we could get people together on this last trip.
Cole: Right on. And you have a long history in your life with Africa. Is that right? Can you speak about that a little bit as we jump in here? Oh, before we do, this is live, this is live stuff. I should let the audience know. I'm so excited to talk to you. For all of you watching out there if you want to participate, please join the chat. You can put your name in there. You can stay anonymous if you wish. You can see the little chat box next to the live stream, and you can put your questions in there. You can also vote up other people's questions. And at the end of our conversation today, we'll ask the top voted questions to Dr. Schiff, and you can hear his answers. Sorry about that Steve. It's live, no net. Here we go. So, again, let's talk about Africa a little bit.
Steven: Well, I first visited Africa as a boy with my family. And I was just fascinated. And it was so different from anything that I'd ever encountered here in United States. And I had harbored this childhood dream that if I could ever go back and be able to do something useful and helpful to people on that continent that I wanted to do so. And so later in my career, I found that opportunity.
Cole: That's terrific. And how old were you the first time you went to Africa?
Steven: I was 11.
Cole: 11 years old.
Cole: Oh, wow. That's an interesting age. And was it for a good, long chunk of time?
Steven: I was in Africa for about six weeks then. But those memories as a child just stuck with me forever.
Cole: Yeah. Cool. I went to Bumpus Mills, Tennessee as a six and seven year. And that formed me as well, but maybe in different ways. But we won't go there. We're here to talk about you.
Steven: I have family in Tennessee. I understand.
Cole: Bumpus Mills, Tennessee in particular.
Cole: Yeah. So, anyway, it's been so great getting to know you a little bit in this last month, as you've worked with the team here at the Huck Institute, and we got to learn more about your work and make the video that we're going to be showing, debuting in a few minutes here for our audience. It's just fantastic stuff. And to lead into that, I just want to remind all our viewers, this third season we're doing of the podcast is about risk takers and game changers. And the reason we wanted you on the podcast is we feel you fit that mold of a scientist who's taking risks and really changing the game. And so I've been asking all of our guests, were you always a risk taker? Do you consider yourself a big risk taker? Were you as a kid?
Steven: I don't think so, except in one domain. When I was a kid, I was pretty good at ski racing. And you got pretty good at ski racing because tended to take more risk along with some skill than other people might have been willing to take. I say that now, it sounds like I was insane as a kid, but you don't think that you can be hurt out there. And I was actually a finalist in New York as a high school kid, but too much of a nerd to make much further than that and eventually stopped it because it seemed too risky. Too many other people were getting hurt.
Cole: Yeah. Yeah. You can definitely hurt yourself. Yeah. My son went skiing for the first time recently and came back in one piece. No broken bones. We were very happy about that. And ski racing is by yourself though, right? You never see people skiing next to each other.
Steven: Oh, they do some of that these days. But in the classical forms of Alpine racing, it's just you by yourself.
Cole: Yeah. Should just try to get down there as fast as you can. Just a wild man. So, you're a wild man on the slopes.
Steven: Well, not anymore. Although, training as a physician, especially with things such as infectious disease, you learn how to control the risks of exposure and keep yourself calm and faced with people with contagious and dangerous diseases. And it becomes something that you absorb professionally. And so that has helped, but I'm a much more cautious person now than I was as a teenager.
Cole: Got it, got it. Well, that's interesting. And I would say, one thing we're fascinated in learning more about is what causes people in the scientific realm to take a risk. And I know that you are the recipient of two major NIH grants that are considered high risk, high reward grants. And here at the Huck Institutes, we've got a little seed fund that's called HITS, the Huck Innovative and Transformational Seed Fund. And it's supposed to be stuff that's too risky for the NIH to even look at. But the NIH does have a program for things that they consider risky. And you're one of the few people that's hit it two times, not just once, which is pretty phenomenal, like very, very rare that somebody would be given that kind of money two times. So, what's your magic sauce? What do you think is going on there?
Steven: The first time back in Africa as an adult, I visited an old and very dear friend of mine who had moved to Africa and built a hospital. And I was amazed at the struggles and the types of disease that he was treating. And perhaps searching for good problems. I mean, if you are at a university and your faculty, and you're doing research, you can work on things that are of no interest to anyone and including yourself. Or you could find things that are just the best use of your precious time on earth. And I asked him, he's Ben Warf, he's now a professor at Harvard. Very well known for his surgical work. And I said, "What's the most important problem you can't solve?" And he thought about for a moment. And he said, "Maybe I could help figure out what makes thousands and thousands of these infants sick."
Steven: And they had never been able to recover what organism gave these babies brain infections. And then in the survivors, they often needed brain surgery for the fluid that built up. And I thought, okay, how hard can that be? 15 years later, you and I are now talking and we're beginning to crack this problem open in a useful way. But faced with something that could be solved, but no one had. And from someone like myself who did not have a background you would've expected to have been an expert on baby infected with organisms that got into their brain. It was a struggle.
Steven: So, this isn't like an airplane pilot, where if that plane crashes, everyone and the pilot dies. This is risky in the sense that we needed a lot of resources to crack this problem. We had burned through a number of different seed grants, which got us started, got us looking at some of these samples. But we needed a major investment. And there was no expectation that this would succeed, but the NIH and very thankfully the NIH director decided that this was worth the risk. That we would fail, because if we could succeed, it was a huge impact and potentially one that had global impact around the planet.
Cole: So, you feel it was that potential impact that moved the needle for you, so to speak.
Steven: Definitely. And the same story for the second one of these grants that we received, we had been the only people really in that space, working on these problems. Part of that is a cultural and political issue around the world. We testified to Congress about 10 years ago on the fact that these newborn infant infections were unstudied, uncharacterized and were killing about a million babies a year around the planet. And much more than many of the other diseases that we put enormous resources into such as malaria.
Cole: We put some of that footage in our video, which we're very proud that we were able to try and condense. That was the hard part was condensing into five minutes, all these different pieces of what you've been doing for 15 years, right? At this stage. And we're going to cue that up in a minute. So, folks can see some of what you just shared is in the video, but it'll be nice to just have that out to the world to get that story out there, which I think is really important. There's so much good work going on that people don't know about. And I think that making more people aware of what the problems are and how big the problems are can only help to muster more support in the public and hopefully with lawmakers and institutions like the NIH, et cetera.
Cole: So, why don't we go ahead and cue that up and I'll just remind everybody, if you have any questions as you listen to Dr. Schiff, and there's anything you'll want to know as you watch the video, as we go through the Q&A here with myself and Steve. You can ask your questions too. You can just pop those in the chat and we'll get to those a little later. So, at this point, Dan, if you're ready, we could cue up that video and we'll take a little look at our latest life from all angles, featuring the work of Dr. Steven Schiff.
Narrator: If you've ever watched a medical drama, you might recognize these, their MRI scans of human brains. The scan on the left shows the brain of a healthy infant from Uganda. But in the scan on the right, there's this circle, it's an absces. A fluid filled swelling. All of these scan show them too. These abscesses are linked to a condition called hydrocephalus. It affects more than 400,000 newborn children around the world each year, and could lead to cognitive issues, brain damage, and death. What causes these cases of hydrocephalus in the African nation of Uganda is at the center of a medical mystery that tells us a lot about how global health works and can be improved.
Steven: Hydrocephalus is a condition where you don't clear the fluid that is made in your brain every day and helps nourish it and suspend it adequately. And in a young baby, the fluid builds up in the head because the bones of the skull are not yet fused. The head gets large.
Narrator: Steven Schiff is a pediatric neurosurgeon and Brush Professor of Engineering at Penn State. He's leading a global effort to better understand and treat childhood diseases in general and hydrocephalus in particular.
Steven: So, we think that upwards of a million infants a year die in the first month of life, around the planet from an infection.
Narrator: In 2007 Schiff spent a week in Uganda to help address technical problems with diagnosing epilepsy. He examined the equipment and made some professional connections, but what really caught his attention was the number of babies he encountered with enlarged heads.
Steven: At the end of that week, I asked my colleague, well, what's the most important problem that he needed help solving? And he said, "Well, why don't I try to figure out what makes these infants sick?" I thought, how hard could that be? And here, 15 years later, we're finally getting answers to that.
Narrator: The doctors in this hospital had treated over a thousand cases like this without ever knowing the cause of the condition. To gain some clues Schiff turned to genomics.
Steven: There's a piece of a gene that all bacteria have that we have large databases for. So, if we sequence pieces of that, we often can determine pretty close what the species is.
Narrator: Working with an international team of colleagues for over a decade Schiff discovered that almost all the hydrocephalus in Uganda was caused by one organism, a specific variant of the bacterium Paenibacillus Thiaminolyticus.
Steven: It was never known to cause serious illness. If we offer it to mice, the strain that we knew well, doesn't hurt them. The strain from the African infant kills them usually in a day or so.
Narrator: It took more than 4 million and over a decade to identify and characterize a sea single pathogen in Uganda. Until similar work is performed in every low and middle income country Schiff points to the promise of highly integrative prediction techniques to help reduce the burden of infection on infants globally.
Steven: And although in the future, I think we're going to be able to have new technologies that enable us to do a much better job of determining what makes an individual sick from a given bacteria or a virus. Today a workaround is what we call predictive, personalized public health.
Narrator: The key, says Schiff, is to cross reference relevant data streams, including location of infections, prevalence of specific bacteria in specific places and environmental factors like rainfall, temperature, and humidity. By combining satellite data with on the ground surveillance over time, this novel approach could empower doctors to far more accurately diagnose patients at the point of care. As he testified to the house foreign affairs and committee in 2011, Schiff sees this work as a moral imperative.
Steven: As a physician and scientist, and as a father, I'm struck by how much we don't know about newborn infections in developing countries. I am concerned that one reason is that the newborn infants who die there have no political voice.
Narrator: Schiff is quick to point out that none of the work he's doing would be possible without scores of people willing to cooperate in pursuit of a higher purpose. Something bigger than anyone's individual career.
Steven: We put 50 people on some of these scientific papers. You can get buried in the large numbers of names that are credited with authoring these discoveries. But people really surprise you and faced with a project worth doing. I've been just so proud that the teams we've put together are just as dedicated today as they were when we first asked, "Would you be interested in ... It's funny, you tell people, we got a lot of, we have thousands and thousands of infants dying in some of these sides. Would you want to help us? And I usually don't get to finish the sentence before most folks who I would approach will go, "I'm in. What do you need?" And that's part of the reason I think we're doing a good job.
Narrator: To keep up with the latest developments in Dr. Steven Schiff's work along with other scientists at Penn State's Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences visit huck.psu.edu/subscribe.
Cole: Great story, Steven. Yeah. We're so proud to be able to work with you and help more people see what you're up to and all the people you're working with. You just sent me a new photo today that we're going to put in that video. When we put it out as a separate piece, the big team, that was taken last week, right? All those folks that have come together. And I love when you shared that people just step forward because they want to make a difference. They're inspired by something bigger than themselves. That's been a theme for all of our guests here is this idea that it's not just science for science sake, although that can be inspiring as well. But science that makes a difference in the lives of other human beings. It's really powerful stuff. And thank you for doing that.
Steven: I used to think that it was a personal decision on my part to focus on children's medicine. Because originally I had trained as an adult surgeon. But dealing with infant disease is just universal around the world. It doesn't matter what the politics are in a government or between different political factions. It's one of the great unifiers of humanity. And I just think I'm very lucky to be able to wake up each morning and work on problems like that. And with so many people who are so dedicated to working with us.
Cole: Yeah. That's a good attitude to have. Yeah. I think that meaningful work inspires us to keep going.
Steven: Well, it's also important I think, Cole, in a university. So, we train a lot of students at the graduate level either to work in industry or government or the majority to go into academics. And I tell them, there's no difference so far as I'm concerned between the three different domains, we're supposed to introduce them to. Research, education and service. And if we pick the right domains to work on it all blends into one. And I tell my grad students, don't waste your precious life on anything and you don't really believe you should be working on.
Cole: Yeah. That's great advice. That's great advice. Well, as you mentioned, the next generation of scientists, you're reminding me that there's a component to your work that includes bringing knowledge, but not just technology, a knowledge, but also starting program in the countries where you're working. Could you speak about that a little bit?
Steven: So, we try very hard, even when they're not designed, the grants are not designed to build capacity, to build capacity. A lot of the science in developing portions of the world as for better or worse, and for lack of a better phrase, but called colonial. We come in from Europe or from the United States with clever ideas. We do research projects, we leave. And the goal in all of our work is that when we're done that the people in the countries facing the problems that they face that are currently insurmountable will have the skill and the capacity and the training to take up the work themselves and to deal with future problems.
Cole: What does that look like on the ground?
Steven: Well, we put teams together to not just do the work, but to be research units. So, we have a very good research unit at one of the hospitals in Uganda that we piece together from three different NIH grants. Both grants here at Penn State and also grants at Boston Children's Hospital. And I probably have helped half a dozen students at the graduate level now get their masters or PhDs mostly in Africa. But we do work closely now with a graduate student from Vietnam. Another site that NIH has encouraged us to branch off to.
Cole: Yeah, let's talk about that a little bit because you've been in Uganda largely there for a good long time, proving things out. And the bacteria that was mentioned in our video, which I want to revisit in a minute. But that's been the core and you've learned a lot. But now you can take that model and go to other places. So, where is it taking you?
Steven: So, pediatric neurosurgery has about a 150 of certified practitioners in the United States. It's a pretty small club. And we basically know each other. So, within that group, we also know closely those who were deeply embedded in working in low and middle income countries. And so in the same way I was introduced to some of the pediatric neurosurgery problems and diseases in Uganda. I had colleagues, oh, several colleagues from the University of Alabama who'd been very intercalated into training and education of neurosurgeons in Vietnam. And the first day, I walked into an operating room in Hanoi I saw exactly the same type of case that we'd been trying to understand in Uganda.
Cole: Oh wow.
Steven: And what I proposed to NIH is that we don't know if it's the same organisms, but if we're going to make sure the strategies we're using in Africa are universal, then an Asian site, such as that was ideal. And they agreed.
Cole: That's terrific. So, that's scaling up now?
Steven: We actually, during COVID, it was very difficult. It was very difficult to get in and out of almost any country for periods of time. But with good teams in place, we continued and finished our recruitment of patients and our sampling of infants from Vietnam. A few months ago, we got about 500 frozen specimens sent to us here at Penn State and were feverishly working on analyzing them to begin to answer some of the questions you probably would like to ask me.
Cole: Yeah. Well, you sort of mapped out your methodology as my understanding in Uganda. And I want to hear about the difficulties that you encountered bringing those samples into the lab. Because we talked about that in our interview. There wasn't enough time to get it into a five minute video, but I'd love to hear you recount that story a little bit of the specific challenges that you encountered when trying to find the cause that bacteria, that was the cause of hydrocephalus in Uganda.
Steven: Originally we tried using very inexpensive methods. The are forensic methods. The police use these here where you'd take some blood and you'd put a few drops on a filter paper card and then you dried it out and put it in a FedEx envelope and mailed it. There are some molecules that survive that fairly well. But the quality of specimen that we needed to accomplish what we ended up accomplishing needed to either be flash frozen at such cold temperatures that everything would be preserved or they would be placed in preservative and still kept cold, but there was special preservatives for molecules now, DNA and RNA, that are the molecules that either code for our lives or for the bacteria and parasites that we find in the babies, as well as the next molecule that the DNA is translated into, which helps code for the proteins.
Cole: Got it.
Steven: That give us life. So, those two methods required a cryogenic infrastructure be set up. Originally, especially in regions where the electricity supply isn't great. We did this with liquid nitrogen and giant thermos called dewars. And often there was no known supply of liquid nitrogen available in the country, but some of our colleagues were extremely good at making sure they could find liquid nitrogen when we needed it. And it's those human touches that ensured that we could be successful. And as you mentioned, or in the video, this whole procedure setting up in infrastructure, currying thousands of tubes overseas with the shippers that we use are liquid nitrogen based. They can go in cargo on airplanes, but they only last about six days before they thought. And I think all of them ended up coming in about five days and 12 hours into the trip. So, it was pretty nerve wracking.
Cole: Yeah, high stress situation.
Steven: But we got everything here and then we've spent literally years carefully preparing, sequencing, analyzing. The analysis is very difficult. So, I was giving a talk at NIH once a and I said, "At this point, this is the current technology. And you could give me large grants to go into every impoverished country on earth and try to do the same work. But what we've done doesn't scale. It doesn't broadly disseminate, not with current technology." So, the other approach, which we're very vigorously working on is taking this kind of surveillance and producing models to forecast. If you know where a baby comes from and when the infant got a bad illness in the first few weeks of life, we appear to be able to do a reasonable job of predicting what the likely organisms are and therefore what the doctors at the hospitals and clinics should choose that week for their first line antibiotic treatments.
Cole: Right, right there at the point of care, to sure it's the correct medication or condition.
Steven: Exactly. Today, all over the world, infants who come in with a very severe life-threatening infection in the first few weeks of life are all recommended the standard treatment of two old inexpensive antibiotics. And it works for some of them. But the death rate and the damage rate under that type of treatment is far too high to be acceptable. And we can do a much better job.
Cole: Right. And that is what we called in the video. It's predictive personalized public health. It's all that data just layered on top of each other to, comes down to like, where's this baby from? And then you start to collect what are the different causes of the infections and the different parts of the world based on rainfall and all these environmental factors, correct?
Steven: The basis to all of that, Cole, is surveying just like we surveyed patients with the different COVID 19 variants. For babies with bacterial and parasitic and viral infection, you can make a map. And if that map were static in time, it would be easier. But many infectious diseases fluctuate with the environmental conditions. In east Africa in the highlands, you get two rainy seasons a year to worry about. And we're picking up these rainfall links. Many bacteria come from soil, for instance. Many come through insect vectors. All of that conditions and soil, breeding of insects, all of that is dependent on environmental factors. And all of it can be put into the same framework we use to predict the weather.
Cole: Got it. Yeah. Good use of technology.
Steven: Well at Penn State, we also have the great benefit of really high class meteorology and geography and statistics. And these are problems nobody solves on their own. I'm here, if anything, the spokesman for a fantastic group of people who work together as one. These are problems, which demand that people from many different disciplines are brought together. So, I would like to think, and I think it's true that our meteorology, that we're doing to understand African weather patterns, is just as good as the infectious disease genomics that we use to identify what the organisms are.
Cole: Absolutely. You're preaching to the choir here, because at Huck that's our core belief. That's really what I think the Huck exists to do in the life sciences framework is to bring the disciplines together and make a bigger map or Troy Ott, who helps run our graduate programs, where our graduate students go to all these different disciplines too. We had this mapping conversation recently. He said, "No, at the Huck, it's more like we're making the maps." He's like, "We're out there following the rivers and like chopping down some ... You know what I mean? And I would consider you one of those path makers. So, you're going to go in a new place and new maps will be built to follow what you're doing. And to your point, it's not going to be one person doing it.
Cole: It's going to be a whole lot of different folks making a map that just didn't exist before. The data's never been brought together. The teams have not been brought together. That's what's so exciting for us working at the Huck is seeing folks like you and telling these stories. I know it's about 12:30 right now and we've got about 15 more minutes together. I think I'm going to join into a chat here and see if we've got any need questions that people have put in. Oh, here we go. We definitely have some questions. Oh, ask ... So, right now, reduce the number ... Now that you have ... Oh, great question. Great question. I had this one in my mind too. So, Kenny asks, "Now that you know what bacteria is causing these infections, what interventions or precautions, if any, can be taken to reduce the number of them?"
Steven: Oh, great question. That was several hours of morning discussion with colleagues, both here in the US, UK and Africa. There are broadly speaking, you divide this into two domains. When an infant hits the clinic door and is sick. How can you better treat them for an organism that we have no experience treating in the past? There's one known case recently published of this organism. And that was a postmortem examination of an infant who had died. And so what we literally spent last weekend doing in [inaudible 00:33:42], Uganda, gathering all of our physicians and investigators together is what evidence do we have that we can bring to the table to make a guess at best practices? That is which antibiotics and for how long. And since we've never looked at this before, randomizing that first guess against our second guess, as long as the, we have no reason to think one is more effective than the other, is begin to see which two paths might give better outcomes. Then pick the best path and then try variations of that.
Steven: Again, seeking to both cure these infections before they cause major damage or kill the infant. And of course, we'd also like to prevent this very high load of infants that survive, but then need brain surgery in order to clear the fluid that builds up. What you'd really like to do though, is prevent the infection. So, part of this conversation is how broadly do we have to sample soil, water supply, animal products? Is it in the mothers? We've done maternal trial. Sampling mothers at the time of birth. Failed to find any evidence that this one bacteria is maternally transmitted, but that doesn't mean it's not going on either in certain cases.
Steven: Because in many other illnesses where infants get infection around the time of birth, most of these babies get sick in the first week. And so we do have to worry about their home environment and whether any of this is transmitted, because the mom carries the bacteria or other pathogens with them. And so all of this over the next several years will require new funding streams, which we'll raise and then gathering the teams and effort together to do those steps.
Cole: Thank you. I'm going to hit you with another question. This comes from anonymous. "If you solved all the infant infection problems, what other kind of research would you be interested in doing?" Boy that ... All the ...
Steven: All the infections. Well, I've worked on controlling seizures and spreading depression, which is one of the triggers for migraines and cerebral palsy spasticity in children for many years. And if I did solve all of the infections, what I really do know something about won't be solved, and I would put a lot of time into that.
Cole: Got it. Thank you. Here's an interesting one. Also, anonymous. It says, "What subject area has been the hardest to pick up after shifting from surgery to this research?"
Steven: I think the hardest part is all of the changes in our understanding of the genome. I wake up, I think every morning, wishing I knew more. But so do my colleagues who do that for a living. It's such a fast breaking avalanche of knowledge about how we are encoded and what we do with those codes.
Cole: Do you think that AI has a role to play there in managing that avalanche of data? Do you think that-
Steven: It's the universal question, Cole? I mean all of us who are a little old, we all got taught to model things like Newton modeled throwing a ball. You come up with first principles and you study it for years and you understand gravity and you write down simple equations. AI has proven again and again that it can do things with understanding physics and biology and public health in ways that even if we don't understand completely what the computer's doing, look, I want results. And we heavily use artificial intelligence and machine learning in almost every domain that I work on now.
Cole: Yeah. That's a critical one in terms of the disciplines coming together, just coding. And I mean, God, the digital world we're living in. Going back to our digits and our hands, right. That's always every once in a while that hits me because we're using our little fingers and being digital.
Steven: I'll date myself. When I was in college, they had the first teletype, a computer at Dartmouth where you could enter lines of simple code and it would spit back answers. It was a programming language called Basic. And I used to crawl up to the one room in the department that had one of these. And it was just amazing that you could do such a thing. Now our students not only come with complicated machine learning network architectures that I honestly have no idea other than magic, how they pull that one off. And the next morning they come in with a web app and go, oh yeah, I took that thing and if you want to post it on the website, anyone in the world can now upload their data and it'll spit out the answers. And I go, oh sure. Why not?
Cole: Yeah. Why not? Go ahead. Pop that out. Yeah. Well those moments can give you hope. Because we hear a lot in the mainstream and in the media about like the evil stuff that can happen with social media and misinformation and people getting depressed and upset and jealous of one another, body image ... There's a lot in the media about the dangers of tech, but there's also amazing stuff going on, on the flip side. And I do feel that the global community of scientists when they do get together on something, it's incredible, the potential of what we might be capable of.
Steven: These are tools, Cole. You can use tools for good things and bad things.
Cole: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let's see. Oh, I've got one other question. And then we're going to have to start to wrap up. I have a fun way that we wrap this thing up. But I'm going to ask one more question. This is from Sam. It says, "Now that you've identified the bacteria, where do you think it is coming from in the environment?" This will be our last audience question.
Steven: Sam, I'll give you my best guess, but a warning every guest that I've made about what I expect to define working in Africa have all been wrong. But my guess is that this is a soil organism. It lives next to on the tree of life, similar organisms or soil organisms. It infects the babies when the rains come in, not during the dry seasons. That's my guess today.
Cole: And so you'll be proving that out or disproving that out in the next phase of the work.
Steven: Ask me in a year.
Cole: In a year. Okay. We'll come back in a year. Okay. Speaking of coming back later, this is how we like to go out this season. You may have noticed we have some friends here, we're not alone and maybe we can cut wide and Dan can show who we have with us today. We mention this on every episode. This is just so that we don't get too serious about all the perils of life on earth. I consider this, I've been meditating on it lately. I feel like it's one way that we can contribute to the diversity of Penn State in a different kind of way than people are used to thinking of. And that is the diversity of plushies that you can get in the world today that are Penn State. Each one of these plushies has a Penn State logo on it.
Cole: And Dan's going to queue up in a second, a little video that we made about the plushies. And I see this as the evolution of Penn State. You no longer are limited just to the Nittany Lion plushie. If you were to go, and these are all available at stores right here in State College, PA. You can get a llama plushie. You can get a gnome plushie, Penn State plushie. You can get the little baby bear plushie, which I like to call the infant indoctrination bear. Because it's growing the next generation of Penn Staters to grow up with some allegiance to old blue and white. And you can even get yourself a beautiful pink horned, unicorn plushie. And so we like to end every episode by letting our guests vote for whatever their favorite plushie is.
Cole: So, if you go into the chat, there's a little button where you can vote and it asks you which alternative plushie is your favorite. Do you like the Lama? Do you like the gnome? Do you like the bear? Or do you like the unicorn? And everybody loves the nitany lion. So, we don't have the nitany lion as a choice because that's a given. We all love the nitany lion. But this is our own research project, Steve is that we're going to collect the data on every episode of the podcast. And we're going to see how the audiences stack up. For instance, Nita Bharti was on last week. I think that the Lama was the number one plushie choice of that audience. For David Hughes, I believe it was the gnome if I'm not mistaken. And we're going to see what your audience thinks. And I'm going to ask you directly, do you have a favorite alternative plushie? If you wanted to take one of these home to your office or off to Africa on your next trip, which plushie would you go for?
Steven: I'd have to pick the gnome for two reasons.
Steven: It's kind of a homely looking creature and he always wears a hat in the sun.
Cole: Oh, he wears ... I've seen the pictures of you in the hat. You've got the African travel hat.
Steven: I swear I burn in about five minutes in the equatorial sunshine. So, yeah.
Cole: Oh boy.
Steven: I keep extra hats in case I lose one.
Cole: You got a backup hat. That's good. So, you're a gnome man. Duly noted. I believe David Hughes was a unicorn man. And Nita I think went with the Lama. she liked the unicorn as well. And so as we go out, we'll be sharing those with you folks out there watching, we'll see how this all turned out. And at the end of the season, we'll be back in touch with you with a report that you can share with colleagues and let them know how you stack up plushie wise. I'm sure that's going to be really important to you in your future career.
Steven: Well, thanks very much, Cole. I look forward to that.
Cole: Well, in all seriousness, thank you so much, Steven. It's been a real pleasure talking to you, getting to learn a little bit more about your work. It's absolutely fabulous. You're one of those people that makes me proud of Penn State, proud to be here. And let's keep in touch. We'll be following along. And if you saw the video, if you want to follow along with Steven Schiff's research at the Huck, we do like to share news as things go on so you can subscribe. If you go to huck.psu.edu/subscribe, you can get our pulse eNews letter about not just Dr. Schiff, but all the amazing scientists at the Huck, excuse me. The Huck Institutes here at Penn State University. I'm running out of time. But I want everybody to know if come back in a month on Thursday, April 28th, we'll have Dr. Laura Weyrich on the podcast talking about ancient microbiomes and ancient DNA. And some fascinating stuff. So, again, thanks a lot, Steve. Take good care. Everybody out there, thank you for watching The Symbiotic Podcast and don't stop co-evolving.
Steven: Thanks, Cole.
Narrator: The Symbiotic Podcast is a production of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State University.
Our video and livestream producer is Dan Lesher. Our sound engineer is Brennan Dincher. Our web developer is Jodie LeMaster, and our marketing manager is Keith Hickey. Cole Hons hosts and directs the show, and original illustrations and animations are provided by Sam Muller and Bethany Seib.
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