Laughter and science mix during taping of WBUR’s ‘You’re the Expert’ with Nobel Laureate Craig Mello

RNAi researcher and three comedians shared laughs, information during taping of WBUR’s science radio show

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

January 16, 2015
  2.	Comedian Anna Drezen and Science Café Woo founder Ana-Louisa Maldonado-Contreras pose for a photo with Craig Mello and “You’re the Expert” host Chris Duffy after a taping of the show Jan. 15 at the EcoTarium in Worcester.
  Comedian Anna Drezen and Science Café Woo founder Ana-Louisa Maldonado-Contreras pose for a photo with Craig Mello and “You’re the Expert” host Chris Duffy after a taping of the show Jan. 15 at the EcoTarium in Worcester.
   
   
  Craig Mello poses for a photo with You’re the Expert host Chris Duffy.
  Craig Mello poses for a photo with You’re the Expert host Chris Duffy.

From his discovery of RNA interference to remarks about his grades as an undergraduate, Nobel Laureate Craig C. Mello, PhD, along with his three comedic partners in crime kept an audience of roughly 150 people rapt during a taping of WBUR’s “You’re the Expert” Thursday night.

The event, hosted by the EcoTarium and Science Café Woo, presented a lighthearted venue for Dr. Mello, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell & developmental biology, to explain the significance of his co-discovery with Andrew Z. Fire, PhD, of RNA interference, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2006.

“The more you study . . . anything, the more amazing the world becomes,” Mello said when asked why scientific research is vital.

Mello, the first Nobel Laureate to participate in the radio program, went on to suggest that everybody should understand the basic premise of how information flows between cells and that people need to continue to explore the boundaries of their interests.

“If you can understand the world better, you . . . can make the world a better place,” Mello said.

Mello sat next to program host Chris Duffy and answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as comedians Myq Kaplan, Ana Drezen and Jo Firestone tried to each guess first what kind of scientist Mello is and then tried to grasp the concept of RNAi through wit and humor. At one point Kaplan chastised Mello for being funnier than the comedians, which was not allowed, he said.

Throughout the show the comedians competed in various games, including “Not Craig Mello,” during which they guessed what research went into the 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor improbable research. Like the awards themselves, Mello reminded the audience and the panel that although the winners’ research initially makes people laugh, each project is also thought provoking in its unique way.

The panel also played a game during which they had to give the definition of various scientific terms, such as a transgenic mouse, anti-silencing signal and CRISPR, which drew some creative explanations.

Duffy, the show’s host and creator, said his original premise was to get people to laugh, but also learn something. Although the takeaways varied, the audience and panel left with a greater understanding of Mello’s research after the Thursday show.

“There are so many interesting things happening in genomics and computational genetics,” Mello said, adding that while people get impatient waiting for outcomes, there are several incredible things coming out of the clinic and into the lab for testing and eventual implementation.

While the discussion about worm sperm (Mello was asked what he considered to be his oddest paper) elicited perhaps the most laughter and funniest quips, the audience, the panel and the host , listened intently as Mello explained why the discovery that the germline (sperm) of  C. elegans provides a greater understanding of how genetic information outside of DNA is passed from parent to offspring is significant.

The showed taped Thursday will air in the spring and a copy should be posted on the show’s site in the coming weeks. “You’re the Expert” is a radio podcast that airs occasionally on WBUR and NPR and can be streamed online from its website and through Soundcloud. 

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