College students in an 8am class are probably
the closest things to zombies the world will ever have.
I have never been one to read a novel just because it’s popular. I didn’t join the Harry Potter fan club until well after book five was published. I have never been interested in vampires and am still resisting the urge to read anything in a shade of gray. So it should come as no surprise that I have also managed to completely ignore the latest fad – zombies. There is no reason why I shouldn’t like the occasional zombie story. I happen to be a big fan of horror movies and Alfred Hitchcock in particular. While I admit I typically prefer the psychological thriller to the classic blood and guts film, I am not above watching “Jason vs. Freddy” on Halloween night. So why did I find myself purposely avoiding all of this zombie talk? To be honest, I don’t know. But I can’t avoid it anymore.
Every summer I teach a course entitled “Chemistry for Everyday Living” for non-science majors. I would love to say that students take the course because they have a special fondness for chemistry or because they love solving problems using Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023, if you are interested). In reality, I know most of them are just taking it to satisfy their core science elective. Because they are not science majors, I like to start off the course with a discussion on the contributions of science, rather than asking them how many protons are in an atom of Bohrium (107, by the way). We spend a large part of our first lecture discussing some of the latest scientific advances and the impact that they have had on our lives. For example, we discuss the recent advances in decoding the human genome and how that impacts society. These are always lively discussions with a wide range of viewpoints. After three years of having this discussion with students I really felt like I was prepared for any comment or question that they could ask. (Insert hysterical laughter from my fellow colleagues here).
And then the inevitable came. A question I was not prepared to answer and could have never predicted: “Is science going to turn us into zombies?” I did what any good faculty member would do and stalled for time while I considered how to answer the question. I began by asking the student several questions to clarify exactly what they were asking. Did they mean actual flesh-eating zombies? As a matter of fact they did. And what was the connection to science? Much to my amazement the student responded with “Don’t all horror movies start with someone in a white lab coat and an evil cackle?”
I will admit, I was completely unprepared for the conversation. The connection, or supposed connection between real flesh-eating zombies and science was not one I had prepared for in my recent review of human genome literature. But that student had a point. Many horror movies do begin with a person in a white coat, or some science experiment gone horribly wrong. I spent the next month talking to other faculty members about zombies and science. Several mentioned various examples in nature where certain animals exhibit zombie-like behavior. For instance, there is a species of hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii) that infects crickets, causing them to throw themselves into a body of water. The problem? Crickets can’t swim. However, this species of hairworm needs to reach water in order to enter the next phase of life. By infecting and eventually killing the cricket, the worm is able to survive. Another example would be the parasite Toxoplasma gondi, which can infect mice and alter their brain chemistry. Specifically, this parasite causes a mouse to be more daring and less afraid of the scent of cats. Consequently it uses the mouse as a host and is able to continue to thrive when an infected mouse is eaten by the unsuspecting cat. Yet another example is the recent spread of “Zombees”, or honeybees, which are infected by flies containing a parasite that causes the bees to abandon their nests and wander blindly until they die. Scientists who study these bees have even set up a website for tracking zombees across the country (www.zombeewatch.org).
But what about zombie behavior in humans? This past summer has been termed the “Summer of the Zombie” because of the multitude of news stories about humans exhibiting zombie-like behavior. Probably the most famous of these was the story out of Florida where a homeless man was attacked by the so-called “Miami Zombie.” It was originally reported that his behavior was the result of ingesting a drug known as bath salts. The term “bath salts” is used to describe a synthetic drug that, when ingested, has many debilitating side effects including hallucinations. Interestingly enough, the nickname bath salts was used as a way to smuggle the drugs and is not related to actual bath salts that can be purchased in the store. The real concern around these drugs is that the chemical makeup is constantly changing which creates a special challenge for the toxicologist looking to prove they were responsible for this strange behavior.
Fueled by the news reports over the summer, zombies continue to be a topic of conversation. There are popular TV shows, “The Walking Dead” for example, that are based on zombies. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has used the latest zombie craze to promote emergency preparedness by publishing a novella on preparing for a zombie pandemic. Not to be outdone, the Red Cross is hosting a zombie apocalypse survival video contest. A quick stroll through any bookstore will yield a multitude of books on zombies including my nephew’s favorite “Zombie-kids” which is about a boy who sneaks out of his house at night to play tag with his zombie friends. And these are only a few of the 345 million hits that can be found on a Google search in less than thirty seconds.
We are surrounded by zombies. And I, thanks to a question asked by a student this summer, have reluctantly joined the epidemic. And what happens when you get a college professor involved in the zombie craze? We create a course.
Coming soon to a classroom near you…
ZMB 101: “Our Zombie World”