Communicating immune health through pop-culture


In the hit HBO television series “Game of Thrones,” the show’s heroes are constantly struggling against a persistent enemy to the north of The Wall, a massive wall of ice that separates the wild northern lands from the southern kingdoms and their inhabitants. Their foes, called white walkers, are zombie-inspired snow creatures whose minions possess human corpses and turn them against their former friends and the living.

In their possession of human bodies, white walkers act similarly to the HIV virus, which possess human t-cells and turn them against other cells in the body. The analogy was adopted by Rob Striker, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, as the impetus for his website “Game Of T-Cells,” to help explain how HIV works.

“My thesis advisor has recently become a national academy member, and when I worked in his lab I questioned if he spent too much time thinking about titles of paper, how to present data, and analogies on how things worked that we were studying,” Striker says. “I didn’t really recognize that as really important scientific thought, but I now think that analogies are super important in getting people to think about data in different ways.”

Striker is a researcher studying the HIV virus, and had been wanting for some time to develop a way to popularize research on the CD4/CD8 ratio that he says is often overlooked in discussions about immune health and disease.

The CD4/CD8 lymphocyte cell ratio, according to Striker, is a measurement of immune system health. Those with an HIV infection will see a higher amount of CD8 cells in the body.

“The goal is to get people to be measuring the ratio and to be thinking about how do we get ratios to improve, what do the ratios mean, and how do we get as many people involved as possible,” Striker says.

And this mode of communication can be beneficial, says Department of Life Science Chair Dominique Broussard.

“The main [benefit] is that it is easier to reach people when you use channels they enjoy — using pop culture can make science messages resonate with audiences in ways that traditional channels cannot achieve,” Broussard says.

Striker intends to continuously update the site, adding more “houses” to help explain the functions of specific cells, and will be adding videos and additional blog posts to keep new information flowing into the website.