Episode 95: Dickson Despommier talks about 30 years of research into intracellular parasitism

// Sep 3, 2019

Our guest today is Dr. Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist and ecologist who is the emeritus professor of Public and Environmental Heath at Columbia University.  Our conversation with Dick covered a variety of topics and ran so long that we divided his interview into two parts.

Part one covers the nearly 30 years Dick spent conducting research on intracellular parasitism, especially Trichinella spiralis, one of the world’s largest intracellular parasites.

Part two of our interview with Dick focuses on vertical farming. In 1999, Dick and his students came up with the idea of raising crops in tall buildings. When his book, “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21stCentury,” came out in 2010, there were no vertical farms in the world. Today, there are commercial vertical farms not only throughout the United States, but also in Korea, Japan, China, England, Scotland, The Netherlands, France, Russia, Dubai, Canada and a host of other countries.

Dick is the author of five books, including “People, Parasites and Plowshares.” His most recent book, “Waist Deep in Water,” is a memoir of his life-long love of fly fishing, a topic we had so much fun discussing that we touch on it in part one and part two of our interview with Dick.

Show notes: 

[00:03:40] Ken begins the interview by mentioning that he and Dawn are great fans of two podcasts that Dick helps co-host, “This Week in Parasitism”and “This Week in Virology.”  Ken points out that “This Week in Virology” launched in 2008, making Dick an early adapter of science-based podcasting. Ken asks Dick how he got involved in podcasting.

[00:06:24] Dawn mentions that Dick was born in New Orleans, and that his parents moved across the country to San Francisco when he was only a year old. Dawn goes on to mention that as a kid Dick liked to play outdoors and collect pollywogs and dragonflies. Dick talks about how his mother encouraged him to bring home spiders and frogs and other specimens he collected on his outdoor adventures.

[00:07:14] Ken mentions that when Dick was 11 his family moved again to New Jersey, asking how that came about.

[00:09:06] Dawn asks about the beginning of Dick’s lifelong love of fishing that started when he was a child.

[00:11:54] After Dick talks about recently spending 20 days in Wyoming, Ken and Dick begin a conversation about their favorite rivers in the state to go fishing.

[00:13:57] Ken and Dick talk about their fishing bait of choice when they were kids: Wonder Bread. Ken goes on to ask Dick how his love of fishing also evolved into an interest and fascination with wading into creeks, streams and river beds.

[00:14:56] Dick talks about his website “The Living River.”

[00:16:39] Dawn asks about Dick’s experience with his high school biology teacher who recognized his curiosity and who played a pivotal role in shaping Dick’s scientific career.

[00:20:26] Dawn mentions that Dick almost didn’t go to college, but that he eventually jumped in academics bigtime and earned a bachelor’s degree at Fairleigh, a master’s at Columbia, and his doctorate at Notre Dame.

[00:22:29] Dawn asks about Dick’s experience during his postdoc at Rockefeller University where there were 12 Nobel prize winners who would sit down with him and ask questions about his research.

[00:23:54] Ken asks Dick about his decision to return to  Columbia after his postdoc.

[00:27:00] Ken mentions that Dick’s experience at Rockefeller cemented his approach to teaching. Ken asks Dick to talk about how when he returned to Columbia that he became as equally engaged in teaching as he was in research.

[00:30:18] Dawn asks Dick about his extensive research into the parasite Trichinella spiralis, something Dick has described as “the worm that would be a virus.”

[00:38:09] Dawn asks about Dick’s 1998 article for Parasitology Todayabout the Nurse Cell-Parasite complex of Trichinella spiralis, and how it is unlike anything else in nature.

[00:47:19] Ken mentions that Emma Wilson, a researcher who has spent more than 15 years studying Toxoplasma gondii, was the guest on episode 93 of STEM-Talk. Ken asks Dick to discuss what is special about T. gondii.

[00:51:28] Ken mentions that just recently researchers at the University of Wisconsin Madison have discovered why cats are the definitive host for Toxoplasma gondii.

[00:55:33] Dawn asks about Dickson’s interest and research into ecotones, or the transition area between two biomes, a zone of high disease transmission that leads to the spread of schistosomiasis malaria and a variety of parasitic worms.

[01:00:03] Ken asks about the prevalence of hookworm in the South following the Civil War and how eradicating it helped revive the Southern economy.

[01:06:47] Ken points out that John D. Rockefeller and others thought they had noticed a certain malaise among many in the American South in the years after the war.  Rockefeller put together a commission that was comprised of luminaries across many disciplines who examined possible causes ranging from spiritual to social to psychological to medical. Ken asks Dick to elaborate on this interesting episode and explain how it was connected to Italian tunnel workers?

[01:13:56] Ken ends part one of the interview with a humorous story about  how he dug through solid rock to build his family’s outhouse in Maine.


Dickson Despommier bio

“The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21stCentury”

“People, Parasites and Plowshares: Learning From Our Body’s Most Terrifying Invaders”

“Waist Deep in Water”

Learn more about IHMC

STEM-Talk homepage 

Ken Ford bio

Dawn Kernagis bio