Episode 19 – Interview with #covid19 science advisor Professor James McCaw

This week, we couldn’t be more thrilled to chat with James McCaw, Professor of Mathematical Biology in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Melbourne. James studied physics before embarking on a research career in infectious diseases epidemiological modelling. One of his primary research interests over the past 15 years has been pandemic preparedness and response.

Since January 2020, he has supported the Australian government’s response to COVID-19 through membership of key national committees and leadership of a research program evaluating the transmission dynamics of COVID-19 in Australia.

We’re so chuffed James was able to find the time to chat with us about communicating science during a pandemic.

You can learn more about James here:



Jen (00:00:00)
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:40)
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode and welcome as always to my wonderful co-host Michael. Hello Michael.

Michael (00:00:49)
Hey Jen, very excited for today’s episode.

Jen (00:00:52)
Well today we have a very very special guest who I’m guessing has probably been busier during the past two years that at any other time in his career when it comes to communicating about science.
So James McCaw is a Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Melbourne. And James I have to say you know, who says you have to choose between maths and biology? You’re doing both of them, right?

James (00:01:16)
Yeah, and thanks for having me.
And I’ve certainly been more busy over the last two years than at any other time in my career.
You got that one right, that’s for sure.

Jen (00:01:29)
So James is based both in the School of Mathematics and Statistics as well as in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at Melbourne Uni. So James, thank you so much for making time for us. And our listeners are just about to hear why it is that you’re so busy. And that is because you’re an infectious disease modeller who specialises in pandemic preparedness and control. So have you had a few things to do over the last couple of years, James?

James (00:01:58)
Yeah look, I spent 15 years preparing not knowing I was preparing, spent 15 years working in the space. And of course you know, in a tragic sense really, the pandemic arrived, COVID-19 arrived. And I found myself in a position where I had a responsibility, I think really to support the government in the community’s response to a massive global challenge.

Jen (00:02:21)
Absolutely. So James is a member of the World Health Organisation COVID-19 Disease Modelling Working Group. He’s also an expert advisor to the Commonwealth Department of Health for the Australian COVID-19 response. And he’s also obviously been continuing his work as an academic in this space. So James has obviously had a huge amount on, and we’re so grateful to him for making time for us today and we have a lot of questions.
But James, obviously we want to talk with you all about communicating science during a pandemic. But we do want to start by going back a bit. We want to know, was there a moment, perhaps in your childhood, that you decided that science was your thing and you were going to be a scientist.

James (00:03:00)
Yeah, I always had a bit of a, a scientific brain. I umm, really quirky story maybe. I used to get criticised by my art teacher. Or not criticised, but commented by my art teacher in primary school because I drew trees, I put a beam of a branch connecting the trunk to a main branch for tree and I said I needed that other beam to make a triangle to help hold up the branch of the tree. And they told me that trees don’t grow that way and I I, I guess I said, “but it looks like they should go that way”. Which I think is a bit weird ’cause I liked my art, but I also decided trees should be formed like we build buildings.
So I always had a bit of a, an interest in things like physics and science. I mean, I’m a physicist by training and I liken that to the natural world. So yeah, I was always interested in, in maths and science. I didn’t like biology in high school. I never thought I would end up in a biological area and I, I never even at… well into my university years biology was this mysterious thing that I wasn’t really interested in. It took a long time for me to discover that interest. But I eventually, it’s become my passion in mathematical biology.

Jen (00:04:11)
As a biologist, I can’t help but jump in and ask: what was it about biology that initially you felt very you know, disconnected and disinterested in that you then ended up embracing?

James (00:04:21)
Yeah so I liked abstract things. So I drew a tree with an angle on it ’cause it made logical sense and I, I felt that having to memorise or look at the complexity and all of the differences and the the mess of biology was a turn off for me. I didn’t find that interesting. And I was drawn to physics and mathematics, which had a… We looked at simpler systems. We looked at principles and theories for various… and as the whole philosophical discussion about why physics developed that way. But that’s what appealed to me.
And it took until after my PhD to realise that there were aspects of biology which did have that opportunity, to think about them in that more theoretical abstract way and still make actual practical useful insight in biology as well. And that’s what drew me in. And infectious diseases just happens to be one of those areas.

Michael (00:05:12)
Yeah, that’s fascinating.
James, could you tell us a little bit more about how you discovered those mathematical modelling ideas could be applied to biology? Because it does seem like that’s what really ignited your passion in this area.

James (00:05:28)
Yeah yeah. So and it is exactly what ignited my passion. So I discovered it by accident. So there was no mission and there was no insight on my part here. I finished my PhD in Mathematical Physics, in Melbourne by chance. And I was looking for a job and I saw a job in epidemiology and they were asking for people with the physics or mathematics or like an engineering background to apply. And I was like why on Earth for these people in epidemiology, I didn’t even know what the word really meant, why do they want someone like me?
And so then I started looking a little bit and I realised that infectious disease epidemiology as a modern field in the way that I now work in it was actually essentially founded by a physicist, an Australian physicist Lord Bob May, who sadly passed away a few years ago. But as a very very esteemed and famous scientist spent his career at Oxford after starting in physics, ending in ecology and biology.
So yeah, I responded to an advertisement. And by reading the ad, then started looking into the literature and realised that the problems I like to work on, I mean the way I like to think about problems was a key aspect of infectious disease epidemiology. So total chance.

Jen (00:06:48)
That’s how all the best things happen in science, right? You don’t know what’s coming until you find it.
So James, looking back then, what do you think your first experience was of actually being a science communicator? Can you remember the first time you found yourself you know, explaining something complex to someone who didn’t have your training and kind of going Ooh, this is fun. Someone’s learnt something.

James (00:07:07)
Yeah, so my parents would say I always like to talk. So my first real you know sort of professional sense of time where I realised I enjoy trying to explain things and communicate things was actually when I was a PhD student and I had an opportunity… or an honours student and I had an opportunity to be a lab demonstrator and a tutor. And and in a sense, this is science communication, ’cause I had a, some scientific knowledge I knew more than the, the people in the room and I was, had an opportunity to help them discover it. So it was in a teaching context. But I realised then and I still remember how much I found and was surprised by how much I enjoyed lab demonstrating and tutoring as a student.
That sort of developed. I took the opportunity when I was there to then go out and do some scientific outreach in physics programs in high schools when I was a PhD student. So I was communicating general ideas from physics to high school students. And I just loved doing that. I love trying to help people see something that they were very familiar with and then get them to look at it in a different way. Things like why is the sky blue? Some of those sort of classic questions. And show, help people not show them but actually help people discover for themselves that there were structural patterns that they were familiar with, but they’d never thought about in a sense.
And then early in my postdoc career in infectious disease epidemiology, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Young Tall Poppy Award and as part of that I got the opportunity to go around to schools and tell high school students about the work I did. So I really enjoyed going to high schools.
And I used to play sort of a little game. I used to try and get people to guess what my profession was, ’cause I, I studied you know, influenza, pandemics, and 1918-19 influenza pandemic. So I’d show pictures of, clearly health related pictures in grainy black and white old photographs. And so some people thought I was a historian, some people thought I was a medical person. Very occasionally, someone guessed I might be a mathematician. And I found that was an interesting way to try and explain that the work I do sort of… is this melting pot of disciplines.

Jen (00:09:20)
I’m just picturing you there and they’re saying you know, are you a doctor? Are you a this? Are you a this? And you’re like no, I’m a physicist.

James (00:09:29)
Yeah, that’s right. And you know, sometimes I… at least once someone said, “Oh, are you a physicist?” And, and the you know, there’s almost a giggle in the room because some of the other students thought it was like oh no, it clearly isn’t that. And then I said, “Ah, you’re right, that’s how I trained.” I’m sort of embellishing it, it you know, happened a few times and it was probably only a 5-minute conversation. ‘Cause then I’d sort of be able to then step into the main part of a, a talk or a presentation or a, a group activity where we had the opportunity to see why mathematical thinking and abstract thinking was relevant to a what seems like a very empirical human health problem being infectious diseases and epidemiology.

Michael (00:10:09)
And James, you’ve done a lot of communication on the epidemiology of COVID-19. And I know it’s been a really transformative time for a lot of people in terms of additional work pressures, personal pressures as well that everyone’s experienced.
So I’m just really curious to ask you about your motivation as to you know, why you invested time and effort into communicating your knowledge in this area in the face of all of these challenges. I’m sure pandemic life would have been simpler if you’ve chosen not to put yourself in the spotlight.

James (00:10:44)
Yeah, so it’s a really interesting point. So before the pandemic I did science communication ’cause I enjoyed it and because I thought it was a great opportunity to help inspire other people to value science, maybe do science, but value it first and foremost and understand something about it.
My motivations with COVID were rather different, which was I found myself in a position of responsibility, a member of the most senior advisory committee to the National Cabinet of Australia. I’ve been in that role since late January 2020 and trying to help guide our country through one of the largest ever upheavals and events that it’s had to deal with over you know, many hundreds of years in a sense.
So my science communication, I sort of approached it from a different point of view. I wasn’t just there to tell people about how science is interesting and fun and, and you know all that. It was there because I knew very early on that our society, the whole world, was about to be faced in January 2020 with something that no one was really prepared for. So that’s where I started, which was this was something deadly serious. This is something we were going to be surprised by over and over again, and something we, we needed to be able to prepare and respond to.
And so basically the first bit of TV communication I had was on The Drum and they knew there was something big going on, but it was still being discussed as a news story as opposed to the start of what we now know was that one of the most globally disruptive things that’s happened. So I knew that was kind of coming. I didn’t know how bad it would be, but I knew it was serious.
So that’s where my motivation has come from. I’ve done my best over the last two years to stay away from the politics, to present my and my colleagues’ understanding of what this virus had been doing, what the virus was going to do, how we would be able to respond, where we wouldn’t be able to respond. Like there were some things that we wouldn’t be able to do, there were some things we would be able to do. Maybe that’s a bit unclear. But you know, we weren’t going to be able to keep the virus out forever, but it made sense to keep the virus out of Australia for as long as possible, for example. So my focus was always to communicate to the best of my knowledge where we’re up to, what might lie ahead. And I was you know, that’s similar to my role supporting government as well, but I wanted to do that for the general community.
Long answer but why did I want to do it to the general community? Because ultimately, a government policy doesn’t change how the virus spreads to humans and community. Our collective choices is what change how the virus spreads and what the burden and impact of it was. So I think you know, where that leads us to is that I think Australia’s greatest success out of the last two and a bit years from the pandemic was actually how well we as a community responded. Now that was enabled by good decisions by government. But none of that would have helped unless members of the community made good decisions and we did make good decisions. And I hope in some part that was because of good communication. And sometimes poor communication, but overall good communication from government, from scientists, from decision makers.

Jen (00:14:08)
Ah, I think, you know what a responsibility, and absolutely what an achievement. I think there’ll be many PhD theses written in years to come, comparing how different countries responded and what some of those outcomes were. I think it’s completely fascinating.
But James, one of the things that really interests me is that you know, over the past two years everyone, including politicians but everyone as you say, community members have come to rely so much more on the advice of experts like yourself. But at the same time, we’ve seen this staggering rise in the number of armchair epidemiologists who are happy to go on Twitter or Facebook and and spout their so-called wisdom.
How do you feel about that? How much irritation and annoyance did that generate in you and and how have you gone about trying to make sure that accurate information rises above all of that misinformation? ‘Cause it’s been a very very busy space out there, people making assumptions and predictions about the course of the pandemic?

James (00:15:01)
Yeah, in a sense some of it for me to do my job with government, I had to sort of not pay too much attention to some of the theorising and speculation that was you know, out there. Part of my job was to help the decision makers who are health qualified but not necessarily experts in the complicated nonlinear dynamics of infectious disease epidemics and pandemics which is what I do.
I had to help them make sure they didn’t get distracted by some of the wildly speculative stuff that might look like it’s coming from an authoritative source, but my view would be that it wasn’t. My main focus was on providing my own expertise and the knowledge I gained through my work… or national and international networks from people I knew were well informed.
I tried to present that information both to government and in the media to, to the public at large. I got some very sound and helpful advice very early in the pandemic, from someone who was involved in risk communication and the role of experts who said that because I am on that decision-making committee, I had to manage my public communication so that the story was never about me. So that I very deliberately have stayed away from debates about whether or not someone else’s theory is, is a strong one or a weak one. And I’ve tried to always talk about COVID epidemiology from my understanding of it.

Michael (00:16:27)
Yeah. So James, you talked there about mathematical modelling being used to inform decision making. And I can imagine maybe one of the challenges there is trust. You’re communicating the results of mathematical modelling. But is it ever challenging for people to hear well, because the model says so, this is what we should do because the model says so. Because I can imagine it’s, those models are quite complicated and it must be hard for people who are not familiar with that to kind of thing to see them as being something that’s transparent, I would imagine they’re the, the opposite of transparent.

James (00:17:02)

Michael (00:17:03)
How did you deal with that challenge?

James (00:17:06)
Yeah yeah. So there’s two sort of answers to that. There’s one about the communication and there’s one about the actual science and models themselves actually. So so on the communication side and this is sort of the trust side, one of the things that I think helped me play a positive role is that with my close colleague Professor Jodie McVernon, who’s the director of epidemiology at the Doherty Institute. She and I had worked with the Commonwealth Health Department for more [than] 15 years on pandemic preparedness and planning. When the virus emerged, before it was declared a pandemic, there was a level of trust and there was a level of understanding within government about what Jody and I would be able to support them with.
You know, we’ve been talking to them for years about these sorts of out the way of that we think about the problem and so they sort of already understood that. So that was, the communication side was there. And trust played a big role, I think. Our influence, or our ability to support is a better way of putting it, was enabled by that long collaboration that we essentially had. That wasn’t necessarily there with the individual jurisdictions, and so that took longer to develop over the early… I mean, it still happened quickly ’cause the pandemic was a crisis. But we developed the relationships with the states and the jurisdictions and developed the trust in real time. But we already had it with the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is the coordinator of the, the national response.
The other answer to your question is a technical one, which is our models. These models, are they black boxes or are they transparent? And actually one of the really important things and I… the approach I brought is we’ve, I’ve never tried to build a model of everything for COVID, that has all of the different possible interventions and all of the policy levers, and suggests that if we you know have this combination of social distancing and test trace, isolate, quarantine and these border closures, that the pandemic will have these caseloads and hospital numbers in the next, over the next six months. I don’t think as a science we’re able to do that in a way that’s reliable enough yet.
Other people have tried to build those models and I think it’s good that people try to build them. Unless we try and build them, we’ll never ever have one, right? But when people tried to build those and put them in front of decision makers, they’re not met with trust because there’s too many like… you can wiggle it in so many ways that it’s really hard to know what it’s telling you. And if the scientists come, tell you after having built it why it’s giving the answer it’s giving, then it’s very hard to convince someone that it’s, should be acted on.
So that’s not the approach that I’ve taken. My approach has been: this is a very complicated dynamical system and there are different elements of it which I can help understand. Or… when I say I on this, I’m often referring to a team of 50 people behind us. But that we as infectious disease modellers and analysts can understand and that can then give decision makers some insight and some knowledge into how a particular decision is most likely to influence the future course of the pandemic. And that helps make those decisions.

Michael (00:20:28)
Yeah no, that’s fascinating. I’m really curious James about what you’ve learned along the way, particularly what you found most difficult about communicating science during the pandemic. Whether you’ve made any mistakes that you’ve learned from, that you’d be willing to share with us.

James (00:20:43)
Yeah my, my flippant one is I’ve, I’ve made a mistake of us trying to explain what an exponential is to people. It’s… actually, I mean it’s, it’s not a fair comment though, because I think actually we now have a group of senior advisors to government who now understand nonlinear dynamics. They understand exponentials, they understand how these things interact. They’ve got a sort of developed a bit of an intuitive understanding for epidemic dynamics, which essentially is, it’s maths and physics-like thinking. They’ve developed that, and they’re very very, they’ve got a deep intuitive insight into how these things behave. So I think we found ways of, or I found ways of explaining the consequences of certain decisions without trying to explain all of the nitty gritty maths or underneath. Getting that balance right I think it’s always been tricky.

Jen (00:21:39)
But I think that’s kind of the kernel of effective science communication really. And it comes back to what Michael was talking about trust before. If you have trust, to some extent you can jump to the big picture without going into the nitty gritty on the basis that you understand the nitty gritty well enough that if required, you could explain it any, at any point. But recognising that your audience probably isn’t that interested.

James (00:22:00)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jen (00:22:02)
But James, in terms of effective communication, I’d love you to try single out one idea for us and that is, what do you know now that you wish you’d known back in January 2020 about how to communicate about the pandemic?

James (00:22:18)
I think what I’ve learned a lot is that you need to know the person who’s interviewing you. It is very very different talking to The Age political journalist compared to the health reporter. And it’s very very different being on the 7:30 or whatever it’s called, 7:30 report on ABC, where Leigh Sales ask four questions compared to being on The Drum where it’s actually a, a deeper longer format interview that’s designed to draw out different sorts of information, not better or worse, just different information.

Jen (00:22:53)
Yeah, so know your audience.

James (00:22:56)
Yeah well, or know your interviewer I guess is my point. Like the audience can be similar in both situations, but the interviewer has a totally, not a different… maybe a different motivation. They’re interested in different elements of the story, and I didn’t, that hadn’t occurred to me when I started communicating.
I know I was very thrown the first time I ended up on the ABC 7:30 report because it was over before I felt it had started and I didn’t understand why the questions that were asked were asked. That didn’t feel like to me the important thing. Looking back on it, I could see what it was, was tied up with, what that format’s about, which is often about the political decision-making process.

Jen (00:23:35)

Michael (00:23:37)
Absolutely and yeah, really really important learning experience there, James.
We’ve now reached the time of the podcast James, where we have some rapid fire questions that we would like to ask you. Nice and light hearted so no need to worry.
But are you ready?

James (00:24:57)
I am ready.

Michael (00:24:03)
All right, James.
So first question. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

James (00:24:10)
Either mathematical ecology or particle physics.

Jen (00:24:14)
I thought you were going to say professional cyclist or rock musician or something.

James (00:24:30)
Yeah, oh. Yeah, yeah yeah sorry, I was on the or or cyclist or bushwalker.
Yeah I could become a bushwalking reporter or something.

Jen (00:24:39)
That sounds very good.
OK, we would like to hear what has been your proudest professional moment.

James (00:24:46)
I think I was very fortunate to receive the Australian New Zealand Industrial and Applied Maths Association’s EO Tuck Medal, which is for both good research but also engagement with my community. I won that earlier this year and I… maybe it’s because it’s new but it’s my proudest moment. I felt there’s nothing like getting the recognition from your peers to give you a bit of a boost. So I was very humbled and proud to receive that.

Jen (00:25:17)
And we’re very proud of you too. Congratulations.

Michael (00:25:21)
That’s a great achievement. Congratulations.
Alright James, Twitter or Instagram?

James (00:25:26)

Michael (00:25:27)
And why?

James (00:25:29)
Academic Twitter is a really great way to be able to link to papers, explore ideas. Obviously filter out everything else.
I don’t know, but the way I’ve used Instagram has mainly been to share photos of dogs and family, so use them in totally different ways.

Jen (00:25:49)
Which is exactly what you should do. So we would, we would applaud that decision. Different audiences, different interests.
Next question is what’s your favourite science related movie or book?

James (00:26:04)
Ooh. I’m going to go with a book and a very nerdy one.
I’m going to go with Gödel, Escher, Bach from the 70s. I think it’s an amazing book that mixes philosophy, mathematics, and storytelling.

Michael (00:26:17)
I’m writing it down.

Jen (00:26:19)
We already knew you were a nerd.
So I’m glad you feel safe in, safe in present company.

James (00:26:26)
Yeah, that’s super nerdy, but…

Michael (00:26:28)
All righty, last question.
So James, if you had to pick one tip, your very top tip for explaining science to non-scientists, what would it be?

James (00:26:40)
Speak as clearly as possible, I think and do it in a way that shows your passion and your excitement for whatever it is that you’re talking about. Like if I’m excited and passionate about nonlinear differential equations well… that’s what people should hear.
And so that’s my tip, is just speak with passion about what it is that you’re passionate about and people you know, can then in their own time go and learn more about what it is that you were just rabbiting on about and talking about if they’re interested.

Jen (00:27:09)
Absolutely. Well, we’ve been hugely honoured and excited to hear your passion today James. Thank you once again for taking time out of your crazy schedule to speak with us and your reflections on what you’ve learned over the past few years have been so valuable.
And just on behalf of everyone in Australia, thanks for doing the work that you do and for communicating it clearly because I think you’ve absolutely had a huge positive impact on the way things have panned out. So thank you from all of us. Here’s me doing the royal we, just speaking on behalf of everybody.

James (00:27:41)
Well, thank you very much. It was an absolute pleasure to, to be on the show.
And yeah, just thank you again.

Michael (00:27:48)
That was great. Thanks so much, James.

Michael (00:28:13)
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