Undeadly serious outreach work

Zombie Institute aims to invade prospective science students' brains. Sarah Cunnane reports

April 28, 2011

Credit: Doug Steley/Alamy
Scholarly resemblance? Academics and zombies share traits, comedian says

It's close to midnight and something evil may be lurking in the dark. But anyone worried about the prowling undead can rest a little easier in the knowledge that the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies (Zits) is on the case.

The institute is based at the University of Glasgow and is led by Austin Low, a writer and comedian who specialises in an unusual form of science communication.

With £30,000 in funding from the Wellcome Trust, Zits takes its unique brand of science - which applies biology, virology and genetics to the subject of zombies - to schools, comedy events and science festivals across the UK.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in the persona of zombie-expert extraordinaire "Dr Austin", the comedian said that although official records suggest that Zits was established in 2010, in fact it has a proud 100-year history.

In 1911, he explained, it was common for people to be misdiagnosed as dead.

"Obviously practice has very much improved on that front so we don't get too many cases like that now," he said.

However, there are still cases of mistaken identity. "In Glasgow in particular, we have quite a problem with intoxicated people and that causes a misidentification of zombies," he said.

Faced with a dearth of genuine undead, Dr Austin said one of his main jobs was to correct misconceptions about how to deal with a zombie attack: "Hollywood films often tell you the best thing to do is to bash their heads in. We tend to opt for treating people first. Obviously if that doesn't work we will then bash their heads in."

He said research had shown that the most likely weapon to come to hand in the event of a zombie attack is a feather duster. "It's not particularly effective, but you can turn it around and use the handle as a nice shank," he added.

He also recommended the use of crossbows on the grounds of their stealthiness: "'Silent but violent', as we like to say."

Dr Austin said he had a bachelor's degree in zombotany and a master's in zombiology, and is also Zombiologist Royal to the Queen.

"It just entails me going down to Buckingham Palace every six months just to give the Queen a wee check over to make sure she's not a zombie," he said.

A team of Glasgow academics works behind the scenes to make sure that the science Dr Austin imparts is deadly accurate. It includes Kevin O'Dell, senior lecturer in molecular genetics, and Katie White, research associate in cardiovascular gene therapy.

Asked whether there was any danger of confusing scholars with the undead, Dr Austin said: "Academics look like they've spent a lot of time in darkened rooms, and zombies are similar in that respect."


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