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Bill Wuest Cleans Up Confusion About Disinfectants Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

“I Never Thought I’d Be Using Entropy to Explain Handwashing on The Weather Channel” said Wuest

bill wuest on the weather channel
Bill Wuest speaks on The Weather Channel about soaps and disinfectants to combat COVID-19.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Bill Wuest/The Weather Channel.

Sometimes the research that isn’t most interesting to scientists turns out to be the most important. And Emory University chemistry professor and AAAS 2019-20 Leshner Public Engagement Fellow Bill Wuest is fine with that. His research on soaps and disinfectants, which he says, in terms of “hardcore chemistry, just isn’t that exciting,” has been in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wuest was ready to be a resource to the public in part because of the connections and preparation the AAAS fellowship offered him.

Wuest says the first link in this chain of effects started at his AAAS fellowship orientation, in June 2019, which coincided with the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship orientation. The Mass Media Fellows did practice interviews with Leshner Fellows, and Wuest was paired with Luisa Torres, a Mass Media Fellow headed to NPR for the summer. She later followed up and published a story about his work on drugs to combat antibiotic resistance. Wuest says this story caught the attention of his university’s communications department, who already knew him but hadn’t worked closely with him. When The Weather Channel reached out to Emory for an expert on hand-washing and soap versus sanitizers, the communications team recommended him. 

Wuest has always loved The Weather Channel, so this opportunity was nerve-wracking, and he was initially disappointed when he couldn’t do the interview in the studio and had to do it remotely because of COVID-19 social distancing precautions. However, this turned out to be a big help. “Doing it on Skype where I couldn’t see anyone else made me more at ease,” Wuest said. “I could have my notes up, and pace myself. It really took the stress off.” His experience doing an on-camera interview during his AAAS orientation (separate from the one with the Mass Media Fellows) was a challenging one, he notes – but he has found himself much more comfortable in conversational interviews than he was giving an elevator-pitch-style speech to a camera.

The Weather Channel interview led to other phone interviews and stories with CNN, Yahoo, Web MD, Washington Post, and also the NYTimes kids section (for this last article, the AAAS Chief Communications Officer put him in touch with the reporter). The Weather Channel came back to him again recently to ask whether hand sanitizers still work after being left in the car or the sun (the answer is yes, if lids are closed completely).

Early in his career, Wuest and several colleagues, including undergraduate students at Villanova University, invented and developed the next generation of antiseptics (like those found in Clorox and Lysol), intended to avoid the issue of antibiotic resistance as these compounds are used more and more. At the time, a few companies expressed interest, but these initial conversations never advanced. Nevertheless, Wuest and his collaborators did patent their findings and continue to vet opportunities, especially considering the heightened interest due to the current pandemic -- they expect higher levels of Lysol use to accelerate this process of bacterial resistance.

In the meantime, commercial cleaners are still effective against COVID-19, says Wuest, although users should follow the instruction to leave it for two minutes before wiping off. His lab has published over 20 papers in this area, most with undergraduate lead authors. Recently, rumors started swirling about the “quaternary ammonium compounds” in these commercial cleaners not disinfecting against COVID-19. Wuest and one of his graduate students wrote a perspective reassuring their effectiveness, which was later validated by the EPA. However, what surprised Wuest most was the visibility of this relatively small publication, garnering over 10,000 views in two months.

One of Wuest’s overarching public engagement goals is to show that chemicals aren’t inherently bad. For example, he frequently notes the similarity of hand soap, which everyone uses, to these cleaners. In addition, Lysol has a very similar active ingredient (benzalkonium chloride) to what is in mouthwash (cetylpyridinium chloride), for example. These products are very simple, chemically speaking, and he thinks they don’t get enough respect for what they can do.

At the university level, Wuest has been primarily focused on advocating on behalf of innovation and entrepreneurship and is part of many university initiatives championing these causes. He works closely with the Georgia Research Alliance to help translate science from research labs to the market. In addition, he started the Emory Biotech Consulting Club to help train graduate students in doing public-oriented work, including innovation and entrepreneurship. Wuest sees this area as having a similar set of problems to public engagement with science: academics are typically discouraged from pursuing it because it can sometimes distract from other aspects of their job and it can be risky to spend a lot of time on something that may not be successful.

But Wuest believes, based on his experience, that if you are efficient with your time, both innovation and entrepreneurship and public engagement can work well for scientists. Wuest is currently advocating for both areas to be included in promotion and tenure decisions, and has been happy to see Emory progressing in this direction. Wuest was encouraged to include a separate section on public engagement in his annual review and promotion package this past year, which, he says, “wouldn’t have been possible without the Leshner Fellowship.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.