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Cellular processes, social behaviors and … zombies?

ASU psychology professor combines the academic with the apocalyptic


Athena Aktipis, associate professor of psychology, reanimated the second Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting to be broadcast online through the newly created Channel Zed. The meeting will happen Oct. 15-18 and will cover topics like how birth control, race relations, the pandemic, sex, literature and social media can all be thought of as zombification processes. Illustration by Neil Smith.

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September 21, 2020

What do cellular systems in the human body and social behaviors of people have in common with zombies? 

Cells, large groups of people and the undead all act cooperatively and engage in conflict. 

Moving from conflict to cooperation requires communication, especially for difficult or complex topics. Framing concepts in terms of the zombie apocalypse lets Athena Aktipis engage with other scientists, artists, journalists and the general public about ideas like how cheating happens among people and microscopic cells. 

“Using the zombie apocalypse lets us have fun while bringing to life ideas about how exploitation, manipulation and cheating are fundamental to the biological world,” said Aktipis, who was recently promoted to associate professor in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology.

Aktipis has created a suite of communication strategies framed around the zombie apocalypse. She co-hosts the Zombified podcast and started the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, a biannual conference that spans the sciences, the arts and the scary. This year’s meeting will happen online Oct. 15–18.

“The Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting lets us bring our brains together to consider what is happening in the world from a big picture perspective,” Aktipis said. “Because of the pandemic, we had to totally rethink the format of the meeting. Instead of livestreaming traditional talks, we decided the meeting should be reanimated as a television channel covering the apocalypse.”

The 2020 Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting will be broadcast on Aktipis’ latest creation: a livestream television channel dedicated to communicating science called Channel Zed.

Some of Channel Zed’s offerings include Undead Live, a daily news show about science that airs Mondays at 10:30 a.m.; Late Night Brains, a show dedicated to interviewing scientists and zombie enthusiasts; and Eat, Prey, Run, a cooking show that covers survivalist cooking and the zombification of food also known as fermentation. 

Registrants for the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting will have access to special Channel Zed programming on topics like how birth control, race relations, the pandemic, sex, literature and social media can all be thought of as zombification processes. 

The meeting will also feature a new show called "The Unreal World" that is based on MTV’s "Real World." This show will follow a dance company called Black Label, led by University of Minnesota dance Professor Carl Flink. The company will travel to the ASU campus in a Winnebago, performing in hazmat suits along the way as part of a research study into how people are responding to the pandemic. 

“The goal of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, and using zombies in general, is to break down the barriers that prevent people from engaging with academic scholarship and with the realities of what is going on in our world,” Aktipis said. “When reality seems as apocalyptic as fiction, it becomes an applied cooperation issue, and it is important to shift the frame so we can talk to each other.”

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