ZOMBIES in popular culture are there to scare the living daylights out of us.

But today academics are using the horror genre in all its gore to stir up interest in science among school children.

Calling themselves the world’s leading zombiologists, the University of Glasgow scientists give spoof lectures to youngsters and other groups about an impending zombie apocalypse.

The Zombie Institute of Theoretical Science (ZITS) lectures and YouTube videos explore the real biomedical science and ethics behind a zombie outbreak, and how best to tackle a global pandemic – particularly relevant during the current coronavirus crisis.

Kevin O’Dell, Professor of Behavioural Genetics and Dean of Public Engagement at the University of Glasgow is one of the team behind the science communication shows that have been attended by around 80,000 people in the last five years.

“There’s a big Scottish Government push to get more school children interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and universities and colleges are involved in this strategy,” he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with popularising science and making it more accessible.”

The idea for the energetic, interactive multi-media shows came from Douglas MacDonald, an algorithms engineer and executive producer of Time-Tastical Productions – he was also a science communicator at the Glasgow Science Centre and science advisor for CBBC’s Nina and the Neurons.

The shows and hilarious videos are fronted by two ‘zombiologists’ in wacky professor mode, played by actor and secondary school science teacher Ian Alexander, and actor Gilchrist Muir. College biology lecturer Lisa di Meo manages the Zombie Science project at the University, and also plays a theoretical zombiologist.

“Our strength is in our mixture of skills, making for high-quality, professional productions that are funny but also provoke the audience to think and ask questions,” added Professor O’Dell, who delivers lectures on genetics during the show and also plays a victim who is bitten but survives, as he is immune to the zombie virus.

The lectures from the ‘world’s leading zombieism research facility’ are aimed at those aged 13-30. They include Brain of the Dead, Worst Case Scenario, and Genes of the Damned, in which you can discover who is most likely to become a zombie, contemplate the ethics of dealing with the infected, and decide how stem cells might be used to treat survivors.

“We try to make people think about the consequences of an outbreak and about the ethics of decision-making,” said Professor O’Dell,

“These ethical questions are relevant today – do you quarantine a cruise ship with a few cases, exposing everyone on the ship to the disease so you keep whole cities safe from the virus? We also look at the stigma attached to the infected and the so-called super spreaders.

“As the coronavirus spreads, it’s one of the few times that I have sympathy with politicians as they can only make the wrong decision – there’s always a downside whatever they do.”

The lectures include apparently real CCTV recordings of a zombie outbreak at the University. Topics include the human brain and how damage could lead to zombies’ insatiable appetites; antibiotic resistance; how diseases affect people differently; and how to stay safe during an outbreak, with a demonstration on effective hand washing using a gel that shows up under UV light.

“If a research seminar and a pantomime had a baby it would be this show. It’s story-led teaching through comedy that is fun and rowdy with lots of laughter, but there are some real take-home messages,” said O’Dell.

“People are hooked on zombies because we are all interested in death and there’s something appealing about the idea you can come back to life.

“The zombie apocalypse is a useful hook as it encourages people to think more objectively about the consequences of contagion and ethical dilemmas. For example, we take a vote on whether you would kill a zombie or try to treat them and find a cure.

“We are seeking further funding to go into schools and meanwhile our team of theoretical zombiologists is available to deliver science communication shows about biomedical science and the dangers of a zombie apocalypse at any event to anyone that will listen.”