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Episode 8: How I Learned to Love Zombie Parasites

National Geographic Society
National Geographic Partners
Sequoia National Park
Georgia Tech
New England Aquarium
National Geographic’s

Anand Varma
I’m Peter Gwin
Nat Geo
Gene Henry
David Liittschwager
a Boy Scout
Susan Welchman
Leonardo DiCaprio
Steve Spina
Amy Briggs
Davar Ardalan
Brian Gutierrez
Jacob Pinter
Robert Malesky
Ibby Caputo
Michelle Harris
Hansdale Hsu
Whitney Johnson
Susan Goldberg


Google Maps
the South Pacific
Stone Mountain
the Mt. Everest
Bay Area

Nat Geo

Point Reyes
San Francisco


Positivity     49.00%   
   Negativity   51.00%
The New York Times
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It forces it to find a puddle of water so that the parasite can safely emerge in the water.PETER GWIN (HOST): That’s Anand Varma talking about a type of zombie parasite that he photographed for a National Geographic cover story. And I would just take pictures of the ants and flowers and whatever things on my way to finding the elk.GWIN: Yeah.VARMA: And I remember my housemate at the time, Tsering, he was like— there was a day where I decided to just order a bunch of prints and those... The big change—and this is really the reason I'm a photographer today—is I got an email from one of my instructors who had seen me that whole semester bring my camera out to these field trips and said, Hey, this photographer has contacted the biology department looking for an assistant, and I see you with your camera on the field trips every week, and this seems like this might be an interesting opportunity for you. I didn't know what this would be like. He said, Look, it's useful that you're interested in photography because it means you're going to pay closer attention.AD BREAK 1VARMA: This first assignment was to drive down to Sequoia National Park with David. And I'm going to wait here at the entrance, set up my camera, and I'm going to photograph everything here.GWIN: So you would bring them out of the cave?VARMA: Yeah.GWIN: And then he would photograph them against some sort of background or something.VARMA: Little black or white background. Is this a Susan Welchman...?VARMA: Yes. Yes.GWIN: So I worked with Susan, and she scared the hell out of me, and I'm not even a photographer. And she was the first person that you—.VARMA: Yeah.GWIN: So how did that work?VARMA: So, OK, so I had gotten this grant. I bet I can, you know, copy whatever he would have done.GWIN: Right.VARMA: And I know the gear I need. But you're not done yet, like the door is not closed.GWIN: Yeah.VARMA: We have more opportunities. You know, the main problem—I was trying to make this clump of ants, this raft of ants, out of like three ants.GWIN: Yeah. How do you do this?VARMA: You need more ants.GWIN: Oh, more ants.VARMA: So I'm working with the lab and there's this technician at the lab who's like teaching me all these techniques about how to coat the glass with the special fill.GWIN: So how do you do this? I didn't realize you can't—that doesn't look like anything from above.GWIN: Right.VARMA: So here I am like, oh, I actually don't know how to fix this problem. He’s like, oh, yeah, yeah, we know about this. And what that means is that meniscus of water that normally would get sucked up...GWIN: Yeah.VARMA: ...doesn't happen. It's like I needed this little technical trick that only the scientists knew...GWIN: Right.VARMA: solve this problem and so, you know, I solved that problem. And so I got this picture of an ant, like reaching out across the water, you know, out into the unknown.GWIN: The Leonardo DiCaprio ant from Titanic, the Titanic ant.VARMA: Totally. And the amazing—she wrote back and she's like, This is what makes a photograph a National Geographic photograph.GWIN: Well, I got to tell you, I think—and feel free to argue with me on this—but I got to say that, like, your story on parasites, the zombie parasites, has got to be sort of the Mt. Everest of that sort of conceptual, cool story. So how did you come up with that idea and, like, convince yourself you could actually do this?VARMA: Sure, I feel like the parasite story was—I talked about these kinds of turning points that set me on a new path, that sort of guided my career. I didn't approach that story with that mindset at the beginning.GWIN: With what mindset?VARMA: I didn't approach the parasite story with the idea that I am going to try to find a new way of showing these creatures, and I'm going to use a sort of new technical toolset to do that. You've got some video online that you can—that our listeners could see—and we'll put those in the show notes— but where this thing comes out and it's like this long—I mean, it's a—this crazy long worm.VARMA: Oh, 20 times longer than the cricket it lives in, yeah.GWIN: Yeah. It's not one I photographed because it was just like...GWIN: I was just going to say, how do you…?VARMA: Yeah. So like a shed.GWIN: Sounds like a Bay Area band, Shed Full of jellyfish.VARMA: It's a—I guess a more precise term would be a detached garage, but it's a storage space that I keep all my kind of photography equipment. And, you know, we can ship you jellyfish and so.GWIN: How many jellyfish do you have ?VARMA: Right now, I think it's about 50 or 60.GWIN: 50 or 60 jellyfish.VARMA: Most of them are like half an inch long.GWIN: OK. Anand Varma, thank you so much.VARMA: Thank you.GWIN: To see more of Anand’s work, including the video of zombie parasites, as well as his photographs of hummingbirds, bees and bats, check out the links in our show notes—they’re right there in your podcast app.

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