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THE EXCHANGE: The Weather Station and Manolito Torralba discuss microbiomes in space and caring for our planet.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together The Weather Station, aka Tamara Lindeman, and Manolito Torralba.

The Weather Station is a Canadian folk music band fronted by Tamara Lindeman, formed in 2006. The band membership has changed over the years, but as of November 2018 includes Lindeman, with Ben Whiteley on bass, Will Kidman on electric guitar and keys, and Ian Kehoe on drums.

Emerging out of Toronto’s vibrant folk scene, Lindeman debuted a moody, introspective sound with her independently released East EP in 2008. Her LP The Line followed in 2009, expanding on an earthy, lyrical style, driven by her distinctive fingerpicked guitar and banjo parts. For the next Weather Station release, Lindeman worked with friend and collaborator Daniel Romano, signing with his You’ve Changed Records label to release the critically acclaimed follow-up, All of It Was Mine, in 2011. Though the album was only released in Canada, it gained wider exposure for the Weather Station, leading to several North American tours with acts like Bahamas, Basia Bulat, and Timber Timbre, as well as a tour of Japan.

In addition to collaborative guest appearances on releases by Doug Paisley, Siskiyou, and Field Report, Lindeman earned a SOCAN Songwriting Prize nomination in 2013 for a co-write with Steven Lambke of the Constantines. After the release of 2014’s What Am I Going to Do with Everything I Know EP, she signed with North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors and traveled to Paris to record her third LP, Loyalty. Loyalty (2015) was the first Weather Station album to receive both American and European release, and consequently became somewhat of a critical breakout album. Lindeman followed up in 2017 with an eponymously titled LP that saw an expansion of the Weather Station sound into more rock-oriented territory. Now in 2021, Lindeman’s latest release, Ignorance (Fat Possum and Next Door Records), represents another confident reinvention of her sound while also continuing her creative development.

Manolito Torralba studied biology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where he earned his bachelor of science degree in biological sciences. He started his scientific career in clinical microbiology and expanded his research interests working as a research associate at the J. Craig Venter Institute. His contributions to JCVI include optimizing various approaches in extracting nucleic acids from unique environmental and clinical sample types. Several standardized protocols have resulted from this work and are used in various laboratories worldwide.

With encouragement from his mentor, Dr. Karen Nelson, along with his own interests in genomics research, he decided to pursue a doctoral degree at Catholic University while continuing his research at JCVI. He was awarded his doctorate from the Catholic University of America in December of 2019 upon the successful defense of his research with identifying novel virulence factors of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). In addition to his work on MRSA, his broad range of research interests include genomics approaches to studying microbial ecology in unique and previously unexplored environments, host-pathogen interactions as associated with autoimmune disease, microbial influence on cancer development, and natural products and drug discovery.

CREDIT: Jeff Bierk.

The Weather Station/ Tamara Lindeman: It seems like every day, more studies are published showing that our microbiome and microbial life in general is immensely important to human health, indeed, that we’re more microbe than human, and utterly dependent on microbes for everything from digestion to mental health to physical function. Given that, is anyone studying the question of whether humans actually can survive without Earth? If humans were to ever leave earth, could they even survive in sci-fi capsules without constant replenishment of microbes via dirt, air, food, water, contact with animal life, contact with each other?  

Manolito Torrallba: I’ve been involved in studying the human microbiome for well over ten years and to this day we are still learning many things about how the bacteria that reside on and in our bodies effect our overall health. The gut microbiome, for example, essentially regulates many digestive functions, helps breakdown certain foods, trains our immune system, as well as prevents infection from pathogens we inadvertently ingest.

It’s interesting that you have asked this question because I have been involved with several projects with NASA that study how the microbiome changes in astronauts. One of our initial studies showed that the microgravity and exposure to radiation while living on the international space station resulted in significant changes to the gut, skin, and nares microbiomes ( It is clear that humans can survive outside of our planet’s environment, however there are still many questions we don’t have answers to. We do know that the microbiome changes while in space resulting in inflammation and skin irritation but what we don’t know is if there are any long term effects on human health outside of the missions that we’ve looked at. Currently, the longest missions on the ISS have been about 1 year (Scott Kelly and Christina Koch). 

If humans ever left earth (permanently), we’d certainly survive given that we take our microbiomes with us, but currently it’s unclear of how this would affect human health in the long term. NASA is currently studying how long term space flight affects microbiomes (another study I’m involved in) since they are targeting returning to the moon and eventually going to Mars as those journeys take about 3 days and 6-8 months respectively. As far as replenishing the microbes on these long journeys, the science is demonstrating that the microbiome composition is affected by environmental factors (gravity, food, radiation, etc.) which revert to similar composition before the mission once such environmental factors are no longer a factor. Currently, it’s unclear if the microbiome composition will return to what it would be on earth if humans left permanently. 

It feels like a question of great import in today’s society, as billionaires increasingly respond to earthbound problems by creating (and selling) fantasies of escape from earth itself…

Manolito Torrallba: My question: Since there are so many genres of music and each one is so unique, have you ever considered collaborations with artists in completely different genres that could potentially further promote your activism when it comes to climate change? How would you go about this kind of collaboration and do you think it would be successful in spreading the message on climate change?

The Weather Station/ Tamara Lindeman: To be honest, I don’t think much about genre in music. If anything, I’ve moved fluidly from one genre to the next myself, and I’ve always collaborated with musicians that move me, regardless of genre.  And I’ve never actually sat down and tried to write a song to spread a message on climate change.  My songs are emotional, and climate feelings show up in them; I did have an intention of sparking conversation on that when I put them out, but I wasn’t trying to explicitly write a protest song.  I use social media and other statements for that.  I think the problem with climate is not a lack of awareness on the part of the public, but a lack of understanding, and a lack of action, and I think the barriers there are far more complex than they are with other issues.  I find most people have a callus over the words ‘climate change’, ‘greenhouse gases’, and ‘Co2’, and they have a lot of deep, subconscious, and subterranean barriers that stop them from engaging with this issue.  I find engaging with the issue somewhat indirectly can be the best way to reach people.

However, your question about collaboration is a good one, and something I’ve been thinking about in terms of trying to figure out how artists can be climate activists.  Musicians are great at collaborating on music, but less than great at collaborating at anything else.  We tend to be pretty independently minded, and tend to be allergic to the kind of structures most activist groups uphold; that’s why we wound up musicians in the first place.  However, when you put musicians in a room and ask them to play together, beautiful things happen.  Your question makes me think about how to bring on that collaborative spirit with other musicians and artists, regardless of genre, on climate, and makes me question why that solidarity is missing.  There are some great alliances forming (Music Declares Emergency is doing great work), but the question of how to get us working together and moving forward is a good one.

Maybe the metaphor of playing music together, how we naturally meld and work towards a common goal when we’re playing, is a beautiful one as I ponder how to move the dial on climate change from within my musical world.  I think at the bottom of it there is a commonality; that hearts are moved easier than minds, that things like music naturally break down barriers, whether they be genre barriers or emotional barriers.  I often think of music as being like water; naturally fluid, naturally movable, able to go around structures that seem immovable.  I sometimes think we all need to think of activism the same way, as something that doesn’t have to be obvious and overt in the ways that we normally think of it (rallies, talking points, awareness raising), but rather something that could be fluid, movable, getting through to hearts and minds in indirect and surprising ways, much as how music does.  I think everything has a direct and indirect consequence, and as I ponder the failures of traditional climate activism over the last thirty years, it makes me think about how the indirect consequence might be more powerful than we generally imagine, and should be more deeply considered.

I know this is an odd answer to your question, but certainly food for thought.  Thank you for asking!

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