Interview with a Vampire: Sesame Street’s Count von Count

Vice Dean Chuck Sanders conducted his annual Halloween interview, this time with Sesame Street’s Count von Count, a much loved and highly respected expert on teaching numerical skills to children. Here is a transcript of their conversation.

CS: Mr. von Count, let me say what an incredible honor it is to have the chance to speak with you!

Count: Thank you, call me Count. I give you 10 qvestions. Please, qvestion #1…  Ah ah ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: I have long said that if I could choose any other job besides being a scientist, that I would love to work for Sesame Street. It’s been such an incredibly clever show for so very long and has had such a high positive impact for so many children! You first appeared on the Street all the way back in the early ‘70s. How did you land the position?

Count: I vas dating cast member and got invited to Sesame cast Halloveen party. Everyone thought vampire get-up is awesome and amused at vhat they thought vas numbers schtick. When they realized it not costume and that I amcrazy about numbers I vas invited to do trial on show and rest is history. On to qvestion #2! Ah ah ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: Why do you think whole numbers are so awesome?

Count: Many aspects of life various shades of color. However, whole numbers are so definite. If you say there are five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the table, is nothing vague about that! So quantitative, so clear! You vill now ask me qvestion #3. Ah, ah, ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: When I was doing research to prep for this interview, I learned that there is ancient lore from both China and Europe that vampires are obsessed with counting things. In fact, in medieval Europe people would spread seeds over the graves of suspected vampires because it was believed that when they would start to claw their way out of the grave, they would encounter the seeds and would be so delighted by the task of counting the seeds that they would stay in the grave. Is a fascination with counting a general vampire trait?

Count: I remember seed trick. Vhat you should know is vampires have LOT of time on their hands and eventually seeds vould all get counted and vampire comes out of grave anyvay. But to answer question, arithmomania runs in vampire families as genetically recessive trait. Neither parent thrilled by numbers, but I have aunt and some cousins who are. Vhat about qvestion #4? Ah, ah, ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: Thanks for sharing that. I’d like to ask you a question that you don’t need to answer if you don’t want to—it pains me to state the obvious.  All the vampire stories I know of involve their craving for blood. How does this play out for a trusted teacher of math to pre-K children?

Count: Is OK, I tell you. Vampires have special dietary needs. Ve are not only creature that requires blood meals (and you eat meat, no?). Over past 70 years, institution of blood banks has led to complete transformation of vampire culture and respectability. Now you know where expired blood packets go! On to qvestion #5! Ah ah ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: Fascinating!  Are you aware that one of the great pioneers of the modern blood-banking system was Dr. Charles Richard Drew? He is a truly interesting person in medical history. He was from Foggy Bottom, in the District of Columbia.  Despite being a very important figure in medical history he was refused membership in the American Medical Association because he was Black. He died in a tragic car accident in 1950.

Count: Oh yes, ve know all about Dr. Drew. Is much revered. They name medical school after him in LA. You mention Foggy Bottom… many vampires there… LA also—Tom Petty write song about them. And now, you vill ask me qvestion #6! Ah ah ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: I recently had the pleasure of introducing Nobel Laureate David Julius in the Aula Magna at Stockholm University for the Protein Society co-sponsored EBSA Conference, one of the greatest honors of my career. He delivered a wonderful lecture on TRP receptors in which he mentioned that vampire bats express a rare splice variant of the TRP-V1 channel in their snout that lets them localize the veins under the skins of the mammals they feed on—based on sensing by the channel of the heat generated by the rushing blood. Isn’t that cool?

Count: Vell, I am sure that in doing research it did not escape your attention that my kin and I do happen to know something about bats. You should know that other TRP channels are responsible for sensing some of the strange sulfur-containing compounds in raw garlic. Vampires often harbor genetic variant forms of TRP channels that lead to truly horrible pain response to these compounds, which explains our aversion to uncooked garlic. Qvestion #7, if you please.   Ah, ah, ah! [Thunder and lightning. Bats fly through the room]

CS: Garlic gives me troubled dreams.

Count: Maybe is vampire among your ancestors?

CS: I don’t think so.  I like sunny days, and I can’t keep the Bohr effect straight. Anyways Count, I am really impressed at how much protein science you know. I was wondering if you could explain the difference between a platelet and an erythrocyte?

Count: Of course! Platelets are red blood cells and are packed with hemoglobin. Absolutely delicious—just ask Impossible Foods! Erythrocytes are cell fragments that contain, alas, no hemoglobin and are most important for role in blood clotting. Bring me qvestion #8! Ah ah ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: I find it sobering that Linus Pauling uncovered the molecular biophysical basis for sickle cell anemia all the way back in 1949 but that we have never been able to leverage this to formulate a successful molecular strategy to reverse the non-covalent polymerization of hemoglobin-S responsible for this terrible disease. Fortunately, gene therapy approaches are now offering real hope for a cure.

Count: All true. But scientists should not feel too bad. Concentration of hemoglobin tetramer in red blood cells is on order of 3 mM. So, think. Even if compound binds tightly to hemoglobin S and prevents formation of ordered aggregates, 1.5 mM required to achieve 50 percent saturation. If drug has molecular weight of 300 g/mol, need a blood concentration for drug of 0.45 grams per liter. With typical adult having 5 liters of blood, this means have to inject nearly 2.5 grams of drug for single dose! Not feasible. Deliver unto me qvestion #9. Ah ah ah! [Thunder and lightning.]

CS: Hmmm… I never thought of it that way, but that’s a very good point! This reminds me of a fantastic quote by the late Sir David Weatherall, who devoted his life’s work to studying the genetics of the disorders caused by hemoglobin gene variations. Looking back over his career he said, “The one regret is that the remarkable advances in human genetics, and in the evolution of molecular medicine in general … have done little to help patients with these distressing diseases … The lack of a more definitive approach to the cure of the haemoglobin disorders, despite so much knowledge about their molecular pathology, should not surprise us. The story of the advancement of medical practice over the last century tells us that there is always a long lag period before developments in the basic sciences reach the clinic.” Such an inspiring observation! But here’s my question: There is an interesting skit on Sesame Street where you went on a date with the actress Susan Sarandon. It did not end well. I saw there is also an episode where you appear with your wife, the Countess, in which the two of you sing a nice duet, Transylvanian Love Call. Did the Countess like the Sarandon skit?

Count: Next qvestion! #10!  [Prolonged thunder and lightning, with spooky howls.]

CS: OK, sorry if I touched a raw nerve. For my final question I wonder if you can you tell me what it is like to work with Grover? Is he as wacky in real life as he is on the show? I know you’ve done a skit with him.

Count: Yes, is comic genius. But serious fellow in real life. Does much volunteer work on side for Methemoglobinemia Foundation. As I sure you know, methemoglobinemia is another hemoglobin disorder where significant fraction of iron ions in total hemoglobin population in patient are locked in +3 oxidation state, making protein defective in oxygen transport. One of symptoms is blue skin. Number 3 is the blue number, and number 2 is the red number! Ah ah ah!  [Thunder and lightning. A puff of smoke. A single large bat circles the room and flies out the window.]

CS: [Yells out the window] Thanks, Count, for sharing with us! And Happy Halloween from Basic Sciences!


Acknowledgements: CS thanks Protein Society CEO, Raluca Cadar, and Becky Sanders for edits. A similar version of this interview appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Protein Society “Under the Microscope” newsletter.

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