Pandemic POV from a Microbiologist

Dr. Lawrence Aaronson

"Microbiologists are at the forefront of these types of infectious disease outbreaks. They conduct the critical research to identify the infectious agents, study their reproduction and biology, develop and test vaccines and antimicrobial drugs, making them available to the broader medical community for treatment and prevention."

 

As Harold T. Clark , Jr. Professor of Microbiology and Professor of Biology at Utica College, Dr. Lawrence Aaronson has spent much of his career researching and studying microbiology, including infectious diseases.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, Dr. Aaronson (also interim Dean of the College of Arts& Sciences, and took a few moments to answer some questions to better explain what the situation and the role that microbiologists play in the fight against infection.

 

Q: What exactly is a global pandemic?

"Global pandemic" is redundant.  The term "pandemic" refers to an infectious disease outbreak that has broadly crossed oceans and international borders around the world where large numbers of the population are infected and sick.

 

Q: How does something like this occur?

Pandemics occur when highly communicable infectious agents are carried from the source of an outbreak to other locations by infected individuals.  This is especially dangerous when people who are infected have no symptoms while incubating the infectious agent, and can unknowingly transmit it to others.

There have been many documented pandemics throughout history, but perhaps the most notable of these was the 1918-1919 "Spanish Flu" pandemic. This began as an outbreak of a highly virulent strain of influenza virus at an army base in Kansas, and moved to the East Coast of the U.S. as troops were being deployed for World War I.  Major flu epidemics broke in major port cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and infected soldiers on troop ships carried the flu virus to Europe where it spread like wildfire.  Waves of the flu outbreak circled the world three times between 1918 and 1919 causing more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. and from 50-100 million deaths world-wide.

 

Q: What is the role of microbiologists in treating such diseases?

Microbiologists are at the forefront of these types of infectious disease outbreaks. They conduct the critical research to identify the infectious agents, study their reproduction and biology, develop and test vaccines and antimicrobial drugs, making them available to the broader medical community for treatment and prevention.

 

Q: Is this COVID-19 likely to mutate? If so, what can we expect to happen?

COVID-19 is the designation for the disease; SARS CoV-2 is the name given to this virus.

SARS CoV-2 is a virus that has RNA as its genetic material instead of DNA like we have. The replication of RNA viruses is known to be error-prone, so mutations in these kinds of viruses are common.  Mutations could have one of three consequences: 1) they could have no effect on replication or virulence, 2) increase the virulence and/or transmissibility of the virus, or 3) render the virus less virulent or prevent its replication. Mutations in the virus have already been documented, and one of the mutated strains has slightly higher virulence than the others. Mutations will continue to occur.

 

Q: Can you tell us about some UC microbiology grads? What are they doing today (any important work like defining and treating infectious diseases)?

Many UC graduates have gone on to careers in microbiology and infectious disease.  These include: 

Susan Zullo (1992): Ph.D The George Washington University, 1999; Senior Regulatory Scientist, US Food and Drug Administration, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research; working to keep the blood supply safe from bioterrorism.

Jennifer (Gerlach) Herzog (1997): M.S., M. Phil., Yale University, 2000. Associate Professor of Biology, Herkimer College; teaches microbiology courses.

Julia van Kessel (2003): Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 2008; Assistant Professor of Biology, Indiana University; teaches microbiology and conducts research in bacterial quorum signalling and expression of bacterial virulence factors

Sara Johnston (2004); Ph.D. University of Rochester, 2009; Research Scientist, United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID); conducts research on poxviruses.

Scott Britton (2007): M.S., Johns Hopkins University, 2012; M.B.A., Marist College, 2019. Senior Scientist, Duvel Brewery, Belgium, conducts research on fermentation in yeast; Adjunct Lecturer, Utica College, teaches microbiology courses; President, American Society of Brewing Chemists, 2019-2020

Eva (Szymanska) Mroczek (2008): Ph.D., University of Alabama - Birmingham, 2013; Adjunct Lecturer, Utica College, teaches microbiology courses

Amanda Butler (2009): Ph.D., Mayo University, 2014; Lead Scientist, NASA Ames Laboratory, conducts research on microbial metagenomics

Lyndsay Avery (2011): Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, 2018; Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania, conducting immunological research; Adjunct Lecturer, Utica College, teaches microbiology courses.

Kate Zeigler (2013): Ph.D., Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, studies lyssa (rabies) viruses.

Mary Brockett (2016): Ph.D student, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, studies virulence factors in Chlamydia.

Emra Klempic (2018): accepted into the Graduate Program in Microbiology at Indiana University, Fall 2020.

Microbiology, Data Science, and COVID-19 from Utica College on Vimeo.

 

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