Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tracy Saveria talks about the things that live inside us...and inside the finger holes of bowling balls

JJ:        Hi Tracy!

TS:       Hello!

JJ:        We’ve known each other since we were what, five-years- old?


TS:   I think so. Mrs. Hashimoto’s kindergarten class. My mom recently sent me a copy of my kindergarten report card. It stated I was very opinionated and not very coordinated with scissors.

JJ:    We lost touch for a good twenty years and somehow the stars aligned to bring us back together. I went my Italian way and you went way scientific. I conjugate verbs and you dissect microscopic organisms. So, what is it exactly that you do?

TS:   Technically my job title is the generic appellation of “post-doc.” It just means that as a scientist, I’ve completed my doctoral training, but I am still more or less the pond scum of academia, though slightly higher on the ladder than a grad student. I work in a lab whose focus is malaria so I get to do all kinds of neat lab things to try to figure out ways to fight the disease. I play with DNA, protein, sometimes RNA, E. coli, and many stinky chemicals.
DNA helix

JJ:     I remember a couple years back you telling me you’d gone to Africa to help with vaccinations against malaria for pregnant women. Can you talk a little bit about that project?

TS:   The time I spent in Africa was mostly to help co-teach a workshop for East African scientists. It was focused on infectious disease and took place at one of our field sites in Tanzania. We have a lab there that is located in a hospital compound where they are able to process fresh samples from malaria patients who have agreed to take part in our studies. Most of my work on that project takes place in Seattle, after they ship the (no longer fresh) samples our way. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time in the lab when I was there, which I really would have liked. But I did get to visit one of the animal parks where I saw elephants, giraffes, warthogs, zebras, and a bunch of other things I’d never seen before. And I might be a bit strange, but I actually thought the swarming tsetse flies were pretty cool.

JJ:    Hopefully you observed the flies from afar...Where else have you worked on similar projects? Can you explain one of your most vivid memories from one of those projects?

TS:   I use the word “work” very loosely in these situations, but I did have the opportunity to go to Brazil a few years back to observe public health professionals in their efforts to control Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that can attack organs (in the case of visceral Leishmaniasis) or skin (cutaneous Leishmaniasis). The organ-targeting variety is more deadly but the skin variety is more visually gruesome as the parasite causes gross boils and festering skin lesions, horribly stigmatizing for the victims who are often scarred for life. One of the more interesting parts of this project was going out at night in chicken coops to collect sand flies, the insects that transmit the parasites. The flies love to feed on chickens so the coops were just swarming with them. Of course, the most “exciting” part of sand fly collection was being attacked in the dark by very large angry roosters who did not want us in their coops. One of them actually bruised me.
(all these microorganism pictures remind me of candy...Nerds, anyone?)

JJ:    You deal with some spooky little bugs that float around in our environment that can wreak havoc in humans. What’s the virus (or parasite or other nasty little creature) that scares you the most? Why?

TS:   Hmm. My first reaction would be to say something like Marburg or Ebola. Very disgusting nasty painful death from either, but at the same time, not very likely to happen here in Seattle (at least I hope!). Just the thought of hemorrhagic fever gives me the creeps, no matter how unlikely I am to face that. When I think of either of those diseases, it conjures up pictures of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they open the ark and all their faces melt off. I’d really hate for that to happen to me.

Ebola....(or close up of Nerds Rope?)

JJ:    A movie was released not long ago called Contagion. Have you seen it? If so, what did you think about it?

TS:   Yes, just last week! I actually think they did a pretty good job of describing what an outbreak like that would be like. There are so many microbes out there whose existence we are completely oblivious to and the rate at which viruses can mutate is a little disconcerting. I mentioned above that Ebola gives me the creeps, but it’s much more likely that I’d face an outbreak of Influenza or some other as yet unknown virus in my lifetime. With the way people travel now and the way we so eagerly shake hands, touch door handles, cough without covering, or do just about anything in public, it’s bound to happen one of these days. Speaking of all the gross things we touch, one of my micro professors told us about a study that was done on everyday common objects that people touch and what nasty things they might contain. You known the finger holes in bowling balls? Apparently they are loaded with fecal matter. Which has pretty much ruined my Big Lebowski nights (though I will still enjoy the Caucasians until I purchase my own bowling ball).

JJ:    How many families might live within our own family?

TS:   Oooh, I love this question! I don’t know exact numbers off the top of my head, but I’ve heard it said that if you were to take away all of the cells that make each of us uniquely us and leave just the microbes living on us as commensals, you’d still be able to recognize your best friend.

JJ:    Very interesting. On that note, how many of those organisms living in one human or one human family are beneficial? How many are nasty?

TS:   Most of the microbes living on us are beneficial thank goodness! They help keep the nasty ones in check by outcompeting them for resources. An example of this might be that when you take an antibiotic, even if you are killing off the bad bacteria that might be making you sick, you are also killing off the good bacteria and can become more susceptible to say, yeast infections because the good bacteria have been keeping the yeast from overgrowing.

            An example of a good/bad guy is E. coli. We have tons of the bacteria in our guts, helping us in the digestion process. But we can also become severely ill from an E. coli infection. This is because there are many strains of E. coli, some of which are pathogenic, and every once in a while, we come across one that is resistant to antibiotics and able to thwart our own natural defenses. Consider the case of an average American feedlot of cattle being raised for human consumption. We inject them with antibiotics, force them to live in cramped conditions where they often have to wallow in their own crap, and feed them corn which is not part of their normal diet. Cows are grass eaters and although grass and corn are both vegetables, these plants have different types of Carbon backbones so they are digested a bit differently by the body and this actually makes a difference in the pH of the cow’s digestive system. Particularly due to our overuse of antibiotics, but also due to other factors (such as a change in pH), we’ve sort of invited antibiotic resistant bacteria to pop up once in a while. If some of these bacteria get out of the feedlot and into the food chain (either by direct meat contamination or contaminating other things near a feedlot, like vegetables growing nearby), then we can get an outbreak. So always overcook your meat and wash your veggies. Actually, even that’s too risky. Just eat Twinkies J.

E. Coli....(or good n' plenty?)

JJ:    Does your job ever freak you out?

TS:   Yes, but not for the reasons you’d think. I’m pretty ok working with parasites and bacteria because I know how to protect myself and I don’t work with any that are too lethal. It’s when I do something like accidentally knock over a beaker of ethanol into a Bunsen burner that I really scare myself. And yes, I’ve done that. Almost caught the whole bench on fire.

JJ:     As a superhero battling a fire-breathing zombie virus cloud from outer space, what would your superhero outfit be? Weapons of choice? Anything in particular you’d do to protect those endangered by this villain?

TS:   Tricky question. Louis Pasteur once said “the microbes will have the last word.” So if it ever came to that, I’d probably just admit defeat, put on a comfy pair of jeans and an old t-shirt, and hope that at some point in human evolution, a mutant was selected to be resistant to this particular virus and I somehow inherited that trait. And of course, I’d definitely wear a sturdy pair of shoes. You never know what you might step on when the zombie apocalypse comes and it’s very important to protect your feet so you can run fast when needed. Or at least faster than your companions.

JJ:    Mr. Pasteur (and Mr. Hashimoto) would be proud of you, Tracy Saveria. Thank you for being my guest!


jason said...

Great interview! I am never going bowling again!

L. said...

Excellent post! Two thumbs up from a biology nerd :)

J.C. Martin said...

Great interview! You get a stamp of approval from a science geek. :)


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Milo James Fowler said...

I tell my students to be "germ-stoppers" not "germ-spreaders" but they still sneeze into their hands and wipe them on their desks.

"Or at least faster than your companions" -- that is key, mos def.