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Saturday Academy: Introductory Microbial Pathogenesis
Posted 03/04/2013 10:00AM

The anthrax bacteria as seen in a magnified photograph by the German-based Eye of Science. The image is part of the Science Photo Library database in London.

Dr. Beth Pethel has a passion for pathogens that she hopes is contagious.

Teaching students to learn about the mechanisms that microbes employ to damage their hosts – anthrax or Hantavirus, for example – and investigating the ways that humans combat pathogens is the focus of Pethel’s ECHO module, Introductory Microbial Pathogenesis: Human vs. Microbe. The class is one of 66 electives available in Western Reserve Academy’s innovative Saturday Academy program.

In the class, students investigate the history of various pathogens and the impact the disease had on world events. During one class they used non-pathogenic bacteria to learn how to conduct a Centers for Disease Control-type investigation of an outbreak of a disease to determine its cause and a course of treatment.

“I am trying to give them a sample of some of the diseases that are most captivating and intriguing,” Pethel said. “The class also provides a very light overview of microbiology and how your immune system reacts to microbes. I hoping to catch their attention and show them how this is relevant to their everyday lives.

“We also look at how antibiotics have changed our interactions with pathogens – for example, why don’t we have the black plague anymore? – and talk about what it means for our future that some bacteria are growing resistant to antibiotics.”

Pethel had her students study how the CDC investigated an outbreak of Hantavirus in a group of young adults in the 1990s, as well as an outbreak in the summer of 2012 in Yosemite National Park. Students then went around the campus looking for areas that might attract mice (which could possibly carry the disease).

They also took samples from the dining hall, common areas in the dorms and other sites around campus to see which areas contain the highest amount of micro-organisms.

“We collected about 40 samples of areas we wanted to test that may contain bacteria or fungi,” said Brianna Halasa ’13, a student in the class. “We swabbed a petri dish with our results and incubated them overnight. Not surprisingly, the petri dish with the swab of the TV remote from North Hall was covered in fungus, while the petri dish from the Cutler House remote was clean. I found that experiment intriguing because I’ve always wondered how many germs are on a cell phone, for example.

“Dr. Pethel plans each lesson carefully and shows genuine concern whether the class in enjoying what we are learning and what she can improve. I enjoy the fact that what we learn in class pertains to our lives or has been in the news.”

Pethel, whose doctorate is in microbiology and molecular genetics, has enjoyed being able to teach this class, especially as it complements the Science Department’s core curriculum so well.

“I’m having a great time,” Pethel said. “The students are intrigued and once they get into the work they really start to think about the material – I actually have to shoo them out at the end of each class. While the subject matter can be scary, I also talk about all the good bacteria we have because I want them to have an appreciation for bacteria and their own immune system. We have students at WRA that like to learn and they work well together to get through the problems.

“I want the students to walk away from this class having an appreciation for microbiology, and for the mysteries, challenges and battles that humans and microbes have had through history and will continue to have in the future.”

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