Hey ya’ll! Welcome to Body Horrors at Discover! My name is Rebecca and I am a microbiologist-epidemiologist-public health scholar, your modern Renaissance lady. For my graduate dissertation two years ago, I began Body Horrors as an experiment in writing about the public health of infectious diseases and parasites – an experiment that is still running today, a carefully cultured organism that’s constantly evolving and growing. I am delighted to have been invited by the lovely people at Discover to join a crew of great science bloggers and to see what becomes of this fanciful blogging organism.
A little about me: I’m an American-Australian born in Norway and have pinballed among various global locales, from the jungles and beaches of Malaysia to the damp western coast of Norway, from the hipster utopia that is Portland, Oregon to sandy Qatar and the heaving metropoleis of India. In 2009, I moved to New Orleans to study tropical medicine and epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and I’ll soon be embarking on a new adventure just down the street – to Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine in August.
My long-time gig has been the study of tropical diseases and during my graduate education many of my professors would share an intriguing factoid or story that often left me wondering about the social aspects of these pathogens, the macrobiology of the microbiology, so to speak.
How curious is it that Native Americans in Alaska have high rates of botulism due to their changing methods of food preparation, or that in the ’90s there was a pig tapeworm outbreak among Orthodox Jews, or that fishmongers and butchers had high rates of wart infections on their hands due to their contact with meat? These are the types of stories that always grabbed my attention but were never indulged in the classroom or laboratory. Body Horrors is where I get to explore those histories and delve into how our cultural and religious customs, and our local geographies and behaviors influence the spread of infection and disease.
The most pressing question tapping on my cerebral cortex when I write about these topics is how we humans are managing and molding the presence of infectious diseases in society and vice versa – what is the public health angle here? How did Dallas manage its massive West Nile virus outbreak in the summer of 2012? (A hint: not very well.) How did the hip hop and rap community respond to the emerging outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s? How did hookworm shape the economics of the postbellum southern United States?
This is the most complex and fascinating component of our relationship with the bacteria, viruses and parasites that we coexist with – how do we as a society educate ourselves on preventing and controlling disease and can we change our own behaviors so as to do so more effectively? Not only do these public heath needs serve as some of the most difficult challenges we face today (see: polio eradication) but they also have the potential to be the most enlightening and innovative achievements that humans can accomplish, ever since Antonie van Leeuwenhoek found squirming animalcules under a microscope and since John Snow controlled the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. It’s not rocket science but it is human science and that is also what this blog is about – a celebration of the intersection between humans and microbiology. I do hope that you’ll join me on this adventure!
One more thing: about my logo! A very kind man by the name of Nathan Reading has very generously leant me the use of his photo of a petri dish culturing methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The dish is an example of the disk diffusion method used to assess antimicrobial resistance. As you can see, the Staph culture has heartily grown even in the presence of the tiny antibiotic disc containing the cephalosporin Cefoxitin in the center and the lack of a clear circle of non-microbial growth surrounding the disc, known as the “zone of inhibition,” indicates complete resistance to that antibiotic. Cool, huh? I think so! And I think you should check out the rest of Nathan’s work at his Flickr account here.