Risky business: Training researchers to assess dangerous microbes

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Jade Mitchell developed the Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment III program to help researchers prevent microbial threats. (view larger image)

Even as the global population surpasses 7 billion, humans are vastly outnumbered by the trillions of microorganisms on the planet. Many are essential for everyday life, but large numbers of these invisible creatures present significant health risks. Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Jade Mitchell has coordinated a program to train fellow scientists to assess microbial risks and to assemble plans to help keep people safe.

Mitchell, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE), has developed a 10-day workshop to provide quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) tools, models and training to university researchers around  the nation. Her work is being funded by a nearly $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the first grant of its kind begins for BAE. The program, which begins in August, is called the Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment Interdisciplinary Instructional Institute (QMRA III). It will connect quantitative scientists such as engineers, with biologists and social scientists.

QMRA is a four-step process used to characterize the human health risk associated with exposure to various microorganisms. The information assesses the danger posed by pathogens and to develop appropriate plans in case of public exposure to infectious agents in all types of settings. Although it’s commonly used in mathematics and applied sciences such as engineering, QMRA draws on knowledge created by specialists from a range of disciplines, including biology and the social sciences.

Training and expertise are not as common in these fundamental scientifi fields as in the applied fields, however, and courses are not available at the graduate level in many academic departments. Mitchell said the training program will strive to fill those voids.

“It’s important that we engage more with biologists and social scientists because their work is so important to risk assessment and the application of systems thinking to public health problems,” Mitchell said. “Especially when it comes to defining and implementing management practices, which rely on how people respond to them.”

QMRA III will help engineers and biologists take a systems approach to food and environmental issues.

“As we continue to integrate engineering with biology, and while taking a systems approach to issues of food and environment, this NIH grant will give the necessary boost in our efforts toward developing engineering systems for One Health,” said Ajit Srivastava, BAE chairperson.

One Health is a collaborative, multidisciplinary movement to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment.

Participants in QMRA III will learn the essentials of QMRA practice and apply their knowledge in cutting-edge, real-world case studies. Mitchell said this will help to develop new methods that can be used to tackle emerging issues in microbial risk management. Some of the case studies on emerging topics will be further explored after the program has concluded, developing into new research projects in their own right.

“One of the things I like best about this program is that it brings new research into the educational environment,” Mitchell said. “Most recently we’ve looked at biosolids, such as manure, and viruses in drinking water. Those are both pretty hot topics right now, and we’re at the forefront of training people for them. We’re testing new methods and models, as well as developing the educational materials for these new issues.”

One of the central features of QMRA III is QMRAwiki, a multilayered, interactive website that allows scientists to work together on individual projects regardless of geographical location. Participants will use the site’s datasets, parameters, models and tools to conduct the risk assessment case studies during the program, but Mitchell said she sees utility far beyond the classroom.

“It’s an opportunity to build on knowledge that’s already been established,” she said. “We’re always adding new content, models and educational material to the site. It’s a repository of data that is open to the entire QMRA community.”

By providing QMRA researchers with a central hub of information, Mitchell looks to encourage the cross-disciplinary collaboration that lies at the heart of QMRA research.

“Risk assessment is always a team eff  t, so  to best facilitate learning, this program had to be multidisciplinary,” Mitchell said. “People are coming to this course to learn from the people who established this framework and are leaders in the field.”

For more information, please visit qmrawiki.msu.edu. Registration information for QMRA III is available at camra.msu.edu. The deadline to register is March 31.

See other articles from the AgBioResearch annual report.

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