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Antibiotic Resistance: An Eastern Professor Tackles a Global Problem

Published on April 06, 2016

Antibiotic Resistance: An Eastern Professor Tackles a Global Problem

Among the world’s most pressing public health problems is antibiotic resistance, and Barbara Murdoch, a biology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, is dedicated to fighting it. Antibiotics are powerful medicines that fight bacterial infections, but more and more they are being rendered ineffective.

“Some bacteria are able to grow in the presence of the antibiotics that we currently have,” says Murdoch.

Antibiotics are routinely misused. For instance, they are wrongly taken to treat sicknesses caused by viruses — this and other inappropriate practices result in bacteria developing resistances to the medicines. Furthermore, there is a limited number of antibiotics, coupled with a downtrend in antibiotic discovery.

“All of this creates the perfect storm,” says Murdoch, “so we’re in a real crisis situation right now where people are going to start dying from simple bacterial infections.”

Murdoch incorporates antibiotic resistance into her research and outreach, and involves students in her efforts. In 2013, she was one of 25 professors nationwide to pilot the Small World Initiative (SWI), which has now grown to more than 100 colleges and universities across the world.

The SWI’s mission is twofold: to encourage students to pursue careers in the sciences, and to engage students in antibiotic research and discovery. “The data that students collect goes into a central repository so you can see data from any student at any institution,” said Murdoch. “We’re using crowd sourcing to try to tackle antibiotic resistance.”

On Eastern’s campus, Murdoch is working closely with biology major Lauren Atkinson ’19 on antibiotic research. The freshman is gathering soil samples, isolating bacteria from the samples and testing those bacterial strains to see if they can produce antibiotics. “Soil has a very rich diversity of bacteria,” explains Murdoch. “One teaspoon of soil has tens of thousands of different strains of bacteria.” To test the antibiotic properties of certain bacterial strains, Murdoch says, “You grow those strains with other bacterial strains and see if they inhibit the growth of another strain.”

Murdoch hopes to expand this research into an official course, with a full roster of students to dedicate to the cause. She adds, “Not only do students get hands-on experiences in the lab, they have a project that has a global presence.”

Awareness is another area of antibiotic resistance in which Murdoch is active. In 2014, via a grant from the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, she and others from Yale University presented an exhibit at the United Nations. “We were successful,” she said. “The United Nations has put antibiotic resistance as a priority for the next 15 years.”

With an interactive exhibit fully assembled — involving an ant farm, microscope and tablet, and chemistry demonstrations — Murdoch received a grant from The Institute for Life Sciences Collaboration to take the display around Connecticut. Eastern students assist her with the outreach, and the group has been to colleges and universities across the state in effort of spreading awareness of antibiotic resistance.

“The Important part is the students don’t need any background in science,” says Murdoch. “The point is simply to educate people. Antibiotic resistance is a problem worldwide.”

Written by Michael Rouleau

Categories: Biology