Prof Fights Nasty Microbes with Handwashing, VaccinesBy Ed Adcock
When Joan Cunnick urges proper hand-washing, her message carries the weight of a microbiologist - and a mother.
For years she has been advising people, including her two children, to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" to themselves. She has hosted grade school children using "glitterbug lotion" and a black light, to determine how clean their hands truly were after washing.
In these days of pandemic flu threats, her message is even more relevant.
Cunnick has been professor-in-charge of the microbiology program in 2003. Her home department is animal science, which manages the program with plant pathology.
Students in the microbiology program are served by faculty in several department. "The interdepartmental nature helps strengthen the program," she says. "We can draw on a lot of different expertise."
About 28 faculty members from many departments and colleges teach classes and help with the active Microbiology Club as well as present workshops. There are several faculty in animal science and plant pathology, but they extend to veterinary pathology; food science and human nutrition; and veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine departments.
Each year 80 - 100 undergraduate students major in microbiology. Many students in other majors such as animal science and food science find microbiology relevant to their coursework and sign up for minors.
It also makes them strong candidates for jobs in university labs as students and after they graduate, she says.
"We've had 100 percent employment in our program for as long as they've been keeping track. About half of our students go out to get jobs when they complete their bachelor's degree. The other 50 percent want to go to medical school or graduate school or veterinary school, and they've been very successful applying to those programs," Cunnick says.
Microbiology has been a good career fit for Cunnick. The daughter of medical professionals, she earned a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from Kansas State University and joined Iowa State's faculty 18 years ago. Her animal science appointment is appropriate.
"I tell people that I like to work with animals with the fur on," she says. "I study the immune system in live animals as responses are activated and develop, so animal science is a good fit for me."
Her research work focuses on developing edible vaccines. She's been studying immune responses in mice to different proteins placed in corn at the Plant Transformation Facility on campus. "The hope is to develop a vaccine that is stable and more easily delivered to people in developing countries. We're targeting the immune systems at mucous membrane sites where many organisms attack from food or water contamination," she says.
The diversity of her position appeals to Cunnick, and she likes interacting with students especially through laboratory experiences. She enjoys working with the Microbiology Club, and planning outreach activities to make young children and high school students aware of microbes and to consider studying them in college.
And to keep them safe from microbes by washing their hands.
Cunnick's Handwashing Tips
1. Use soap (any type, not important if antibacterial)
2. Add water to create lather or bubbles
3. Scrub for 15-30 seconds to work up a good covering of soap bubbles
4. Rinse hands only after bubbles cover front and back of hands and between fingers
5. Dry your hands (microbes need moisture to grow)
6. Hand sanitizer is good at killing surface "germs" if soap and water are not available