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Training Tomorrow's Food Safety Sleuths

Media Contact:
Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188

By Stacy Kish
August 7, 2009

O my jalapeños! These small hot peppers have joined the list of items in the fresh produce aisle to be contaminated with food-borne pathogens. And, scientific sleuths are mounting a valiant effort to identify and stop the next episode of contamination before it starts.

With funding from USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), scientists in California are teaching the next generation of scientists to identify and predict the migration and fate of disease-causing pathogens.

Sharon Walker and colleagues at the University of California–Riverside established a water quality research program that offers under-represented students a chance to conduct research and build scientific skills. 

Every year, two students are selected from Riverside Community College. During the program, students spend the summer in campus dormitories and receive a salary to conduct guided research.  Following their summer program, the students continue for a year-long part-time internship in Walker’s laboratory.

The student research covers a variety of scientific questions pertaining to food-borne pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli. Their work, to date, ranges from how pathogens persist in water to how the same pathogens adhere to common household surfaces. 

Each student project adds to the overall goal of understanding and predicting the various physical and chemical mechanisms that control how pathogens persist in water and soil.

“In our laboratory, we are really interested in water quality and, in particular, the fate of particles that can be a public health hazard,” Walker said. “We're very interested in understanding the movement of these particles in the environment; with an understanding of those mechanisms, we can develop means of removing them.”

This research is timely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur each year in the United States. The CDC estimates that there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to food-borne diseases each year. 

In addition to the research, the program pairs the undergrads with graduate student mentors.

“We have a real collaboration going on in the lab. We train undergraduates and let them participate in cutting-edge research in our laboratory.  In return, their time and effort eases our daily schedule and helps our productivity too. They have sharp eyes to catch points we miss. In addition, mentoring undergraduate students has helped me improve my communication, team work, and time management skills,” said Berat Haznedaroglu, a Ph.D. candidate.

In the past 2 years, the program has successfully recruited and retained four community college students in the program. All of the students continue their education at 4-year colleges, including the University of California, California Polytechnic Institute–Pomona, Colorado State University, and University of California–Irvine.

"I am extremely focused on leading the way in a new direction for Hispanic people in science-related fields," said Juan Lucio, a 2007-2008 program participant. Lucio is the first member of his immediate and extended family to attend college.

“We hope that [the program] can continue beyond this year. It has clearly been successful in providing community college students crucial mentoring and professional opportunities that help them [succeed] in engineering and scientific fields,” Walker said.

CSREES funded this research project through the National Research Initiative Water and Watersheds program. Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future. For more information, visit www.csrees.usda.gov.

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