The Hunt for Microorganisms

March 2021

Microbiology lessons have new relevance in the age of COVID-19

COVID-19 IllustrationIt's science that looms large in the headlines these days — the fascinating world of microbes, pathogens and the human immune system. For COCC's microbiology instructors (known as the "Micro Team"), their specialties include microbial disease research and cellular biology, and their virtual labs and lectures are connecting students with the driving science behind the global health crisis.

Students learn about techniques such as the polymerase chain reaction and DNA sequencing. The "PCR" test — a widely used method for identifying parasites and viruses, including COVID-19 — involves amplifying (copying) one segment of DNA out of an entire genome. It requires specialty lab equipment, including a thermocycler. Many of Central Oregon's COVID-19 tests are conducted using this technique.

"We acquired PCR equipment just prior to the pandemic, so it's been really cool to utilize it in this moment," says assistant professor Amanda Layton. Students conduct PCR and other modern microbiology laboratory techniques through this combined lecture-lab, where they hunt for and identify bacteria from kombucha. (Note: During the coronavirus pandemic, all classes are conducted online in combination with Blackboard teaching software.)

In another portion of the microbiology course, antibodies are front and center. In this staph species lecture-to-lab, students learn to identify pathogenic staph, including how antibodies target specific pathogens. From the latest techniques to studying effective treatments, students are learning the science in a momentous time.

The faculty shares its expertise beyond the classroom, too. Associate professor of biology Emma Chaput recently provided a college-wide presentation on the development and safety of COVID-19 vaccines. "Vaccines are considered one of the greatest public health achievements," she says. "Globally, vaccines prevent around 2.5 million people from dying each year [prior to the pandemic]."

Emma Chaput, Associate Professor of Biology
Emma Chaput
Amanda Layton, Assistant Professor of Biology
Amanda Layton
Teresa De Sitter, Assistant Professor of Human BiologyTeresa De Sitter

The "Micro Team" at COCC opens up a big view of the minuscule world. Meet the team:

Emma Chaput, Associate Professor of Biology 
B.A. Biology, Johns Hopkins University; M.P.H. in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, Yale University

Amanda Layton, Assistant Professor of Biology
B.A. Exercise Science, Willamette University; M.S. Exercise Science, Central Washington University

Matthew Higgins, Assistant Professor of Human Biology
B.S. Biochemistry, Western Washington University; Ph.D. Pharmacology, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Teresa De Sitter, Assistant Professor of Human Biology
B.S. Cellular and Molecular Biology, Western Washington University; B.A. Spanish, Western Washington University; M.A. Biology, Microbiology, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Western Washington University

*Credit: COVID-19 illustrations adapted from an image by Maya Peters Kostman for the Innovative Genomics Institute.