Risky business: MSU researcher to build national microbial risk assessment training program

MSU AgBioResearch biosystems engineer Jade Mitchell has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and provide quantitative microbial risk assessment tools, models and training to university researchers around the nation.

August 27, 2014 - Author: Holly Whetstone

MSU AgBioResearch's Jade Mitchell

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch biosystems engineer Jade Mitchell has received a nearly $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and provide quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) tools, models and training to university researchers around the nation. One of the goals of the program is to link quantitative scientists such as engineers to biologists and social scientists.

QMRA is a four-step process used by scientists and engineers to characterize the human health risk associated with exposure to various microorganisms. The information is used to assess levels of safety and to develop appropriate plans in case of public exposure to infectious agents in all types of settings.

Though it’s more common 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 scientific 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,” said Mitchell, an assistant professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering. “Especially when it comes to defining and implementing management practices, which rely on how people respond to them.”

The training program 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 – a first for our department – will give the necessary boost in our efforts towards developing engineering systems for One Health,” said Ajit Srivastava, chairman of the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. One Health is a collaborative, multidisciplinary movement to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment.

Participants in the two-week courses, which are set to begin in the summer of 2015, 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.

“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.”

Mitchell’s program will include leading figures in the field of QMRA teaching multidisciplinary courses on the subject.

“Risk assessment is always a team effort, 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.”

A website, which will feature more information including registration forms, is set to launch in December.

MSU AgBioResearch engages in innovative, leading-edge research that combines scientific expertise with practical experience to generate economic prosperity, sustain natural resources and enhance the quality of life in Michigan, the nation and the world. It encompasses the work of more than 300 scientists in seven MSU colleges - Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Letters, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine - and has a network of 13 research centers across the state.

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