By Nora Onstad
[Nora Onstad is a graduate student in Soil and Water Resources Engineering in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering]
With an increasing global population and urbanization, food and water safety is a growing concern. As a graduate student in agricultural and biological engineering at Illinois, I have access to a unique resource that will tackle these problems from an engineering perspective.
I work with Paul Davidson, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Prof. Davidson recently set up a biological contaminants lab space in the Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building. The space was certified this summer as a biosafety level 2 (BSL 2) lab. In a BSL 2 lab, personnel can handle pathogenic (capable of causing disease) material of moderate potential hazard to personnel and the environment. Currently the lab contains two biosafety cabinets, a chemical fume hood, a centrifuge and an incubator.
Along with Mathew Miller, a senior in ABE, I am currently studying how Cyclospora moves in the environment. Cyclospora is an emerging food safety pathogen and has been the cause of disease outbreaks on fresh produce imported to the U.S. in recent years.
This past summer, we collected water, soil, and wildlife scat from combined sewage outfall (CSO) locations in the Chicagoland area. CSOs are used in some older, combined wastewater and storm water systems to manage water when there is too much rain flowing into storm drains. When there is too much water for the wastewater treatment plants, some of the mixture of untreated sewage and rainwater is discharged into streams. The human waste could potentially transmit human pathogens into the environment. This study is a basic step to understand the environmental spread of these pathogens.
In the fall semester, we started evaluating how much Cyclospora adheres to soil particles, which involves filling small test tubes with soil and adding Cyclospora, then allowing time for the organism to stick to the soil.
I believe our preliminary work will help guide future research to prevent food contamination. Grant proposals for future pathogen research have been submitted. As the new BSL2 lab space grows, it will provide support for multiple research projects.