TTU's Sharon Berk chosen to participate in prestigious visiting scholar program in Australia

Throughout Tennessee Tech microbiology professor Sharon Berk’s career, she has studied how bacteria can fill the protozoa that feed on them and then be expelled — embedded in protective pellets — back into the environment, where they may then be stronger and more resistant to sanitation chemicals.

Recently, her expertise was recognized by an invitation to participate in the Visiting Scholar Program at Flinders University Research Centre for Coastal and Catchment Environments.

According to Berk’s host, Professor Richard Bentham, Berk was chosen to participate in the prestigious program because she “has an extensive track record in the ecology of Legionella [the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease], protozoology and protozoan/bacterial interactions. Berk’s skills in protozoan isolation and protozoan endoparasites are not equaled by any researcher in Australia.”

Bentham and Howard Fallowfield, director of the Flinders Centre, saw her stay as the perfect opportunity to showcase her work and bring together other Legionella experts throughout Australia for an in-depth exploration of Legionella control.

One activity included a workshop held in October in the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, organized in honor of her appearance as a visiting scholar at Flinders. Visitors from nearly every state in Australia attended her talk.

“I’m very honored that my visit drew this much attention,” Berk said.

During her visit, she made two oral presentations during the workshop and three others, including one at the Flinders University Department of Environmental Health, one at the Australian Water Quality Centre, and another one at the Adelaide University Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science.

Rod Ratcliff, a molecular biologist from the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, said that Berk’s video microscopy was especially illuminating.

“For one who works mainly with DNA and rarely sees life at the microscopic level, I found the vigor and violence of the motility of the intracellular life surprising, even astounding. It completely changed my comprehension,” he said.

At the AWQC, her audience was “fascinated by her digital videos that showed the progress of infection in amoeba cells,” according to Bret Robinson, a senior protozoologist there.

While in Adelaide, Berk both learned and taught principles and techniques for studying Legionella bacteria and how they can be spread through cooling towers.

She and Bentham said they hoped her stay would lead to research applications for Australian and U.S. funding initiatives. One goal, in particular, was to work with U.S. and South African researchers to seek funds for investigating the ecology and diversity of emerging pathogenic bacteria that invade amoebae and possibly humans.

Not only should Berk’s experience lead to more research efforts of her own, but it could also lead to an opportunity for her students, as well, to participate in an exchange program with Flinders University students.

All of these efforts could eventually lead to a Memorandum of Understanding between Flinders University and TTU, which would be beneficial in expanding TTU’s influence in the research arena.

“My month-long stay in Australia and the workshop provided many opportunities for additional collaborations and for promoting wider international recognition for TTU,” said Berk, whose work in Legionella has already garnered national attention for herself and the Center for TTU’s Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources, where she is a core faculty member.

“This opportunity was not only an honor for me, but it was also a thrill to be among some of the most well-known researchers of Legionella in the world. We are optimistic that we will now establish strong international research teams that will get the chance to address the global problems of Legionnaires’ disease and other respiratory illnesses,” Berk said.

Interest in Legionella had already brought attention from other international scientists prior to her Australian visit. Recent visitors to Berk’s lab included two international researchers — Rafael Garduño, from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Michèle Merchat, head of the Research and Development Department at Climespace, in Paris, France.

Garduño says their visit was very busy. “Dr. Berk and I have been collaborating for 10 years, so the purpose of my visit was threefold: to discuss future directions for our research; to learn firsthand from the experience of Drs. Berk and Merchat about the role of cooling towers in the transmission of Legionnaires’ disease; and to celebrate our recent publication in the Journal of Bacteriology.”

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