Personal illness leads to career in microbiology

Linda F. Benedict, Morgan, Johnny W.

There are many reasons why people choose a career, but probably not many because of illness. But for LSU AgCenter professor of food safety and microbiology Marlene Janes, contracting a case of meningitis started her on the path to her current position.

“I actually wanted to go into social work, but then I became sick with viral meningitis. That’s what made me interested in microbiology,” she said. “Once I started to work in the field, I realized just how much I liked it.”

Janes attended the University of Arkansas and majored in microbiology. After graduating, she landed a job at the University of Arkansas in the food safety and food microbiology lab.

Janes, who is originally from Missouri, had then found a reason to remain in Arkansas to complete her master’s degree.

“After I finished my master’s, I had a job interview with the city of Tulsa as their microbiologist,” she said. “On my way back from that interview, all I could think about on that two-hour drive was how bored I would get with that job.”

At that point, she decided that she really liked research and working with students, so she enrolled in the Ph.D. program.

“When I completed the Ph.D., I had a lot of job interviews with different universities,” Janes said. “But I liked Louisiana State University and the LSU AgCenter the best.”

Before coming to the LSU AgCenter, she had worked with food safety in poultry while in Arkansas. But since she’s been in Louisiana, most of her work has been in seafood safety.

One of the bigger projects that she’s worked on was a study with North Carolina State University and the Food and Drug Administration to see if icing down oysters would control Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus.

“We work closely with the FDA at Dauphin Island, Alabama,” Janes said. “Several of my students are preparing to go there soon to learn some of their food safety techniques with viruses.”

Along with this research, Janes began working to develop antibodies for Vibrio, which was funded through the Louisiana Sea Grant program.

“This work looked at rapid methods for isolation and identification of various Vibrio pathogens,” Janes said. “We kill the pathogen and inject it into mice or rabbits. When these animals produce antibodies against it, then we collect the antibodies.”

With that information, she develops methods where she’s able to detect pathogens.

“We’ve recently begun work on more viruses instead of bacteria,” Janes said. “The project that we’re working on now is the norovirus, which is a very contagious virus that causes stomach flu.”

This virus can be spread from person to person or from contaminated food or water. The virus causes inflammation in the stomach or intestines or both, she said.

Her research in this area is part of a $25 million project called NoroCORE that involves 60 universities.

Janes said her work on the project involves seafood because that’s a niche market for Louisiana.

“We are working with oysters on this project, and again we are looking for ways to detect the virus,” she said.

In addition to the oyster research, Janes is involved in testing for local food companies. One testing project is with a Louisiana company that makes hot sauce.

“They are having problems with the product spoiling while in the fermentation process,” Janes said. “So we have a big project with them to help find the cause.”

With the new food safety laws, a large number of small, new food companies are looking for her help to make sure their products are safe, and they are also looking for ways to increase the shelf life of their products.

“We work with many types of foods, from alligator to crawfish, shrimp, and we’ve recently worked with blue crabs because they also need to be tested.

Johnny Morgan is a communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

1/16/2013 11:51:59 PM
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