The average human has more than 100 trillion microbes in and on their body, and the study of these tiny inhabitants is challenging previously held ideas about good and bad bacteria.
Mason researcher Patrick Gillevet, director of Mason’s Microbiome Analysis Center, studies the microbiome—the assortment of microorganisms in a given environment—and its relationship to human disease. Studies have found an individual’s microbiome can affect many aspects of health and illness, including cognition, obesity, cirrhosis, and even autism.
As part of a recent project funded by the National Institutes of Health, Gillevet and his collaborators worked to find ways to alter the microbiomes of patients with alcoholic liver disease. Their goal was to control the illness enough so that the patients could become eligible for liver transplants.
“It is now clear that the human microbiome [the gut flora] is another organ, and it is intimately involved in heath and disease,” he says.
Gillevet collaborates with researchers in a number of disciplines at Mason as well as with scholars from Virginia Commonwealth University, Rush University Hospital, and the University of Edmonton. These colleagues—from the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, China, and Turkey—have included researchers from the fields of environmental science and policy, biology, astronomy, and computer science. In other projects, Gillevet and his team are examining coal disease, lobster shell disease, and population genetics.
Prior to coming to Mason, Gillevet worked on the Human Genome Project at Harvard University and NIH and developed new analytical tools and technology in molecular biology.
Ten George Mason University students gathered at a table in Enterprise Hall and in no time had filled nearly 100 boxes with K-cups of tea infused with honey from Mason’s Honey Bee Initiative.
Profits from the sale of the Patriot Pollinator Coalition tea will go back into the initiative, a joint partnership between the School of Business and College of Science.
But this is more than a story about volunteer labor and entrepreneurship. It is a story about Mason’s commitment to experiential learning and how alumni give back to the university that helped launch their careers.
“This is where we differentiate ourselves,” says David J. Miller, PhD Public Policy ’15, director of Mason’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Mason Innovation Lab. “This is where the real learning is done, and it’s why students decide to come here.”
Mason already has the honey thanks to the Honey Bee Initiative’s 50 hives. It also has alumnus Chris Savage, BS Electrical Engineering ’10, with the machinery to make the K-cups, through his company True Honey Teas.
Seed money for the venture came from a $25,000 donation from the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia. All that was left was to find students who wanted to learn about business from the ground up and do everything from understanding unit costs, sales, supply chains, and marketing, to even building the packaging for the product.
That drive is something Savage can relate to.
“I was a member of the Innovation Lab, and when I first started my company I was very involved with [the lab], fleshing out my business model and helping make contacts,” says Savage, who is charging the students a small fee for the use of his machinery. “This is a great experience to showcase to students how this process actually works. Now they have to go out and start selling.”
On this day, though, just getting the first K-cups into the packaging was enough.
“A big part of startups is being hands-on,” says Clark Gronek, a junior finance major. “You have to be part of the process. You have to deal with every part of it.”
Television shows like CSI and NCIS make it look easy. But Mason graduate student Taylor McGee says making sense out of a real crime scene isn’t quite that simple.
McGee and a group of her classmates from Mason’s Forensic Science Program recently got a real look at what processing a crime scene entails when they made the trek to Mason’s new crime scene house.
“Shows like [CSI and NCIS] are interesting, but they’re not in any way indicative of what really goes on,” McGee says.
Located in a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Fairfax Campus, the crime scene house has eight rooms. Each has been carefully set up to recreate the details of the very real crime scenes that Forensic Science Program director Mary Ellen O’Toole and her experienced team of crime scene investigators have worked in the past.
“We’ve made every effort to make this as close to real life as we can,” says O’Toole, a former FBI profiler. “The idea was to give our students the experience of entering a real home crime scene.”
That will eventually include (mannequin) bodies and (fake) blood spatter, and learning to meticulously process hair fibers, fingerprints, and everything else that goes with such a grisly scenario. An SUV is parked outside, so students can learn how to process a crime scene in a vehicle as well.
Cameras set up throughout the house let O’Toole and other faculty carefully monitor and evaluate each group’s progress.
Instructors teach the students to be analytical without rushing to judgment, and to pay strict attention to the slightest detail and crime scene protocols. That’s essential if the students are to get to the bottom of the mystery and accurately chronicle evidence that could be critical to solving a crime. It’s the kind of hands-on experiential learning Mason forensic students will need in the field.
“It was definitely a learning experience,” said graduate student Georgia Williams. “I liked that we got to do things that are practical. As we saw, it doesn’t happen in 45 minutes [like on the TV shows].
If you thought an allergy to bee stings would stop anyone from being on the front lines in efforts to save the world’s most important pollinators, think again. Lisa Gring-Pemble’s passion and commitment to promoting honey bee sustainability pushes her into fields—with her EpiPen—to be among the bees and facilitate research, despite her allergy.
“Bees pollinate one in every three bites of food that we eat,” said Gring-Pemble, a co-founder of George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative. “A world without bees really means a world without food, and that’s a food security issue.”
To celebrate George Mason’s commitment to this aspect of environmental protection, the Honey Bee Initiative’s refurbished apiary—a collection of 20 beehives near the Roberts House on the Fairfax Campus—re-opened on Earth Day, April 22.
“We realized we weren’t educating people on what a pollinator friendly habitat looked like,” Gring-Pemble said, “so we started raising funds so people could learn more about that, and this was the celebration of that re-opening.”
Read more about how bees fuel Mason’s social entrepreneurial outreach efforts.
The apiary re-opening celebration welcomed anyone with an interest in bees and the Honey Bee Initiative, a joint project of Mason’s School of Business and College of Science. Faculty from both schools joined Mason President Ángel Cabrera, School of Business Dean Maury Peiperl, and College of Science Dean Peggy Agouris at a ribbon cutting.
They thanked Bayer’s Feed-A-Bee program grant, Merrifield Garden Center, and the Morton and Spapperi Family Foundation for making the renovation possible.
Cabrera emphasized the importance of “empowering people to make a difference” and pointed out the students in attendance.
“Students are vital to the success of the program,” Gring-Pemble said, “and we’re looking for those that are engaged and committed long-term to this initiative.”
Such as junior business management major Soulin Reyes.
“You don’t acknowledge things you don’t know,” she said. “It’s important we get more students involved in these programs to help the planet.”
Germán Perilla, the Honey Bee Initiative’s co-founder who teaches beekeeping classes at Mason, also emphasized the importance of bees in maintaining food security.
“Bees are responsible as pollinators,” he said. “If you respect life, you must respect pollinators.”
Those attending the celebration had the opportunity to taste and purchase honey from around the world, while also getting hands-on experience in beekeeping, in a beekeeper’s protective suit, of course.
“What we want people to take away from this initiative is that there is an intimate connection between human survival and bee survival, and that there should be a foregone conclusion that we have a responsibility to take care of pollinators,” Gring-Pemble said.