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Assistant Professor Eric Sakowski Publishes in Nature Microbiology

Nicole Patterson

Mount St. Mary’s University Assistant Professor of Science Eric Sakowski, Ph.D., a 2008 graduate of the university, recently published “Interaction dynamics and virus—host range for estuarine actinophages captured by epicPCR” in Nature Microbiology, a prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal in the Nature portfolio that promotes the best research across the field of microbiology.

dr.-eric-sakowski_photo-1-in-text.jpgSakowski and his colleagues’ novel approach allows researchers to accurately identify bacteria and the viruses that infect them, as well as have a better understanding of the role these microorganisms play in maintaining the ecosystem health of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Eric is a wonderful example of the power of interdisciplinary training in the sciences,” said Christine McCauslin, Ph.D., molecular biologist and interim dean of the Mount's School of Natural Science and Mathematics. “His background in chemistry, microbiology, environmental science, and molecular and computational biology resulted in a novel application of PCR technology to detect bacterial and viral interactions—the same technology we use to test for coronavirus infection.”

Sakowski’s approach seeks to identify the viruses that infect bacteria using their unique DNA or RNA signatures. Bacteria are often thought of in a negative light because some can cause disease.  “But environmental bacteria are critical to a healthy Bay ecosystem,” he said. “Because of this, we wanted to see what kinds of viral infections are occurring there.”

Growing up, Sakowski remembered being fascinated with the natural world, watching nature documentaries and reading National Geographic. “But then my grandfather, once he retired, became a crabber,” he recalled. “I would spend some of my days on the Chesapeake Bay catching crabs, and I witnessed firsthand some of the decline of the Bay.” He remembered being about six years old and catching three bushels of crabs by noon. By the time he was a teenager, he’d spend all day to catch half of a bushel. “Witnessing some of those declines really got me interested in pursuing environmental science,” he added.

After majoring in biology and biocjhemistry at the Mount, Sakowski fell in love with microbiology in graduate school. He went in search of a lab where he could do something related to the Chesapeake Bay. Sakowski received his Ph.D. in biological sciences with a concentration in molecular biology and genetics from the University of Delaware in 2015 where he worked alongside expert viral ecologists K. Eric Wommack, Ph.D., and Shawn W. Polson, Ph.D. “I stumbled across Eric’s lab and they had this project on oysters that drew me in,” he said. Their work “Oyster calcifying fluid harbors persistent and dynamic autochthonous bacterial populations that may aid in shell formation” was published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal covering all aspects of marine ecology.

Sakowski is the recipient of a University of Delaware Graduate Fellowship, Delaware Water Resources Center Graduate Fellowship and Preston C. Townsend Biotechnology Fellowship. He was a postdoctoral associate in Sarah Preheim’s lab at Johns Hopkins University where he researched virus-bacterial interactions and microcystin toxin detection before he returned to the Mount in Fall 2020, remembering the time he spent in labs and with his professors before receiving his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and biology.

It was here where his first undergraduate project became his first peer-reviewed publication: “Effectiveness of Moss as a Bioindicator of Metal Contamination in Streams.”

“Eric has a passion for biology and a great analytical mind that he is applying to solve a wide variety of ecological mysteries,” said Jeffrey Simmons, Ph.D., who, at that time, was associate professor of environmental science and now is executive director of strategic planning and institutional effectiveness. “He was a top student who needed an Honors project and we settled on an ambitious experiment to test the ability of mosses in a stream to absorb toxic heavy metal pollutants. Eric had to build the experimental apparatus from scratch and learn several new analytical techniques, which he did with ease,” Simmons said.

Since his return to the Mount, Sakowski mentors Julia Baer, a double major in biology and chemistry, recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and a 2021 Fulbright semifinalist seeking to conduct research on the biogeography of microbial communities in volcanic Antarctic habitats at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

The common theme in Sakowski’s research is microorganisms in the Chesapeake Bay and understanding how they’re playing a role in maintaining the overall health of the Bay.

“I absolutely think my grandfather would appreciate the work I’m doing,” Sakowski said with a smile. “A healthier Bay means more crabs and oysters. I know he enjoyed his oysters on the half shell tremendously.”


Nicole Patterson