Artboard 1 apply Artboard 1 copy 2 Mount_Logo_Primary_RGB Mount_Logo_Primary_RGB give Artboard 1 copy 3 info link Mount_Logo_Primary_RGB Artboard 1 Artboard 2 Artboard 1 visit

Testing the Waters – Spring 2021 Ducharme Lecture

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

“I will be honest that when Will presented this idea, I was very, very skeptical,” admitted Associate Professor of Biochemistry Michael Turner, Ph.D., as he delivered the Spring 2021 Ducharme Lecture. Dr. Turner was describing his reaction to a plan proposed by Lab Manager and Environmental Health and Safety Officer William Wood of the School of Natural Science and Mathematics to test wastewater on campus as a way of detecting and containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In his March 10 lecture, titled “Testing the Waters: Containing COVID at Mount St. Mary’s,” Turner explained that he and Wood were members of one of seven response teams working on the Mount Safe Initiative established by President Trainor, each of which focused on how the Mount could safely and effectively return students to campus for the 2020-21 academic year.

ducharme-turner2.jpgTurner strongly believes in the value of in-person, face-to-face learning, particularly in the demanding lab work central to his department.  When the Safe Teams studied the problem, Turner wondered, “Can we safely manage and contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 on campus amidst a global pandemic?”  Charged with the objective of establishing “conditions for a healthy and safe campus environment” and enhancing the university’s ability “to detect and respond to a possible COVID-19 outbreak on campus,” his team developed a three-pronged strategy, which included mandatory testing before students returned, establishing quarantine and isolation spaces on campus and surveillance testing.  

Despite his initial skepticism, Turner understood that the idea of wastewater sampling had some major pluses. “Hypothetically, we could essentially test all of campus, and get a building-by-building feel for where someone who is positive for the virus may be dwelling,” he said. Through surveillance the Mount could control the spread even from asymptomatic individuals.

manhole-cover.jpgTo paint a picture of the challenge the Mount faced, Turner asked audience members to picture where they were a year ago. “A year ago right about now,” he explained, “the cases were beginning to spike, the health care systems were beginning to become overwhelmed, and local and state governments were scrambling to respond.”  Around the same time, the Mount sent students home and transitioned to remote instruction.  To explain the steps the Safe Teams then took as they planned the transition back to in-person learning, Turner provided detailed information about the virus.  In terms even those who were not scientifically inclined could understand, he described its spiked protein, its means of replicating, and the ways host cells fight against it.  These descriptions explained why the Mount implemented specific safety measures to limit transmission.  He added, “If we’re trying to understand how we can manage the spread of this, then we need to understand the statistics behind how this virus affects populations.”  COVID-19 has a higher transmissibility rate than influenza, as well as a longer interval between the onset of symptoms and maximum infectivity.

These scientific facts and the seriousness of the challenge were key factors in deciding to test the Mount’s wastewater.  There were potential obstacles, such as the uneven flow of fluid through the system, but the Safe Team believed a testing process could help keep campus operating if it worked.  The team developed a three-step process that included sample collection, sample pasteurization, and sample analysis, with a group of people assigned to each task.  The chemical treatment replicated RNA strands from the virus, sampled at different points in the Mount’s wastewater system, which allowed experts to detect COVID-19 outbreaks.  Testers were able to identify potential hot spots and thus contain sickness in residence halls early on.  When the water samples contained evidence of the disease in specific living spaces, students living there were immediately tested and those who tested positive were quarantined or sent home to learn remotely for an appropriate period. 

Turner showed the audience data representing cases on campus across time and their physical locations.  Not all results were definitive, but, overall, the data suggested suitable courses of action in specific instances.  “What we noticed was that as spikes went up on campus, they quickly went back down,” Turner pointed out.  In other words, the Mount effectively demonstrated that it was possible to control the spread of the virus on a college campus with the process the university put in place.

Turner wanted the audience to take home two lessons. The first is the importance of making plans and developing strategies based on facts: “Information facilitates inspiration,” he emphasized.  Second, he argued that collaborative teams can “make difficult things doable, and seemingly impossible things not only possible, but also normal.”  After successfully keeping students on campus for almost an entire year, the university has proven the measures that were taken by the COVID-19 Mount Safe Teams were pivotal in reaching that goal. “I have said this before publicly, but I will say it again,” Turner stressed, “our university administration deserves a huge vote of thanks for their leadership, their planning, and their execution of that plan in light of all that’s happened this year.”  While many universities struggled to stay open, the Mount was able to offer its students the experience of living and learning on campus during both the fall and spring semesters. This, Turner believes, would not have been possible without great leadership and the cooperation of the entire Mount community.

One audience member who was particularly impressed was Assistant Professor of Chemistry Patrick Lombardi, Ph.D., who has published in a variety of science journals. Lombardi appreciated the work that Turner and his colleagues put into the wastewater testing system. “There are hundreds of students on campus whose hands-on learning experiences in classrooms, laboratories, and studios would not have been possible through purely remote instruction,” he said. “As a wet-lab scientist, whose research cannot be conducted remotely, I owe Dr. Turner and his team a personal debt of gratitude.”

Next fall, the Mount plans to operate in conditions closer to those prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.  This means that students will have a more “traditional” Mount experience. However, the Mount community will always remember that this year students were able to stay on campus amidst a pandemic thanks to the perseverance of administrators, students and talented faculty members like Turner.  A teacher, researcher, and mentor, he holds a Ph.D. in molecular, cellular and developmental biology from Yale University and has been teaching biochemistry, molecular biology, molecular genetics, senior seminar and introductory biology in the Mount’s Science Department since 2013. 

The Ducharme Lecture series was made possible by a generous gift from Mount St. Mary’s alumnus, Raphael Della Ratta, an English major and a philosophy minor from the class of 1992, who now serves on the Mount’s Board of Trustees and on the Advisory Board of the College of Liberal Arts.  Della Ratta founded the program to honor one of his professors, Robert Ducharme, Ph.D., a champion of the liberal arts at Mount St. Mary’s.     

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts