Research to Enhance Food Safety
Julia Hershelman ’23
What drew you to this field of study?
I’ve been really interested in science since high school, where I was especially fascinated by a biotech and genetics class I took. So when I came to UMass, I was really intrigued by the microbiology major. I found out that I really love learning about microbes and how these tiny organisms can be so deadly, yet are also essential to our lives.
How do you conduct your research?
I work in a food science lab studying a food-borne pathogen called Listeria monocytogenes, and, specifically, its tolerance to a sanitizer, benzalkonium chloride. I used a technique known as chemical mutagenesis to make minor changes in the genome of the organism, then grew the mutant cells in increasing concentrations of the sanitizer and isolated the ones that had a higher tolerance to the sanitizer. After sequencing those mutants, I compared the genomes of those bacteria to the genome of the ancestral strain to understand how certain mutants can survive in higher concentrations of the sanitizer. I also looked at the susceptibility of these mutants to various antibiotics.
So far, I have found and sequenced two mutants with an increased tolerance to the sanitizer and an increased tolerance to fluoroquinolone antibiotics. I have identified a few candidate genes that might be causing these tolerant properties.
What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?
You often hear news reports about Listeria outbreaks in food processing plants or recalls of foods that have been associated with infections. My work is looking at the mechanisms of persistent Listeria to hopefully prevent food contamination and outbreaks. We also study Listeria’s susceptibility to antibiotics to discover mechanisms of tolerance, which is relevant to the growing issue of antibiotic resistance. Whenever I hear about another Listeria outbreak from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it reminds me of the importance of my research.
How does your faculty mentor support your research?
My mentor, Assistant Professor of Food Science John Gibbons, has been extremely helpful these past two years. He not only is available to answer questions and help me with my project, but he also encourages me to step outside my comfort zone and really challenge myself with my research. For example, in my junior year, he encouraged me to present my research at a symposium. I didn’t think that was something I would get the opportunity to do as an undergraduate, but I will be presenting at my fourth symposium this spring.
I also have a really good relationship with my graduate student mentor, Tyler Bechtel. He has trained me in all of the lab techniques I have learned. He not only has been a huge resource with my own project, but has also let me contribute to his own project to learn even more techniques.
What do you find most exciting about conducting research?
I always find it exciting when I can relate my research to things I see in everyday life. It reminds me that what I am doing is relevant to many people. For example, whenever I hear about another Listeria outbreak from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it reminds me of the importance of my research. It is also always exciting to see a positive outcome after putting in a lot of effort! I also recently started making my own pickles, which is extremely relevant to microbes in foods, and just reminds me that microbes are everywhere in our lives.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of how much I have grown both intellectually and personally while doing research. When I started, I didn’t even know where to begin when starting a new experiment. Now, I have a better understanding of different lab techniques and assays to ask and answer critical questions. Additionally, I am proud of the personal growth and confidence I have gained by presenting my research to peers and faculty, teaching other lab members protocols I helped establish, and working on a manuscript for my research.
How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?
Research has greatly enhanced my overall education experience at UMass. I enjoy learning new information in my classes, but I feel like I got to apply that information more in my research. I learn best when studying a topic I’m truly passionate about, which was the case in my research. I had fun doing it, so I was happy to devote a lot of time to it and learn a ton. Research has also allowed me to meet a lot of really smart, cool people who shared their research experiences with me. Hearing different points of view helped me figure out what I wanted to do.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan on attending Tufts University in the fall to pursue a PhD in biology. Ultimately, I hope to continue pursuing research in the microbiology field, and to stay in academia, where I can teach my passions to other people.
Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?
I think UMass has a ton of amazing opportunities, so everyone can find their place. It is a big school, which offers so many possibilities to find your passion.