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An ebullient conversationalist, Kellogg Schwab has a talent for colorful, rapid-fire storytelling. His penchant for sending his conversations off in a dozen different directions is echoed in the many projects under way at his lab, most of which are centered on water.
“Most Americans take it for granted that when they take a drink from the water fountain, they’re probably not going to get sick,” Schwab says. But in regions around the world, this essential resource can be the source of deadly illness.
Schwab, a second-generation microbiologist, is looking at many different ways to detect and eliminate water-borne pathogens. “The old engineering solutions for water purity have worked well for 150 years, but Kellogg is leading the way to new paradigms based in molecular biology,” says John Groopman, PhD, chair of Environmental Health Sciences.
One pathogen under study in Schwab’s lab, the Norwalk virus, made headlines last year for causing outbreaks aboard cruise ships, and has closed down hospitals in England. Just a single viral particle can make people ill. Schwab has been working to adapt mass spectrometry, a technique normally used for trace analysis of chemical elements, to detect the virus in human feces and environmental samples. This should give clinicians and epidemiologists a quicker and more precise method for diagnosing the virus, an essential step for treating it and controlling its spread.
Perhaps just as important to Schwab are his lab’s efforts to develop techniques for cleaning water that are affordable enough for less developed nations. He’s currently helping Procter and Gamble test an inexpensive packet that can rapidly sterilize water with a disinfectant and a coagulating material that traps and removes microorganisms as it settles through the water. The water can then be poured through a cloth to remove the coagulant.
Says Schwab, “We’re all in this boat together.”