Professors, Pathogens and a Coop Thanksgiving

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the beginning of December; final projects and papers have breached the horizon and loom nearer and nearer every day. The not-so-distant close of the 2012 MLLC program prompts the nine of us to think more and more deeply about what we have learned and accomplished, and what this program has meant to us.

Less than three weeks before the end of the semester, we (the stellar members of the Coop) spent the week hosting and participating in numerous events as per usual.

Dining With Carol Christensen

On Wednesday evening we entertained Professor Carol Christensen from the Psychology department (or rather, she entertained us). Like the other professors we have cooked for this semester, Carol brought to us her own unique perspective on food. We began by discussing the importance of proper nutrition as a component of a healthy lifestyle and how it translates into a healthy brain. As busy, often overstretched students we can neglect or fail to prioritize the most important parts of everyday life: good food, exercise, sleep and at least one method of stress reduction.

Professor Christensen posed two questions to us that night: first, she asked whether we felt it was true that it is impossible to go through a semester without being sleep deprived for at least some of it (a statement on of her psychology classes had agreed was accurate). Some of us felt that it was not impossible but certainly a great feat, while others nodded solemnly around the table.

Second, she asked us to share about how many nights a week we “did things” (attended meetings, clubs, regular activities; nights we didn’t spend relaxing, studying or socializing). Our responses varied between “two or three” and “five or six.”

So, we’re busy. How do we manage everything? Do we take time to unwind and de-stress? What can we do to reduce stress and maintain healthy, positive lifestyles?

From a physiological standpoint, one of the most important things to pay attention to in order to stay healthy is the food we put into our bodies. Our conversations touched on various diets from vegetarianism and veganism to the Paleo diet, the Furman diet (nine to ten servings of fruits and veggies a day to give you plenty of micronutrients, which Carol said, as she helped herself to another serving of salad, she tries to follow), to caloric restriction with adequate nutrition (eating the bare minimum of necessary calories to survive while still getting enough nutrients, a diet that studies have shown enhances lifestyle in all of the tried organisms), fasting, the antioxidant theory of aging, and how cancers and autoimmune diseases can be dealt with nutritionally.

Michael Starnbach’s Visit

Our featured visitor this week was Michael Starnbach from the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University. A food enthusiast and esteemed biologist, Michael had a lot to teach us about food safety and public health.

Dr. Starnbach’s expertise lies in micro-organisms, and he dedicated our Thursday morning class to teaching us about the most common microbial pathogens in food and their mechanisms of infection and reproduction once they enter our bodies, including Salmonella euterica, norovirus (or the “stomach flu”), Camplobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and other causes of food poisoning. We learned about how public health and food safety regulations work to eliminate, contain and control outbreaks through pasteurization, sanitization and other methods, and why babies shouldn’t be fed honey within the first few years after birth because of their immune systems’┬ávulnerability┬áto soil bacterium spores that bees can pick up when they collect pollen.

We transitioned from the classroom to the lab with Michael and enjoyed a meal he had prepared for us using controlled temperature cooking (salmon, lamb, cauliflower, and a whole host of other delicious treats!) while he told us all about the chemistry of cooking meat and shared some of his own favorite cooking tricks, including the recipe for his favorite mixed drink (my lips are sealed).

Dr. Starnbach’s lecture that evening was well-attended and further demonstrated his very relatable manner of explaining complex ideas and jovial, easy-going personality. After an in-depth discussion of diseases, their mechanisms, their role in the world and how we have learned to deal with them, Starnbach left us with three take-homes:

  • Reduction of childhood morbidity and mortality from diarrheal diseases requires improvement in water delivery and sanitation,
  • Vaccines are the only permanent solution to fight many of these organisms, and
  • Universal compliance with vaccine programs is necessary for protection of communities and ultimate elimination of the pathogen.
Dr. Starnbach’s visit helped inform yet another perspective on food for us. And by the end of the week we were ready to cook up a storm. We’d been planning our house Thanksgiving since early November, and on Sunday we gathered for a truly cooperative-style family meal, a Coop Thanksgiving, sharing and feeling deeply thankful for each other and the opportunity to learn and grow together this year.

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