Tuesday, December 6, 2016

“It’s really about communicating”: An Interview with Dr. Eric McLamore

This November, Dr. Eric McLamore, associate professor in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, was honored with a USDA Excellence in Teaching award in the New Teacher category. Dr. McLamore is popular among students in the ABE department for his wide-ranging research and a grant writing course he teaches which includes learning about and creating digital media. In fact, not too long ago Dr. McLamore worked with IrriGator on a short video about air conditioning condensate irrigation.

In this same collaborative spirit, Dr. McLamore recently shared with us some thoughts on his current research and receiving a teaching award.

USDA Excellence in Teaching award recipients for UF/IFAS: Eric McLamore and Nicole Stedman 
What do you focus on in your research?

We make biosensors – measurement technology for measuring small molecules, viruses, cells and everything in between. Most of our work is applied within food safety or water quality; although we do some medical and nutritional work as well.

Right now we have a big project where we’re trying to measure a bacterium in food called Listeria monocytogenes – it’s a particularly dangerous organism that affects children and the elderly. It’s a major problem across the world. We’re working in the US with food producers on both the water quality side – things like irrigation water within the farm and also the processing facility. And we’re also working overseas. We have a project in Colombia working with displaced refugees monitoring that pathogen as well as others on food - trying to help people who are very vulnerable from a health standpoint. We also have some work initiating in that same sort of humanitarian context in Malaysia right now.
La Toma: Colombian community impacted by small-scale gold mining
I mentioned that we measure small molecules. One of the larger things we’re measuring in a similar humanitarian effort in Colombia is mercury. That project is focusing on illegal gold mining which is prevalent in that region of the world. We’re working with a community of displaced Afro-Colombians and indigenous tribes who live in the mountains. The illegal miners use mercury to create what’s called amalgamate - which is how they extract the gold. The miners don’t understand the damage that they’re doing to the environment and to themselves and the indigenous communities by using so much mercury. We’re finding levels hundreds of times higher than what the World Health Organization allows in any drinking water. We also measure fish that the locals consume. We’re trying to put together a project where we can assist the community as well as help train the miners who are exposed to the most dangerous levels of mercury.
Read a WHO report on gold and mining health
You teach a grant writing course which emphasizes the usefulness of digital media in terms of professional development. How do you use these tools in your research?  

This is enormously important. In engineering we do a lot of nanomaterials and chemistry and physics and all these things – the fundamental sciences drive what we do. But at the end of the day it’s really about communicating it to people and making sure that they know where we’re coming from, they understand how to use the science in the way that we intended it to be used. 

Sampling and testing for mercury in water
And that really comes down to oral communication, digital media - these sorts of things. From a technology standpoint as well, the sensors typically output data that goes to a smart phone. So we’re getting to a point now where we’re going to start creating apps. We’re going to develop some of those things for the communities so that it’s user-friendly and not so sciencey.

Right now on the mercury project we’re working with a filmmaker in Colombia. We have several videos online. We need to get the message out and give a voice to the people who need help.

What does it mean to be honored with the new teacher award at this stage of your career?

It was primarily associated with the humanitarian work and bringing that kind of research into the classroom. It’s humbling and it’s a big honor. Just standing in the room with some amazing people who have been teaching their entire career and learning from them about all the things they do gave me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing.

Researchers and community leaders meeting 
What are some projects you’re focusing on in 2017?

The big thing is these two humanitarian projects. There are a lot of other projects that we’re working on that are important. For example, I have a student who is trying to make a type of breathalyzer, but it monitors a compound associated with diabetes that is the number one diagnostic tool for preventing death in children – it’s called diabetic ketoacidosis. He’s monitoring a specific maker in the breath that’s kind of difficult to measure with ornery kids who are sick and can’t communicate as adults can. Hopefully we can make a cute, fun breathalyzer that monitors this marker and helps these kids stay out of the emergency room because it’s a deadly problem. We have some other very important projects, but the humanitarian work has been a focus of the last year and will probably continue to be for the next four or five years.

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