Microbiology professor watches alumni, students with pride, concern

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Dr. Beth Potter, an associate professor of biology at Penn State Behrend, considers it her job to push students just slightly out of their comfort zones.

“I think our role as college professors is to give them the confidence to excel,” Potter said. “Complacency equates to a plateau in learning/motivation. If we keep urging them off that plateau, there’s a shift that occurs. Suddenly, a student realizes they have what it takes to figure out a solution or handle the problem, and then they start pushing themselves.”

It’s valuable training for upper-level Behrend students and graduates who are now on the front lines in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. From emergency medical technicians to lab technicians to nurses, Behrend-trained science professionals are far beyond any comfort zones, working to care for patients and help contain the pandemic.

We’ll be sharing some of their stories in the coming weeks, but we also wondered what it was like for Potter, who just a semester or a few years ago, had some of these health care heroes in her classroom and laboratory.

Did you ever imagine your students or graduates would be dealing with a pandemic?

I definitely did not imagine this happening, though it was always a possibility, and some would say an inevitable occurrence, given the global nature and ease of international travel today.

You were promoting 20-second handwashing long before 2020. In 2016, you led students in your microbiology class in a service-learning project on campus that highlighted the value of handwashing.

Yes, we did. As a microbiologist, I think a passion for good hygiene naturally develops and I wanted to try and pass it on to my students through a service-learning project. Most of my students want to do something in the health profession, and if you want to be in that profession, one of the easiest and most inexpensive things you can do to promote good health is to stress good handwashing. The average person does it for just six seconds, but we should really be doing it for at least 20. Students set up handwashing stations outside Bruno’s and Burke Center. As part of the demonstration, students washed their hands for both six and 20 seconds in the presence of Glo Germ, each time placing them under a black light. They could then visualize the significant difference that comes from washing longer.

Many remain untouched, but inconvenienced by the COVID-19 virus and, lately, there has been a negative reaction to the extended social distancing. You have the biological understanding to truly appreciate this virus, what would you say to them?

For the past several years, I have begun my first microbiology lecture with a quote from one of the fathers of microbiology, Louis Pasteur: “The influence of the very small is very great indeed.” We have all been given a very important microbiology lesson by a virus. Bacteria and viruses are not going anywhere; they were here long before us and have a significant advantage. Even with the greatest scientific minds working to address them, their ability to evolve can’t be predicted. Behind the scenes are lots of hard-working scientists pushing themselves to figure this virus out. Unfortunately, that can’t happen instantaneously. One experiment may lead to new and different questions. While we might be inconvenienced, we need those scientists to find answers that they are confident about so that the best plan can be put into action. We need to respect their work and know that our communities and our economy will be stronger because we did.

As a faculty member at a close-knit campus like Behrend, students must sometimes feel like your own. Do professors worry about their former students?

Absolutely! From a young age, my own kids started referring to my college students as my big kids. Our students grow up so much in four years and, for me, it is the silver lining to the job. It makes the hours of creating exams, grading, and developing new course material and lab experiments worth it. I learn so much from each class, hopefully making me a better “parent” for the next class. I can’t turn off that parent switch when they leave with their diplomas. I love hearing stories about graduates who have found their path and are happy. I really hope our students know that we will always care about them, even after they leave us, and will be here to support them. I wish more of them would call or write “home” more often.


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