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Erin K. Lipp, Ph.D.
Erin K. Lipp, Ph.D.

By Su Byron

Life is change. How do you study its constant flux? Researchers in the life sciences investigate living species and systems with rigorous, objective methodology. That’s the only way to do it.

But the best scientific minds also follow life’s example and emulate its mercurial adaptability. From Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins, numerous natural scientists have skipped across disciplines and continents, and followed their curiosity wherever it has led.

Erin K. Lipp, Ph.D. stands in that line.

She doesn’t fear change; she embraces it. It’s a powerful mental habit. Lipp picked it up during her studies at New College of Florida, and it got her to where she is today.

Lipp is currently a professor of environmental health science and the associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia (UGA). She introduces her students to the mysteries of microbiology and investigates them as a scientific researcher.

Exploring the web of microbial ecology and its impact on human health is both Lipp’s passion and her profession. But it wasn’t her first choice.

“I didn’t originally set out to be a microbiologist,” said Lipp, who graduated from New College in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. “I initially thought I’d wind up working on coral systems and jellyfish. That was my plan during my New College studies, and when I went to graduate school for marine science and oceanography.”

Excellent plan. But Lipp found a better one while pursuing her graduate degree at the University of South Florida (USF) College of Marine Science. She was deeply impressed by the work of Joan Rose, Ph.D., a former microbiologist on the USF faculty.

“I could see that Joan and her team were doing really exciting work at the interface of ocean science and human health,” said Lipp, who earned a Ph.D. in 1999 from USF. “I jumped ship very quickly and began studying to be a microbiologist.”

Building on her New College training

“Jumping ship,” for Lipp, meant taking her studies and scientific career in an entirely new direction. It was a bold life decision. But Lipp didn’t think twice.

The source of her courageous flexibility? Lipp credits her teachers and mentors at New College. They taught her many useful lessons. Their lessons in adaptability changed her life.

Keep changing. Keep growing. Don’t learn passively. Be your own teacher. And never stop learning.

This philosophy is intrinsic to the New College ethos. And Lipp credits one mentor, in particular, for instilling it in her.

“Sandra Gilchrist was my New College adviser while I was developing my own area of concentration in marine biology,” Lipp said. “Sandra helped me figure out what courses and extra study I’d need. Other than that, she let me pave my own way.”

Independent thinking. Self-motivation. Adaptability.

It was a powerful habit of mind that Lipp acquired while designing her own curriculum. She not only learned it; she liked it. And Lipp kept it up throughout her scholastic and professional life.

Putting her passions into practice

This New College-inspired mental flexibility gave Lipp the courage to change the trajectory of her graduate studies. It also fueled her scientific pursuits. Just last year, this intellectual Aikido yielded a methodology to fill the data vacuum of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To defeat an enemy, you have to know the enemy. That applies to viruses like SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—as well. But epidemiological data was scarce. That was true for the whole nation. Athens, Georgia—the home of UGA—was at the low end of the grading curve.

“Athens hadn’t ramped up its clinical testing,” Lipp said. “The data was barely there.”

The ignorance was obvious in the pandemic’s early months. UGA had closed its labs and sent its students home before the end of the spring semester. When would life return to normal? Nobody knew.

Lipp felt isolated and frustrated, until she had a flash of insight. And she saw a way to get the data—whether or not people got tested.

What percentage of the Athens population had COVID-19?, Lipp wondered. People might not give her the answer. But water would—wastewater, to be specific—namely sewage.

The viral RNA can be detected in feces, much like it can be detected in saliva or nasal swabs. The virus appears to be able to bind to receptors in the gut. Simply put, the waste goes down toilet and winds up in the sewage system—where it can be measured and yield objective, quantifiable, real-time data.

Lipp knew this method would work. She had used it successfully to track human gut viruses in sewage. She had never used it on a respiratory virus like COVID-19, but why not?

All Lipp needed was a lab and a few assistants. She quickly submitted a proposal to UGA, explaining her study. Could she reopen her lab to make it happen? The answer was yes.

Getting to work, gathering data

Once Lipp’s lab was back in business, the Athens-Clarke County Public Utilities Department happily provided sewage samples. After that, Lipp and her team got to work.

“We started working, with no funds and some very enthusiastic graduate students,” Lipp said. “We had to design this project on the fly because we’d never looked for respiratory viruses in wastewater before. It was a very different way of doing science—and it provided a valuable metric for the community.”

In other words, it provided numbers. A simple ratio yielded the projected viral load for the inhabitants of Athens-Clarke County. It was hard medical data that could strike a devastating blow against COVID-19—the unseen enemy.

Lipp resists the combat metaphor, however. “Germs” aren’t the enemy, she said. Humans’ relationship to microbes is far more complicated.

“Microbiology has a profound impact on both human and ecosystem health,” Lipp said. “The connection is so profound, you can’t really separate microbial life from the life of our species and the planet.”

Lipp’s work on this new COVID-19 sampling technique is ongoing.

“We’re finishing up a full year of sampling in June and will prepare that for publication,” she said. “We’re now ramping up a new phase to sequence the viruses in wastewater to look for variants.”

Expanding her reach

Along with her investigations in Georgia, Lipp’s microbial research has several promising directions in the Sunshine State.

“I’ve been working in the Florida Keys for several years. This work includes evaluating the possible impact of land-based sources of pollution (specifically septic systems) on coral reef health and coral disease,” Lipp said. “We’ve also been looking at the role that the deposition of Saharan dust plays in stimulating the growth of Vibrio—an opportunistic marine bacterium. It’s a pathogen to humans, fish and coral, and found in the marine ecosystems of the Florida Keys and Southeast Florida.”

Lipp said that pathogenic bacteria like Vibrio, and virulent viruses like COVID-19, are the exception and not the rule. Microbes have an overwhelmingly positive impact on larger lifeforms. They’re not only helpful; they’re essential.

“The microbial community is incredibly important for life on Earth,” Lipp said. “Microbes in the sea pick up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Microbes on land decay organic matter or transfer nitrogen from the air into the soil. Microbes in our gut process nutrition. They’re part of the web of life and the reason we’re alive.”

It’s a happy thought, but it works both ways. The human species also has a profound impact on the planet’s microcosmic inhabitants. That impact isn’t always positive (anthropogenic climate change is just the most obvious example).

The web of life is fragile. We should handle it with care in the future—if we want to have a future. But Lipp isn’t afraid.

Life is change, after all. And she can’t wait to see what happens next.

Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.