Through The Looking Glass: Microbiology Classes At Whatcom

Story By Derek Langhorn

Anthrax, staphylococcus, E-coli, and Cholera. These are just a few of the bacteria that can cause disease in humans, and by taking the microbiology class at Whatcom Community College many students have learned just how bacteria work and how they can change the body in many ways.

The class is taught by Wayne Erickson, who has worked at Whatcom for 17 years. Erickson has a bachelor’s degree in zoology, a master’s degree in biology and a doctorate in veterinary medicine, which all involve organisms both big and small. Erickson decided to begin teaching Microbiology at Whatcom while still working as a veterinarian for large animals, he said.

In the microbiology classes, students learn to “understand how microbes work inside of your body, and find out how they can be harmful or beneficial,” Erickson said. Students also learn “how the body works and how disease works in the body,” he said.

“[Students] learn and gain in-depth knowledge in how micro-organisms cause disease and how disease can be prevented,” Erickson said.

Microbiology students “determine the very basic workings of microbes,” Erickson said, “so that we know how to affect those workings to our benefit.”

Microbes can cause many diseases in humans, and Erickson said students learn “how microbes evade our immune systems.” The ways microbes evade the immune system are numerable and include molecular mimicry, where a microbe mimics the genetic or chemical makeup of the host body and thus remains undetected by the immune system. Some microbes can also invade and hide inside of the cells in the immune system that fight these microbes and multiply inside while remaining unseen by the immune system. Erickson said that he believes “how some bacteria can usurp our immune system and cause disease,” is one of the most interesting things about microbiology.

In the class, “Students are given some methods for identifying bacteria,” Erickson said, “then they are given the bacteria, then they utilize those methods to identify the bacteria.” Students can use these skills in careers in the future, Erickson said.

Some professions that microbiology students may be working towards include “…certified medical technologists … public health [officials], food microbiologists, … [and] makers of wine, beer or spirits,” Erickson said.

Microbiology is a prerequisite for many degrees, including nursing, pre-med and pre-dental degrees, Erickson said.

A regular school week in the Microbiology class involves four or more hours a week of labs, along with three hours of lectures a week, Erickson said.

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