Most science starts with a question—the science at the Applied Microbiology Services Laboratory (AMSL) is no different. Projects at AMSL begin with one simple question: How can we help?
The answers are where things get interesting.
That’s what Jeff Jahnes learned when he started asking this question at Ohio State. Jeff is the laboratory supervisor for the department of microbiology and director of AMSL. Before that, Jeff worked in research and development for products at Nestle. And before that, Jeff was a student at Ohio State. After inhabiting each of these identities, Jeff realized that each of these groups—universities, industries, and students—have needs to be met and services to offer.
Looking back on his time as a student, Jeff realized he didn’t have many real-world opportunities to apply what he was learning in his courses. Even though he was developing the practical lab skills necessary to investigate exciting questions as an undergraduate, the experiments he was performing were pretty textbook.
Looking back on his career in industry, Jeff realized there was an unmet need for analytical services. At the same time, local industries were interested in attracting university students but struggling to meaningfully connect and communicate with them.
Looking forward in his role as an educator at Ohio State, Jeff saw an opportunity to help give students real-world opportunities to apply their skills and help give local partners the real-world opportunity to connect with students. So, like any scientist with a hypothesis, Jeff decided to start a new experiment: the Applied Microbiology Services Laboratory.
How can AMSL help local industries and communities?
“When we first started out, we were exploring different ideas for start-up,” says Jeff. “Something engaging for our students, something that was high-interest, something that was a large enough market to focus on. We wanted to fill in a local need as well, so we started asking, ‘What does our local community need?’”
And what could be more engaging to college students and relevant to the local community than brewing beer? The early brainstorming for AMSL eventually led Jeff and his team to ask, “How can we help out the local breweries in Columbus and throughout central Ohio?”
Jeff and his team started doing surveys, interviews, and site visits with local brewers and asked them the simple question that ultimately drives the work AMSL performs: “How can we help?”
From that initial outreach, the AMSL team learned local communities, local industry, and the surrounding states really needed an analytics service provider for brewery quality assurance.
The team decided the best way to reach students, local industry, and the Columbus community was through workshops with partner breweries. The workshops are open to the general public. The AMSL team intended the workshops “to connect something people really care about to the interesting science behind it.”
The workshops started with sour beers at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing. It was a day-long intro that started with a lab portion at OSU, followed by a trip to the brewery to see how everything was produced and performed analytically for quality assurance.
The first workshop, hosted this past January, was a huge success. “We really saw a lot of interest from inside OSU—people came to us saying how happy they were to see we’re doing something like this here at the university.” Read more about AMSL’s first success story.
As with most experiments in science, success led to more questions: “How do we develop this into a larger program? Can we help out with brewery education? Can we help brewers get Master Brewers Association of the Americas certification?”
“That was all pre-COVID, of course,” says Jeff.
How can AMSL help fight COVID-19?
Though AMSL had more workshops in the works, the pandemic forced Jeff and his team to press pause on their plans and pivot. Thankfully, he knew just the question to ask: “How can we help?”
“We found that there was a need for efficacy testing for disinfectants,” says Jeff. “We were contacted by one of our partners to start working with a surrogate virus to help with a disinfection protocol for the vehicles they produced—that was our first step into validation services for industry for disinfectants.”
After responding to this urgent industry need, AMSL put out a press release and has received a lot of interest from other industries. Since the onset of COVID-19, AMSL has been helping look at the efficacy for new antiviral materials, looking at new antiviral products, and also helping verify decontamination protocols.
Working in this new space of viral services has been a challenge, says Jeff, but it really just comes down to communication. The viral services required a lot of up-front development—the surrogate virus that AMSL was working with did not work and was not typical to standard methods, so AMSL had to confirm the surrogate would work with this standard method, roll it out, and then try to perform the desired service.
“So, that’s been the challenge,” Jeff explains. “Matching partners’ expectations with what we can do and then making sure we clearly communicate what’s possible and ensure our partners understand the costs.”
The communication challenge doesn’t stop with partners, especially in light of the disinformation and distrust in science around COVID-19. Jeff hopes AMSL can serve as a bridge between industries and communities. Through AMSL, Jeff sees an opportunity to “develop a system to be more open with our local communities and show people: here’s what we’re doing and how.”
Navigating those communications with partners and communities is part of the real-world experience Jeff hopes AMSL can help provide OSU students.
How can AMSL help students?
AMSL’s initial engagement with local breweries also taught Jeff and his team about how to better prepare students for industry positions and foster engagement with local businesses.
AMSL was planning to offer a course in the fall focused on yeast—students would go out into the forest, pull some pieces of bark or wherever they think yeast might be and try to isolate a wild yeast. Then, students would compare their yeast isolate to a commercial brewing strain, see how it performs, and fully characterize it genetically and biochemically. The course, which Jeff still hopes to offer in the future, will be “an introduction into what we can do with a microorganism and how we can apply it educationally and within an industry.”
Jeff hoped to hook students with an interesting subject—like beer—and then show them how it’s produced and the microbiology that was applied to make something useful.
“We also have the laboratory,” says Jeff. Students can get involved in the AMSL laboratory by responding to job postings. Jeff hopes more applied course offerings and positions within AMSL will provide students with the opportunity to fully experience and understand what is available to them as careers.
“In our undergraduate programs, I think we often see enrollment in a graduate or professional program as the most desirable outcome for education,” says Jeff.
But as Jeff has learned from his own career path, that isn’t always the case. Through AMSL, Jeff hopes “students are able to see all of the opportunities that are open to them...and see the interesting, fun applications of science in industry.”
AMSL is actively looking for new partnerships and problems to provide students with these opportunities and help meet local industry and community needs.
How can AMSL help you?
If you’re a researcher at Ohio State...AMSL is asking: How can we help connect researchers internally at OSU?
“In my experience, I’ve often seen labs very siloed,” says Jeff. “One lab wouldn’t know what the other lab had in terms of equipment, in terms of capabilities to produce a reagent or service for another lab.” Over the next few months, Jeff and the AMSL team hope to create a network within OSU to help with the exchange of equipment and services.
If you’re looking to fight COVID-19…AMSL is asking: How can we help you innovate?
“For the viral side, it’s best to reach out to me or Seth Faith, IDI’s Strategic Alliance Officer,” says Jeff.
If you’re a local business...AMSL is asking: Maybe it’s microbial? If so, how can we help?
In response to a question about his dream partnership, Jeff begins, “We had a speaker once—a postdoc from another university—who had been doing research on the microbiome of cheeses.”
Jeff proceeded to tell the story of David Chang, chef and founder of Momofuku, who was looking at how to create Katsuobushi.
Katsuobushi is a Japanese-style fish that is dried and fermented. After training in Japan, David Chang wanted to replicate Katsuobushi in his own kitchen. He went through many trials without success. Then he thought, well, maybe it’s microbial—maybe I’m not getting the right culture within it. David Chang reached out to the university where the postdoc was working, and he ended up partnering with the postdoc, Ben Wolfe, to develop a method for perfecting David Chang’s Katsuobushi.
“I thought that was amazing,” says Jeff. “I would love it if a local chef reached out and asked for help with a microbial issue in a new product.”
“Those are the fun, exciting projects that help local business and that are really interesting for students. They remind me of my purpose, and they really speak to Ohio State’s land-grant mission.”
Written by Brooke Zentmeyer.
Jeff Jahnes is a laboratory supervisor for the microbiology department and the director of the Center for Applied Microbiology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seth Faith is the Strategic Alliance Officer at the Infectious Diseases Institute. Email: email@example.com