We describe an interdisciplinary research project for undergraduate students
involving microbiology and public health. Students designed and carried out
two research studies on hand hygiene and the use of gloves by mobile food
vendors in New York City and in a New Jersey mall. Students received training
in aseptic techniques and survey methodology to carry out the multifaceted
study. We discuss the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and
research in the context of its value in preparing professionals in the fields of
biology and public health.
Key Words: Microbiology; public health; interdisciplinary research; hand hygiene;
aseptic technique; food safety.
The value of interdisciplinary approaches to education has been
noted for over a century. Many current-day educators have built
on earlier work by educational philosophers such as John Dewey
who promoted an amalgamation of content in courses of instruction
(Fallace, 2016), which is sensible as we live in an interdisciplinary
world. Biologists interact with professionals from other disciplines
in chemistry, health and medicine, physics, and technology. In
higher education, artificial disciplinary walls exist in the forms of
departments, and students may wrongly conclude that each discipline is a world unto itself, separate from other disciplines and areas
of study. The artificial separation of disciplines in academia makes it
critical for interdisciplinary initiatives to be pursued in formal programs (e.g., linked courses and cluster courses) and less formal collaborations. As such, educators have called for a greater emphasis on
a Deweyan philosophy in health-related fields such as public health
education and practice (Brouse et al., 2005), yet little research exists
on the specific ways that collaborations have occurred.
Here, we describe a novel interdisciplinary approach to research.
This collaborative project between a biology professor and a professor
of public health enabled students to complete research projects strad-
dling both disciplines. The students applied research protocols in
biology and public health to document an important health-related
issue, namely hand hygiene and the use of disposable gloves by food
handlers (Wahrman, 2016). In this vein, we worked to create a learn-
ing environment that enables science students to consider complex
problems in human health.
We designed two studies using public health survey methodology and
biology laboratory techniques to study hand hygiene and glove use
among street food vendors in New York City and mall food vendors
in a suburban New Jersey mall. The aim of these studies was to determine (1) the frequency with which mobile food vendors change gloves
after monetary transactions and (2) the level of bacterial contamination
on a subset of dollar bills collected from those vendors. College students at William Paterson University were recruited from public health
and biology classes to help design and carry out the study. They were
engaged for the project by presenting this research as a way to determine the risk of eating at food vendors and to recommend behavioral
changes to improve food hygiene. This is important because the proper
use of gloves can reduce the risk of transfer of microorganisms from
hands to food. The focus on food vendors is of particular importance
because handling currency can facilitate transmission of microbes from
person to person.
The studies conducted by undergraduate college students
involved students observing food vendor behavior at New York City
locations near major medical centers (Basch et al., 2016) and at busy
New Jersey mall venues during the holiday shopping season (Basch
et al., 2018). Students were trained in aseptic technique in the microbiology lab, where they learned how to open and don sterile gloves,
handle sterile broth and test tubes, and store dollar bill samples for
later processing. They were also trained in observational methodology
to study human behavior in the field.
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 6, pp. 412–415, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.6.412.
Hands-on Research Reaching
• MIRYAM Z. WAHRMAN, COREY H. BASCH