Dr. Maria King has been an assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering for over a year now, but she has over 17 years of experience within Texas A&M including working with the industry and the United States Government.
Before coming to the United States, Dr. King earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s in her native country of Hungary at the Budapest University of Technology. Dr. King earned her Ph.D. through a joint study with the Academic Institute of Biotechnology in Germany. Dr. King initially joined the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Texas A&M then moved to the Aerosol Technology Laboratory directed by Dr. McFarland before accepting a position the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in 2017.
Before joining the Aerosol Technology Laboratory, she developed a patent in collaboration with Dr. Laszlo Kish at Electrical Engineering for the phage based detection of bacteria, which are potentially disease causing microorganisms. Phages are viruses that replicate only with bacteria. Her patent is for Sensing of Phage Triggered Ion Cascade commonly known as SEPTIC.
Phage-based bacterial detection is important due to implications that bacteria could cause for human health and food processing centers. Bacteria, fungi and toxins can become aerosolized, making it easy to travel into the lungs and bloodstream. This can have effects on humans due to the nature of how small these particles can become. The size of these aerosolized pathogens is normally 1-3 micrometers, smaller than the diameter of the human hair (17 – 181 micrometer).
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States had anthrax attacks the next week. Anthrax causes an infection that can become fatal if left untreated and is spread by the spores of the anthrax bacteria. These fatal attacks had the U.S. Army and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security reaching out to the Aerosol Technology Laboratory to develop a portable high volume bioaerosol collector, the wetted walled cyclone that could be placed anywhere to collect airborne particles in large air volumes.
Besides helping with national security in the U.S., Dr. King has used bio-aerosol collectors to detect Mycobacterium tuberculosis in exhaled air. She was able to collect the genera Mycobacteria in shower units and soil.
“Early, non-invasive detection is useful in the treatment of tuberculosis and we wanted to utilize our technology to collect and detect the bacteria in exhaled air,” King said. “Coupling the collector with an in-line detector developed by Dr. Jeffrey Cirillo at TAMUHSC we could detect tuberculosis within a few minutes.”
One main concern about viruses is that they spread, King said. In 2014 at the Ohio State Fair, the swine influenza outbreak spread throughout the animals in the fair pens. Dr. King was sent by the Department of Homeland Security to research at the fair the applicability of the wetted walled cyclone for the efficient detection of a potential virus outbreak.
While Dr. King has been conducting research, she still focuses on her students at Texas A&M University. Students worked with Dr. King on the campus collaborative “TAMUMAP” and “Barcode of Life” projects. This student based project is based on the University of Texas UTBIOME approach which collects water on the UT campus area and analyzes it for microbiome.
Within the TAMUMAP project, aerosols, soil, plant and water samples were collected at different locations on the Texas A&M campus and analyzed for biological and nanoparticle content. Samples were collected at Easterwood airport, Waste Water facility, Veterinary Large Animal Hospital pond, Asbury water tower and the golf course.
The study concluded that the microbiomes among the different types of samples from the same location were related, however, the samples collected in open water were different from the connected tap water.
“It is interesting to see how the microbiomes can change by moving just a few meters,” King said.
Proposed in 2003 by Prof. Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, the Barcode of Life project is a project to create a public collection of reference sequences from collected specimens of all species of life. The DNA barcode database allows for anyone to collect the species DNA and send it to the database.
“One student went to an expensive sushi place in New York and took a sample of the sushi to send to Barcode,” King said. “The results came back and the sushi didn’t come from the type of fish what was advertised!”
During her time at Texas A&M, Dr. King has made an impact on her students. She received the “Professor of the Year” Teaching Excellence Award from the Biotechnology Society for the 2013-2014 and from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) in the 2018-2019 school year along with her 2015 Appreciation of Dedicated Service award from Texas A&M University.
“I love my students and I try to be available as much as possible for them,” King said.
Interdisciplinary thinking is something Dr. King stresses in her classes. From her previous works she has seen that having an open mind helps find the best solutions. Dr. King said she finds teaching to come easier when students are interested. She strives to present the topics in a way that will interest the students and make them think critically on how to find solutions that are interdisciplinary.
Article by Jessica Schaeffer
For details about this news story and others please contact Stormy Kretzschmar, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was written in AGCJ 313: Agricultural Media Writing I taught by Dr. Hollie Leggette in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication