You’re probably pretty familiar with a thing called antibiotics. You’ve most likely been prescribed them for a number of bacterial infections you may have had over the course of your life. Antibiotics are typically broad-spectrum, which can be good if the exact ailment a person is suffering from is uncertain. However, it can also be bad given that broad-spectrum antibiotics don’t just kill the bad bacteria, but they kill the good ones too. On top of this, antibiotic resistance is a pervasive issue. Alternatively, bacteriophages, which are viruses that attack bacteria, can be used to treat bacterial infections too. Bacteriophages are extremely effective at killing off a specific bacteria that you want to target. For example, there is a bacteriophage that specifically kills cholera, and nothing else. However, you have most likely never been treated with a bacteriophage for a bacterial infection. Why? Well, to understand that we’ve got to go back to the Cold War era (and even a little further). Enter Miriam Lipton, a PhD candidate in the College of Liberal Arts, whose research focuses on exactly this question.
There is speculation that the Cold War is the reason that there are these two ways to treat bacterial infections (antibiotics and bacteriophages), and Miriam is interested in this speculation as well as understanding how U.S. and Soviet scientists dealt with bacterial infections in real time during the Cold War period. To do this, Miriam is examining scientific papers and pharmaceutical trade journals from that time (1947-1991) to understand how scientists on either side thought about bacterial infections, their treatments, and antibiotic resistance. This quest has taken (or will take) Miriam to a number of different research institutions, including the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, Caltech in California, and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy in Wisconsin. Reading scientific publications can be difficult enough as it is, however Miriam faces an added challenge of having to read many of the Soviet publications in Russian. Luckily, Miriam’s background lends itself quite well for this difficult task as one of her triple major’s during her Bachelor’s degree was Russian and she has a Master’s in Russian Studies from the University of Oregon, all of which have led to a good proficiency of the Russian language.
Miriam’s program at OSU is called History of Science and is quite rare. In fact, it is one of only four such programs in the country and Miriam is one of only four in her cohort at OSU. She is simultaneously a historian and a scientist on a mission to better understand past perceptions and thoughts of scientists about bacterial infections, to hopefully inform the present and future. Especially given the rise of antibiotic resistance across the globe.
Listen to the podcast episode of the show here to dive deep into the history of bacterial infection science!