Professor John Maurer in the College of Veterinary Medicine conducts research that enhances food safety and advances Georgia’s economically vital poultry industry while also giving students hands-on research experiences.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my Bachelor of Science in microbiology from Purdue University and my Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. I am currently a professor in the department of population health in the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. My research focuses on the population genetics of veterinary and zoonotic pathogens; food safety; the intestinal microbiome; and the ecology of antibiotic resistance.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in July of 1996 for a faculty position in the university’s Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center.
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course is my First-Year Odyssey Seminar, “The Zombie Plague.” I really enjoy combining my two favorite things: horror movies and microbiology. My wife encouraged me to teach a zombie class as part of the First-Year Odyssey Seminar program, mostly because she believed I would enjoy it and I’d have a group, other than her, to watch horror films with. At first, I thought this was a crazy idea. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had developed a zombie comic book at the time to educate the public on disaster preparedness. I use zombies to introduce students to infectious diseases and public health. Students watch a film clip and we then discuss how the scene relates to or not some infectious disease or aspect of public health.
I also enjoy working with undergraduates on various projects in my lab. Since I started at UGA in 1996, I have had more than 100 undergraduates rotate through my lab. Several of these students have authored or co-authored research articles as a consequence of their work in my lab.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Research allows me to be creative. I have developed several diagnostic tests for detecting important human and veterinary pathogens. I also love discovery: identifying what makes a microbe unique, explaining its behavior, and understanding why it’s present and how it’s transmitted.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
We have documented how salmonella is transmitted in chickens and how vaccination can reduce chicken carcass contamination. This work was important in helping the poultry industry recognize the effectiveness of vaccination at reducing salmonella contamination of chicken carcasses. We also identified modes for salmonella transmission to humans other than consumption of fecally contaminated food. My work has also resulted in the development of several rapid tests for detecting or fingerprinting microbes pathogenic for humans including Escherichia coli O157, Salmonellaenteritidis, Salmonella typhimurium, and Campylobacter jejuni. Because of my expertise in molecular-based pathogen detection, I was invited to introduce a polymerase chain reaction-based component to an annual salmonella workshop for the poultry industry. I have participated in this workshop for the past 10 years.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
My work in food safety has resulted in several collaborations with colleagues at the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. As my research impacts on public health, it and the CDC comic book, “Preparedness 101: Zombie Preparedness,” were the inspiration for my First-Year Odyssey course, “The Zombie Plague.” As this course is directed toward first semester freshmen, it has forced me to simplify many concepts. This has helped me with my public speaking to diverse audiences, including both researchers and lay people. I use a similar approach with directed undergraduate research: keep it simple and focused on just a few concepts and techniques. Our protocols are very standardized and detailed for any new student to master in a few weeks. I also have learned to use this approach with a team of students on more intricate and lengthy techniques. The team functions as an assembly line, where students rotating in and out of the lab hand off the next step to incoming students. Students present their results at local, regional or national meetings. They have made significant contributions to our research and several have even authored or co-authored numerous publications.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
For my FYOS course, I’d like students leave with a general understanding of infectious diseases, but more importantly an appreciation of how important public health is to us. As for undergraduate research, I like to provide them with an opportunity to participate in research and see if this is something that they’d like to do as a career. While many of my students are pre-medicine majors, I’ve always encouraged consideration of being a physician-scientist.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is someone who is enthusiastic, hard working and self motivated.
Favorite place to be on campus is…
… the Miller Learning Center. This may seem as odd, but much of my time at work is spent off the main campus. My unit, the Poultry Diagnostic Research Center, is off campus, so I miss being away from the main campus and the hum of campus life.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
… travel, read and watch movies. Obviously, my taste in films and books gravitate toward the horror genre. Yes, I’m a fan of “The Walking Dead.”
Community/civic involvement includes….
… involvement with Ciné. I have been a contributor and sponsor of SchlOctoberfest—a horror film festival held during the month of October—since its inception. I also have worked with Ciné on the Science in Films program. I am currently working with them on a monthly horror film program similar to their “Bad Movie Night.” I’m also a long-time member. My wife and I have made financial contribution to several programs as well as their current campaign.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
If I was to choose my favorite film based on how often I’ve watched it, then it has to be “The Dark Knight.” Why? It’s a dark, complex story with great acting, dialogue and direction. It has more depth than most superhero movies. My favorite book is “Ender’s Game.” For me this was a real page-turner with great compelling characters. It is a very sad and tragic story. The second book in the series is in my e-reader queue.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
… the reception for new faculty at the President’s House. This and just the whole faculty orientation was very exciting. I felt like I had made it to the big leagues. It felt very much like my first day of college.
Originally published Aug. 28, 2017.