Biology Professor Studying Exam-Time Illness

Associate Professor of Biology Lisa-Anne FosterIt is no great secret that large numbers of college students get sick around exam time, and Associate Professor of Biology Lisa-Anne Foster thinks it is no coincidence. She suspects that the stress of preparing for finals might be an important factor in student health. So this spring Foster is conducting a study of 25 Trinity students to determine the changes in bacterial levels present in those students at the beginning of the semester and at exam time.

Foster suspects that there is a direct connection between the stress brought on by exams and the effects it has on the good bacteria, or flora, that live in the respiratory tract. Her theory stems from the notable increase in seemingly healthy students who experience upper respiratory infections around exam time, a pattern that she says has been evident for years. “Perfectly healthy kids are coughing, sneezing, and armed with boxes of tissue as they sit there taking their finals,” she says. “They seem to develop upper respiratory ailments in April or May, just before the exams. And I, as a microbiologist, am particularly interested in finding out what triggers this reaction.”

The study has already begun, with throat cultures being taken from the sample group of “typical, healthy” student volunteers. Margaret Gatti, a senior biology major, will then sequence the DNA from the bacteria in each throat culture and use National Institutes of Health databases to identify the bacteria present. A similar process will be conducted in the spring, and the results compared. “We have so-called ‘normal’ bacteria, or flora, present in our bodies, which play a role in protecting our bodies from infection,” Foster explains. “It’s well known that stress suppresses the immune system. I want to see if the students’ stress levels correlate with a change in their normal flora. If the flora is different in the cultures taken near final exams, it may indicate that people are more susceptible to infection in times of stress.”

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