It’s just a bulletin board on a hallway wall in an out-of-the-way building on the Anschutz Medical Campus. But it tells a colorful and very human story about a group of people serving a vital, unheralded role in patient care.
In February, it was the microbiology team’s turn to fill the right side of the two-foot by three-foot, glass-enclosed bulletin board on the second floor of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital’s (UCH) Leprino Building. That’s where much of the UCH clinical lab resides. The previous display about service dogs had grown stale. Zoe Austin, a medical laboratory scientist, volunteered.
Austin’s background – a bachelor’s degree in biology, an American Society for Clinical Pathology certification in medical laboratory science for microbiology, and six years working in the UCH clinical lab – may not scream “bulletin-board artist.” But she has a weakness for reflecting on her field in a philosophical light, and her combination of creative and perfectionist tendencies proved to be an asset in tackling the task.
“So, for me, microbiology is very hands-on. It’s like a puzzle you hold in your hands,” Austin says, standing next to her creation. “Every day, you’re looking at a different culture, type, a different plate, and you’re like, ‘What is this? What is it gonna be?’”
She aimed to showcase microbiology’s role at the hospital and also shed just a bit of light on the people who practice it.
“I wanted it to be, like, we’re the real people behind the testing – behind the bacteria,” she says. “People sometimes think of the lab abstractly.”
She came up with the idea of asking her colleagues, “What’s your favorite bug?”
Shapes, colors, and even smells of illness-causing bacteria and fungi
“Bug” is the team’s colloquialism for the bacteria or fungi they identify in their day-to-day work in the clinical lab. That work involves receiving about 500 patient samples of blood and other possible bodily infection sources, placing those samples in agar, and seeing what potentially illness-causing critters multiply.
Austin’s bulletin board does not involve actual biological samples. That’s comforting, given team favorites such as medical laboratory scientist Kate Denton’s Bacillus anthrasis. It’s what causes anthrax.
“We don’t ever see this,” Austin clarifies.
Denton chose it because of its appearance under a magnifying scope: The colony’s fringes resemble locks of matted hair known as “medusa head.”
Ayla Avalos-Morales, also a medical laboratory scientist, chose two favorites that the lab’s experts do see: Serratia marcescens and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Both are complicit in hospital-acquired infections. But, Avalos-Morales explained in a brief description that Austin printed out and posted with web-culled images she affixed in actual petri dishes, “they both produce really pretty pigments. It’s always a nice surprise to open a plate and see all the pretty colors.”
Sierra Nelson, another medical laboratory scientist, also chose Pseudomonas, “because it smells good, like grapes, and looks pretty on chocolate agar.”
“Pseudomonas is definitely a favorite for a lot of people,” Austin says. “Depending on your smell receptors, it can smell like tortilla chips, or kind of like an artificial grape smell.” She adds that Pseudomonas is why a dog’s paws can smell like Fritos.
‘The most croissanty’
Madeline Dobler did not hop on the Pseudomonas bandwagon. She’s more taken with Micrococcus luteus. “Juicy cells, nice normal flora, and PIGMENT,” Dobler told Austin. “I’m honestly a sucker for pigment in general.”
Veronica Boslawick, the medical laboratory scientist who manages the microbiology team, went with Listeria monocytogenes.
“I like the tumbling motility, and I like that it’s kind of trixy,” she told Austin, leaving the definition of “trixy” up to the imagination. She added: “If you have it in culture, you KNOW you’re going to be impacting and hopefully improving a patient’s life today.”
Medical laboratory scientist Denise Kilates said she prefers Alcaligenes species because they smell like apples. Her colleague Breanna Breen went with Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans (associated with gum infections) because “It has such an utterly ridiculous name.” Linden Northern chose Escherichia coli “because it was the first bacteria I felt confident identifying.”
Two of the medical laboratory scientists specializing in mycology went with – no surprise – fungi. Joe McIntosh chose Curvularia because “It makes me hungry because the macroconidia (big spores) look like little croissants.” His colleague Jessica Kramer chose Trichophyton species. “There is just something super cute about the little microconidia (big spores) in birds-on-a-wire formation,” she told Austin.
“They deal with fungus mold all the time,” Austin clarifies. “I found the most croissanty image on the internet that I could.”
Serpentine cording, eye-shadow shades
Medical laboratory scientist Lilliana Rodriguez chose Mycobacterium tuberculosis. “It is not my favorite organism, and I do not wish anyone to have tuberculosis,” she told Austin. “But I like the bright pink color and the serpentine cording of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.”
Austin adds, “It has this really beautiful cording when you do a specific type of stain with it. I think the picture doesn’t do it justice.”
Austin herself chose Candida.
Indeed, her web-harvested sample image looked like a miniature pizza on a tiny glass serving tray, each slice a different shade of eye shadow – beiges, blues, greens, maroons. Her affinity for Candida was a late-breaking realization, she admits.
“I was printing everything and putting it together when I was, like, “Oh, no, what is my favorite?” she says.
Austin’s bulletin board was slated to go the way of the service dogs sometime in April. No matter: She and her colleagues will be forging ahead with the quiet work of cultivating so many beautiful, troublesome “bugs” so UCH doctors can better treat the patients they came from.