RALEIGH — Lee-Ann Jaykus thinks a lot about things most people would rather forget.
Understanding microscopic nasties such as norovirus and Hepatitis A, and their unpleasant effects on the bodies they inhabit, is a big part of her job as a food safety researcher.
The stomach bugs that she studies don't make for good dinner party conversation, but her unusual specialty did help her land a $25 million USDA grant to study food-borne viruses.
The grant, announced this month, was the largest ever received by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State University. And it is largest ever awarded for food safety by the USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture.
As part of the grant, Jaykus will lead the multi-university Food Virology Collaborative, which will tackle the problem of noroviruses, the most common cause of food poisoning, and similar bugs. The role will cap a long career in food safety that started well before a steady stream of E. coli deaths, cruise ship outbreaks and other scares made it a hot topic.
"This is my minute of fame," said Jaykus, a professor at N.C. State since 1994 in the food science and microbiology departments.
Jaykus has built a career studying food-borne viruses that have traditionally gotten far less attention than bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. Norovirus (also known as Norwalk's virus) and Hepatitis A make people sick, but cause few deaths, and they are difficult to study in the lab.
When she embarked on this research in the 1990s, there was skepticism in some quarters over whether it was feasible, or even worthwhile, to focus on food-borne viruses, said Mark Sobsey, director of the Environmental Microbiology Laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill, who oversaw Jaykus' Ph.D. studies. The large USDA grant confirms the field's significance.
"The evidence has emerged over the last couple of decades and it's very clear that this is a major problem, and no one knows what the best approaches are to prevent it, to reduce the risk," Sobsey said.
Jaykus is now among the top dozen researchers in the field of food safety microbiology, said Bob Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland. He's also impressed with her skills as an administrator, educator and advocate for her field - so much so that he's tried, unsuccessfully, to lure her to Maryland.
"She's been a groundbreaker not only in the science, but in getting additional support for virology," said Buchanan. "She's been an articulate spokesperson."
An unusual path
Jaykus was born in a rural-turned-suburban area of Connecticut that she compares to Cary in the 1970s. Her father was a land surveyor, her mother an elementary school teacher.
She pegs her interest in science to an excellent high school biology teacher, though she can trace her interest in food safety back further, to news reports about botulism in the 1960s, and family illnesses that she has diagnosed, in retrospect, as a norovirus and rotavirus.
But she took a somewhat unusual path to academia. After earning her master's degree from Purdue University, she worked for seven years in private industry, first for Frito-Lay, and then at a private lab that tested for food contaminants. She and her first husband started the lab in California's San Joaquin Valley for an existing company.
It was there that she got her first taste of the sleuthing side of food safety, thanks to an outbreak of listeriosis in the 1980s that was linked to unpasteurized Mexican cheese. Jaykus had to figure out how to test for the bacteria, which had caused stillborn children, at time when the tools weren't readily available. It made a huge impression her, in part because she was pregnant with her second child.
"As a young mother, I could relate to the terror of losing a child," she wrote in a column for Food Protection Trends. "As a lab manager ... I appreciated that there was so little we understood about this organism and how industry and regulators alike were struggling to deal with the issue."
Timing was right
Sensing an emerging area of research and ready for a change, she came to Chapel Hill to earn her Ph.D. By then, she was divorced with two young children. But professionally, her timing was impeccable. Scientists were just learning to trace outbreaks of food-borne diseases to their sources, and realizing how big a problem they were.
"Food science as an impending health concern emerged just about when I was going to grad school," she said.
She went to N.C. State after graduation, where she built a research program focused on identifying food-borne viruses using molecular techniques, as well as risk assessment and other niche specialties.
Getting the grant
Jaykus said the USDA grant has monopolized her time for well over a year. (The application checked in at 800 pages). She first learned about it in her email inbox.
"I had three or four messages from people I've worked with over the years saying, 'You're the most logical person to go after this, and I want to work with you,' " Jaykus said.
She keeps her sense of humor about a specialty that is rife with potty jokes, and she is quick to cite times when her knowledge was not welcome.
The classic example of a norovirus outbreak, for instance, is on cruise ships, confined quarters where the illness spreads quickly. When she went on a cruise with her parents, she scoffed at her fellow passengers who found comfort in hand sanitizer stations, commenting that the antibacterial spritz was useless.
Not at dinner, please
Her parents also like to remind her of a New Year's party she ruined by talking about her dissertation topic - detecting viruses in raw oysters, which also happened to be on the menu.
"I work with diseases that make people throw up and have diarrhea," she said. "It always makes for a very nasty table conversation."
Still, she said, she's not overly concerned about what's in her food. She avoids certain foods, such as oysters, mainly because she doesn't like them.
"My husband thinks that I overcook pork, but I don't overcook it because of safety," she said. "I forget that it's in the oven."