Examining the microscopic for a healthy ecosystem

Mona Hochman, Seafood Safety Lab, TAMUG, Galveston, Texas

Feature | Galveston, TX | 24 March 2021
Although there have been numerous technology advances in testing for Vibrio bacteria, Mona Hochman says that while the older methods are more time consuming, they are tried and true and work better, allowing her to see the culturable bacteria better. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“If anybody had said that I would end up working in microbiology, I would have laughed in their face,” says Mona Hochman, a lecturer in the department of Marine Biology, and a lab manager of the Seafood Safety Lab at Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG) in Galveston, Texas.

A TAMUG alumna herself, Mona had worked in the microbiology lab as an undergraduate student, before leaving in pursuit of two master’s degrees. “I went off to graduate school at the University of Maryland and Penn State and my boss John Schwarz, who is the director of the lab, called me up when I was finishing my master’s and asked me if I wanted to come back and manage his lab.

Since then for the past 21 years, Mona has been managing the only oyster-testing lab in Texas, where she and her team conduct their unique work with oyster harvesters, to help mitigate and avert potential public health crises.

Mona and her research assistant Claudia both agree that there is something incredibly fascinating about the study of microbiology for students and lecturers. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“We in a nutshell, work with oyster harvesters along the Gulf Coast to make sure that any oysters that they process to reduce bacterial numbers, are actually being reduced to levels that are safe for the consuming public,” explains Mona.

Oysters are filter feeders, and each one can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing pollutants such as nitrogen, and phosphorous as well as inorganic and organic particles. The result is better water quality and a healthier environment for other species to thrive and protect coastal ecosystems from pollution.

Because of this specialized ecological function, oysters “tend to accumulate a lot of bacteria in their tissues,” which can make them unsafe to consume. “We have Vibrio bacteria which can cause major health issues. Anywhere from bad gastroenteritis to problems with sepsis, full body infections, blood infections that sort of thing and one of those bacteria which is Vibrio vulnificus can be deadly to people who have some sort of a pre-existing condition where they are immunocompromised,” Mona cautions.

People can get infected with Vibrio Vulnificus from eating raw shellfish, specifically oysters, and in the United States, these infections are reported to be the leading cause of death related to the consumption of seafood.

As a dedicated teacher and mentor to her students, Mona while confident in the specialized training they receive, also expresses some concern. “They've been through a rather rigorous schooling here- this is no fluff degree. It is difficult getting a degree in Marine Biology and Marine Fisheries and these students have worked hard,” she asserts, which gives her “the confidence that they will be real go-getters and go on to do great things.”

However, her main concern is that her students will feel “that they are too narrowly trained to do a variety of different jobs.” Mona felt this way too when she was a student and cites that her “biggest worry is helping these students figure out that they have a wide range of knowledge that can help them go in a variety of different directions.”

As the mother of two girls, Mona is an advocate for encouraging more women and girls in STEM. “I think that's the direction we're already going in. We have an incredible number of females in our undergrad classes and we're already pushing for those girls,” she says beaming with pride, as Claudia, her former student and now current research assistant, smiles in the background.

The Seafood Safety lab at TAMUG plays an important role in the Oyster farming industry for both oyster farmers and consumers. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
When asked whether she is worried about technology taking over jobs in her industry, Hochman confidently says she is not worried. “The methods that we use to detect the Vibrio bacteria are tried-and-true, and people have been using them for the past 20 to 25 years, Mona says. Even with the development of quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) machines, it just “gives you the total number of bacteria in their dead or alive or non-culturable bacteria, so it can give you some inflated numbers. So, we use an older method because we feel that it works better. I’m not worried that technology in this field is going to replace humans.” She underscores this further by saying that the FDA still uses this well-established method in addition to a qPCR machine.

When reflecting on what work means to her Mona states that it is “seeing one of my best friends every day and being happy no matter what I'm doing. It means having some place and something to go to, that makes me proud and that allows me to provide for my family,” she says.

In terms of the unique work Hochman and her team do, she says “we are small but we're mighty,” and “if we can save one person’s life then what we do is incredibly important.”