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Department of Biology

Tricia Van Laar

Dr. Tricia Van Laar knows COVID-19 is not your average virus


COVID is a tiger, while a cold is a kitten

Teaching classes on vector borne diseases may not sound like everyone’s favorite career choice, but Tricia Van Laar actually likes that kind of thing.

Vector borne diseases can infect a human when transmitted through arthropods, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas.

“It does feed into COVID, because the prevailing hypothesis is that the coronavirus had an intermediate animal host before it jumped into humans,” she said.

COVID, though, is not your ordinary virus.

One of the misconceptions Dr. Van Laar encounters a lot is that COVID-19 is just another a coronavirus, which for the most part cause colds. People then want to just classify it as a cold, which is a false equivalent.

“A cat and a tiger are both felines, but a tiger is going to mess you up,” she said. “The idea that COVID-19 is just a cold is inaccurate.”

COVID-19 is much more dangerous than a mere cold. It’s not nearly as tame, she noted.

“Consider whether you would rather be in a room with a wolf or with a dachshund. I’d pick the dachshund,” she said.

Sometimes people are led to think that because they can survive a COVID infection, there is nothing much to worry about. But Dr. Van Laar points out that you might survive a car accident, but that doesn’t mean you want to get into one.

Besides that, because COVID-19 is such a new virus, it’s unknown what the long-term effects might be five, ten years after someone has survived it, she said.

“We don’t know the downstream consequences people can experience,” she said.

Another point to the dark side of COVID is that it spreads easily.

“The thing with COVID is viruses, especially respiratory viruses, is that they are just so easy to spread,” she said. “We’re always talking … we don’t think about how many times we touch our face… how many surfaces we come in contact with … That’s how viruses spread.”

On the bright side, a COVID vaccine should be more effective than a flu vaccine. Flu viruses are segmented viruses, and can actually easily combine into new varieties, while COVID is not segmented, she said.

Dr. Van Laar knows something about infections that resist treatment. Her post-doctoral work was in antibiotic resistance and how it can lead to inhibition of wound healing.

She’s always been interested in microbiology, and her lab at Fresno State has been used for various forms of research, including research on microbiomes, a collection of microorganisms commonly found in the environment. Often, she teams up with Biology Department colleagues. She’s studied sunflowers with Katherine Waselkov, lizards with Rory Telemeco, and birds with Joel Slade.

“I kind of flit around to whoever needs microbiome help,” she said. “I like to collaborate with others in the department.”

While Dr. Van Laar does not work in the lab with viruses, she does study bacteria that make people sick.

One of her honors students is currently looking at a species of bacteria (Klebsiella pneumoniae) that causes respiratory infections, but can also cause skin and soft tissue infections.

“It’s a pretty nasty bug,” she said. “There was one strain resistant to every single antibiotic in the United States. It’s one of these bacteria that can quickly pick up new genes and become antibiotic resistant.”

The bacteria forms a biofilm, which is a secretion of sugars and proteins in a sticky matrix.

“In some cases the biofilm keeps them from dying,” she said. “It could be, partly, because in most of these biofilms, the bacteria go a little bit dormant, and most antibiotics only work when the bacteria are super active. Also, that sticky, mucus-like film can keep the antibiotics from getting in.”

Dr. Van Laar’s student is sequencing the bacteria’s genes to see what mutations are occurring.

“That’s what we’re analyzing now,” she said, “to see which genes are contributing to that resistance. If we can identify which genes are involved, maybe we can identify other targets, like combination therapies, that would help. I have another student looking at that.”

During her first semester at Fresno State, Dr. Van Laar taught a class called Revenge of the Killer Microbes. So she’s very familiar with just how deadly bacteria can be.

“This particular bacteria will grow in almost anything,” she said. “It overtakes all kinds of other bacteria, and it’s really dangerous.”

She’s actually on the Institutional BioSafety Committee, which isn’t surprising, given that she has to ensure so many safety protocols in her work.

While her teaching methods had to be adapted during COVID, Dr. Van Laar was already trained in teaching online, so she did not find it too difficult to transition to the COVID lecture environments.

“What I tried to do was make it as easy for the students as possible,” she said. “I would prerecord lectures in short segments, and in order to encourage them to watch those lectures, I would incorporate small quizzes.”

She also scaffolded the classes with online techniques that work, such as using break-out rooms, but she misses the one-on-one interaction in the classroom and in the lab.

Some things done in the lab just don’t translate well into online environments, she noted, because you need hands-on learning.

“You can read about something, but the training aspect is needed,” she said.

Even following a recipe for the first time can be a disaster, she pointed out. It’s far worse when the stakes are higher.

“Analogies would be, You wouldn’t hire a plumber who was doing something for the first time, and you wouldn’t hire an electrician who had never done any work,” she said. “And you definitely wouldn’t want a surgeon performing surgery on you for the first time ever.”

Since hands-on work is so essential to the field of biology, Dr. Van Laar is looking forward to a time when she can resume more actual work in the lab with students.

Dr. Van Laar has a B.S. in Biology from California State University, Stanislaus; an M.S. in Biology from University of the Pacific in Stockton; and a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio.