home Sloan Program People Behind the Science Interviews: James Scott, testing methods for building materials

People Behind the Science Interviews: James Scott, testing methods for building materials

Next in our “People Behind the Science” series is an interview with James Scott from the University of Toronto. Dr. Scott has recently received a Sloan grant to work on “Improved Testing Methods for Common Building Materials”. In this interview he talks about this project and his interest in the field.

Transcript of video:

Question: How did you become interested in the microbiology of the built environment?

Response: I have been interested in the microbiology of the built environment for a long time. My doctoral thesis from 1995 – 2000 was on fungi and house dust. So, I had an interest that predated the large amount of interest that was garnered around microbes in the built environment by the Cleveland baby deaths and black fungus. So, I’ve had a long interest in microbes and the built environment and that has mostly arisen because it’s an area that has long been lacking in scientific exploration. We have, particularly now, very sophisticated tools to query communities, assemblages, in different systems. Historically scientists haven’t applied those kinds of, or levels of examinations to systems that are thought to be artificial systems like the buildings that we build or the crops that we grow. I’ve found it a very fertile area of scientific inquiry since my doctoral studies, and that’s obviously held up by the level of interest through the Sloan Foundation and the other grantees.

Question: Can you tell a little about the Sloan Project that you will be working on?

Response: The project we are working on looks at using some of these very sophisticated tools through sequence based reconstructions of microbial communities, to try and understand what microbes colonize filled building materials that are subject to moisture damage and along what timeline and try to use that information to develop better tests for resistance of building materials to microbial growth. That’s certainly an area right now that is very expensive. Annually in the United States alone, just based on numbers from 2011, 400 billion dollars were spent on construction materials, and of that 400 billion, approximately 1% of it related to drywall, so four billion dollars. That’s a lot of money and how those materials are bought and sold in that industry is largely driven by how resistant they are to microbial attack. It’s the reason we use green drywall in our bathrooms and white drywall in our living rooms. We perceive certain of those products are more suitable for situations where they may be subject to greater moisture loads than others. It’s a very important problem and the difficulty is that the standard methods that we have at our disposal for determining how resistant a material is, they don’t really work very well. They don’t predict the actual resistance of those materials when they are in built structures. That’s what we are hoping to improve with this project.

Question: What is your favorite aspect or approach to studying the built environment?

Response: I have always felt that a lot can be learned by observation, by careful observation.   We are really in a place in science, particularly in the western world, where much of our science is hypothesis driven. In fact that’s a paradigm that works very well for all kinds of investigation and in some ways it sorts of levers science out of the Dark Age. But at some cost because there really is a lot to be learned by careful, patient observation of systems. I tend to like to integrate both approaches, but I like to inform my hypothesis by that kind of careful observation that I described. I like to have some sense of how a system works, how a system functions before I come into an investigation of it.

Question: What is one big scientific question that you think is present right now in the study of the built environment?

Response: Because in many ways it is a new area, it’s an area that touches on a vast diversity of disciplines. My background, of course, is as a microbiologist but my doctoral minor was in industrial hygiene so I have some knowledge of sampling methods as they are applied to constructed environments and workplace environments, and I have knowledge of the biological aspects of these kinds of issues. But so much depends, as we hear from other Sloan Investigators, on a very deep appreciation of some of the engineering issues or the architectural issues. So, one of the challenges I see, which is certainly not insurmountable but it is going to require a great effort of all our Sloan Investigators and the broader community of scientists doing this to work together, to try and bridge these multidisciplinary gaps so that we actually can build teams of investigators to be able to scrutinize these problems. It really is only through building those types of teams that we are likely to be able to leverage these opportunities to answer the really difficult problems. It’s not science that can be done as a single investigator science; it’s really team driven science.

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David Coil

David Coil is a Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. David works at the intersection between research, education, and outreach in the areas of the microbiology of the built environment, microbial ecology, and bacterial genomics. Twitter

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