Category: Gut Health, Health Magazine

Title:Take a seat in the Virtual Classroom

Author: By Kate Colwell and Rhea Bhatt (G’20)
Date Published: November 4, 2020

Alumni and Friends Come to “Campus” to Learn About Foraging, COVID, and Gut Health

georgetown salad

In the pandemic summer of 2020, the landscape shifted for everyone, including higher education. But at Georgetown, one group of faculty and students at the Medical Center hardly noticed the change in their coursework. That’s because for nearly 10 years, those in the School of Nursing & Health Studies graduate programs have been learning remotely yet together in virtual classrooms around the country.

Over the years, many benefits from this novel approach have emerged. Students are able to stay in their home communities and bring their varied, daily, immersed work experiences to the classroom. For students located in remote areas, where health workers are often in short supply, distance learning offers an ideal solution. For students who have commitments at home that prevent them from attending in-person courses in Washington, D.C., the flexibility of online learning can make all the difference. For faculty, the richness of the living experiences among the students creates rich material for discussion and opportunity for applied learning and feedback in real time.

When Georgetown’s physical campus classrooms shuttered this spring, all students and faculty quickly shifted to online classes. By late summer, Georgetown Health magazine readers were able to get a sneak peek into two of these evolving learning communities.

Urban Foraging

In August the Georgetown University Alumni Association, in partnership with Georgetown Health magazine, offered alumni a virtual class on Urban Foraging on the Hilltop led by two beloved faculty members. Biology professor Martha Weiss, PhD, and pharmacology professor Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD (M’88), led a one-hour class on gathering wild edibles on and around the Georgetown campus. The two professors have been friends for many years and typically lead a seasonal foraging feast on campus, preparing a meal with students and faculty together in a dormitory kitchen.

Highlights of this year’s virtual edition included information on preparing gingko tree nuts, and using delicious mixed greens like sorrel to create a Georgetown Campus Salad. Participants asked about eating acorns, and where to find wineberries on campus. Weiss noted that she
looks forward to next year’s super foraging feast: cicadas!

Both professors stressed the importance of studying biology, ecology, and botany before strolling along the roadside to harvest a free
meal. Many plants are part edible and part toxic, Weiss noted, such as potatoes, asparagus, and rhubarb.

“What’s good for a bird might not be good for you,” she added.

For the most part, foraging is legal except on private property and in national parks, the professors said. Weiss shared that she makes persimmon bread for a neighbor who offers the fruits from her tree each year. She also makes acorn cookies, though the process of removing the tannins from the oak tree nuts is long and arduous.

An underappreciated native tree, pawpaws can be found all along the C&O Canal, Weiss noted, bearing their tropical fruit in late August and September. Similar in consistency to a banana or mango, with a smooth custard texture, the tasty pawpaws look like green potatoes. Humans are not the only fans, Weiss warned.

“It becomes a race between you and the squirrels.”

Watch the class below:

The Gut Microbiome and COVID-19

In September 2020, more than 170 Georgetown alumni, students, and friends tuned into a live virtual class to examine the dynamic relationship between the microbiota and disease expression, particularly in relation to gut health and the novel coronavirus. The webinar, co-sponsored by Georgetown Health magazine and the Georgetown University Alumni Association, convened microbiome experts from Georgetown University Medical Center for an hour packed with insight.

The panel was inspired by a popular course on clinical applications of the microbiota, offered through the Master’s in System Medicine program. The program’s creator and director, Sona Vasudevan, PhD, is a professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology, and co-directs the course that explores the abundance and diversity of gut, vaginal, and skin microbiomes.

For the webinar, she was joined by Georgetown MedStar gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan, MD, and faculty member Kate Michel, PhD, MPH. Douglas Varner, MS, MLS, assistant dean for information management at Dahlgren Memorial Library, moderated the panel. Michel and Varner co-direct the Clinical Applications of the Microbiota course along with Vasudevan.

Vasudevan pointed to the role of big data and systems medicine in recent findings showing a correlation between changes in the lung microbiota and outcomes of COVID-19 patients. The novel approach utilizes computer models to analyze vast amounts of clinical data. The multidisciplinary field uses “-omics” technologies—like genomics, metabolomics, and proteomics—to treat patients with precision, and its scope and applicability has increased since the sequencing of the human microbiome.

Michel discussed the role of the microbiome in health and disease, noting that as a raw count, there are more bacterial cells in the body than there are human cells, and their genetic potential is far greater than the human pan-genome. She also discussed the increased risk in people with compromised immune systems and the interplay between the microbiome and the immune system. She elegantly described the gut-brain and the gut-lung axis.

Genetics, environmental factors, and medication contribute to the composition of the microbiome and disease expression, Chutkan said. She noted that research linking antibiotic use in childhood and the subsequent development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is particularly helpful in understanding an epidemic of autoimmune diseases.

“It’s really a message of optimism,” she noted. “Because it’s not this idea that your genes are your destiny. There are many other factors that can control and contribute to whether a disease is expressed. And the good news is that many of them, like diet, are within our control.”

With regards to the gastrointestinal symptoms of coronavirus, Chutkan cited emerging international research about the frequency of gut issues in combination with respiratory symptoms. Co-occuring conditions such as dysbiosis could be a significant risk factor for viral infection due to the interplay between diet, medications, and host immune system, such as the immunosuppressive properties of steroids.

An audience member asked about food insecurity in minority populations and ways to strengthen health outcomes, particularly in the current climate addressing a pandemic and recognizing racial and social injustice.

“We know that there’s an increased prevalence of disease like hypertension, diabetes, and obesity in our minority populations,” Chutkan said, emphasizing the importance of access to nutrition and other ways to emphasize prevention as a public health priority.

Watch the class below:

screenshot of recorded class with Georgetown faculty on the gut microbiome and covid19

More from this Issue

maria gomez headshot

Founder, President, and CEO of Mary’s Center, a community health center serving over 60,000 people in the Washington, D.C. area through an integrated model of health care, social services,…

michael menchaca

Michael Menchaca (G’15) graduated from the School of Nursing & Health Studies Family Nurse Practitioner Program five years ago. After a relatively short stint at a traditional fee-for-service clinic,…

nurses working on dummy

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Luci Baines Johnson (NHS’69, H’18)—daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson—and her husband, Ian Turpin, made a $1M gift to…