by Paul-Enguerrand "Pablo" Fady
In November 2016, the Small World Initiative (SWI, pronounced “swee”) teamed up with The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and launched “The Do Something About Antibiotics Challenge.” This was part of an effort to encourage students to act in response to one of the most pressing global health challenges of our time — the antibiotic crisis. The challenge was in recognition of the CDC’s 9th Annual “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week,” which ran from November 14th-20th 2016. A group of students at McGill University in Montréal, Canada had an original artistic take on the challenge, which led to the judges awarding the team’s project second place.
The challenge, aimed at undergraduate-level students, yielded an impressive number of responses from all over the globe. The projects submitted ranged in kind and scale, running the gamut from a museum symposium (North Carolina State University), through a 3-hour hands-on outreach event (Baton Rouge Community College), to a parody of the classic pop song, “I Will Survive” (Universidad Complutense de Madrid). The outcome of the challenge was remarkable not only because of the breadth of the material covered in the submissions, but also because of the diverse types of projects undertaken by students.
One submission highlighted by the CDC judges was the “Microbial Crafts” project undertaken by students at McGill University. A group of student artists designed and created a broad range of microbe-related items and accessories. They then sold these “Microbial Crafts” to other members of the McGill community by setting up stalls around campus, and they set up online sales platforms to reach a wider audience.
The aim was twofold: to raise awareness of antibiotic resistance by engaging with the local community and to raise funds for the Small World Initiative. No other submission sought to raise funds for SWI as part of the challenge entry.
The project was inspired by microbe plushies knit by Catherine Caldwell, then a McGill neuroscience student. Catherine liked to knit, and she created these plushies to give to her mother as Christmas presents as her mother had completed her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at McGill. As such, the “Microbial Crafts” initially consisted mostly of hand-knit or cross-stitched plushies in the shape of well-known microbes. However, the project grew to encompass laptop stickers, buttons, keychains, and more.
SWI Partner Instructor Dr. Samantha Gruenheid, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at McGill, also participated in the “Microbial Crafts” project, knitting a number of plushies by herself and in collaboration with her daughter.
The McGill “Microbial Crafts” team had success in multiple areas: considering the project holistically, Microbiology & Immunology students were able to successfully combine their artistic talents with their drive for academic success, research advancement and community involvement.
As regards the financial aspect of the project, the team was delighted to raise 500 USD over the two-week period of “The Do Something About Antibiotics Challenge.” As Joy Tseng, the organizer of the project acknowledges, “At the global level […] 500 USD was a small contribution for a vast problem like antibiotic resistance.” However, she adds, “it was a significant step towards encouraging more schools and students to join the collective effort of discovering new antibiotic sources.” Indeed, the funds will go to SWI, helping with the costs to bring in under resourced schools. This allows SWI to spread, contributing to its mission of “crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery” by engaging students in “real-world applicable laboratory and field research in introductory courses.”
P.S. Did you know that the Small World Initiative’s 4th Annual Symposium 2017 will be on June 1st in New Orleans, Louisiana during ASM Microbe? Six students from McGill’s Microbiology and Immunology department will be in attendance, presenting their research and delivering Microbial Crafts to the SWI community. Hope to see you there!