Dr. Irma Santoro believes in the power of knowledge. As interim dean of the school of math & science and associate professor of biology, she sees every day how science impacts our lives. The pandemic of 2020 provided her students a direct connection between biology, immunology and genetics to real-life - challenging our lives and, for many, confusion on how to move forward.
Before becoming biology program coordinator at Reinhardt University in 2008, Santoro began her career in this very field. Following graduate school, she completed her doctorate in molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine in 1998 and went on to complete two postdoctoral fellowships.
Using the pandemic as a teaching opportunity, Santoro sees the importance of understanding the areas of immunology and genetics.
“I feel that a general understanding of how our immune system functions…will help the public better understand their risk of exposure and what they can do to best mitigate that risk,” says Santoro. “When we understand how the immune system works, we can understand what infection symptoms mean and how a vaccine works motivating the public toward getting vaccinated”
Reinhardt's comprehensive biology program could direct students to pursue future research in vaccine development, infectious diseases or aid in public health situations.
“I feel our Biology program prepares students to pursue any career in the biological sciences that a student may be interested in. Our program trains students to critically think and solve complex problems,” explains Santoro. “The multidisciplinary biology program means that our students don’t just focus on one aspect of biology, but it is broadly-based where students are required to take courses in field, organismal, cellular and molecular biology. This type of programming better prepares students for graduate or professional work in many different fields in the sciences which can include biotechnology and possibly even virology or vaccine development.”
Santoro’s background is timely in how she sees the importance of an education in biological sciences for the student and our community.
“I think a good understanding of genetics is important especially when it comes to understanding the viral variants of the SARS-CoV 2 virus that many read or hear about in the news,” says Santoro. “An understanding of genetics will allow those to understand what these sequence variants are and their risk to us, especially for those that are not vaccinated. A good understanding on how these variants change over time, being fueled by increased transmission rates, would help those to realize the importance of doing everything they can to reduce exposure and transmission so our current vaccines will still be effective in fighting the new SARS-CoV 2 variant viruses.”
Understanding how to battle COVID-19 and its viral variants do not solely rely on genetics knowledge, Santoro shares the importance of understanding the genetic background of an individual or group for future protection against the virus.
“An understanding of heredity is also important so when new research and studies are reported on the genetic background of more susceptible populations, people will be able to understand how they may be impacted,” explains Santoro. “Also, exploring coronavirus and specifically, SARS-CoV 2 and human genetics could reveal important insights of how the virus infects certain populations more than others and why some with COVID-19 develop severe disease. All this will be very helpful in fighting the pandemic.”
In addition to the biology programs relevant to today’s pandemic, Santoro explains how Reinhardt’s overall science program is somewhat unique in Georgia, providing students with more hands-on experiences.
“A unique aspect about the sciences at Reinhardt results from our small class sizes. We can provide our students many individualized opportunities whether in the lab or independent faculty-mentored research,” says Santoro. “Our 525-acre campus is a premier education center for biology, environmental science, and conservation in northern Cherokee County, which is less developed than the surrounding communities. Since much of the campus is undeveloped, it is a great outdoor laboratory suitable for a wide range of disciplines to study the interactions of many different organisms, including humans and their impact on the landscape.
The campus sits at the intersection of three major ecoregions and is a biodiversity hotspot, especially for aquatic organisms, in the greater Coosa River basin, one of the most biodiverse aquatic systems in North America. The campus is home to more than 35 species of fish, two federally protected animals, and numerous native species of plants and is adjacent to an American chestnut orchard. Because of this biodiversity, unique opportunities exist for biology students to participate in long-term faculty-mentored research studies and surveys done on campus and surrounding areas with plants and animals.”
Dr. Santoro is proud of the work of Reinhardt faculty and biology students, “students are encouraged to pursue independent regional research studying the local biodiversity as well as pursuing internships. We even have two National Science Foundation (NSF) supported scholarship opportunities for our students. The S-STEM grant provides 4-year scholarship support and mentoring to low-income and talented students interested in science and research careers. The Noyce grant provides funding to recruit, support and prepare biology or mathematics majors to become high school teachers. The goal for these NSF-funded grants is to help increase the diversity and number of students interested in careers in the STEM workforce.
In the past ten years, more than 50 Reinhardt students, an average of 4-5 annually, have completed research projects with several presenting their results at local and regional conferences. Maybe one of these students will go on to make a major impact on fighting the next pandemic”
To learn more about Reinhardt University’s biology programs, visit https://www.reinhardt.edu/schools-programs/school-of-math-science/math-science-programs/biology/