BOZEMAN – When Phil Stewart takes stock of his career – as a researcher, educator and administrator with the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University – he sees research that opened up new terrain in the engineering world. And, he notes, much of that ground has been broken at MSU by scientists and engineers at the CBE on an interdisciplinary quest to understand the inner workings of biofilms.
Biofilms are dense aggregates of bacteria or fungi that stick to virtually any wetted surface – think of a slippery rock in a stream or the dental plaque on your teeth.
Biofilms coat everything from oil and gas infrastructure to artificial joints and medical implants cost industry billions of dollars annually in maintenance and lost efficiency. In healthcare, biofilms can lead to expensive hospital stays. Over the past 25-plus years, MSU researchers at the CBE have helped put biofilms on the map by combining engineering and microbiology. Stewart is at the forefront of this work and is internationally recognized for his high-impact publications examining how microbes in biofilms escape being killed by antibiotics and disinfectants.
“When I was a student working on my degrees in chemical engineering, there were very few biological engineering options, it was just starting as a discipline,” Stewart said. “Now we are using this interdisciplinary approach to pursue beneficial uses for biofilms, as well as ways to combat their negative impacts in the medical field and in industry.”
Stewart, who has been at MSU since 1991 and wrapped up an acclaimed 10-year run as CBE’s director last year to spend more time on research, will offer his thoughts on the history and future of biofilm science as part of the ongoing Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. Stewart’s presentation is set for Tuesday, March 8, at 7 p.m. at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. It is free and open to the public, with a reception to follow.
Stewart said he will focus on his research into biofilm infections associated with medical devices, such as catheters and other implants.
“These are slow-moving, localized infections that are very difficult to treat, and they collectively take a huge toll on patients and the health care system,” Stewart said. “The biofilm paradigm of infection is still underappreciated even though it recurs in many different medical specialties such as orthopedics, dentistry, urology and dermatology. I am interested in understanding the mechanisms that make biofilm infections so persistent and then using that insight to find ways to prevent or cure these infections.”
Stewart was recruited to MSU after earning his doctorate at Stanford University and working in private industry in Switzerland and San Francisco and a bacterial genetics lab in Paris. He is currently a professor of chemical and biological engineering at MSU. In his decade of service as CBE director, Stewart is recognized for facilitating growth of the center’s industrial associates program, recruiting new faculty and expanding research activity on medical biofilms.
Stewart said, after 10 years as director, it’s exhilarating to tackle new research questions, and his presentation on March 8 will dive into some of what’s ahead for him and others at the CBE.
“I’m interested in we can learn from the process the body uses to fight infections, primarily the process in which white blood cells destroy them,” Stewart said. “I’m convinced that the answer to the problem of medical device infections lies in the unveiling why, in the case of biofilms, white blood cells don’t do what they normally do.”
Answering that question, Stewart said, could lead to the engineering of medical devices that guide white blood cells to more effectively destroy the bacteria that form biofilms.
“It’s an exciting time to be doing biofilm research,” Stewart said. “And it is particularly gratifying to be doing it here at MSU. One of the things that has made my work at MSU such a pleasure is the collaborative environment we have. I feel fortunate to be right here with this amiable group of scientists and engineers.”
Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, firstname.lastname@example.org.