Montana State University

Bio-statistician with MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering earns top EPA award

June 9, 2016 -- By Amanda Eggert for the MSU News Service

Albert Parker, a research professor in Montana State University’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and the MSU Center for Biofilm Engineering, is part of a team of researchers awarded the 2015 Scientific and Technological Achievement Award, level 1 from the Environmental Protection Agency. The award was given for Parker and the team’s research into the effectiveness of the performance standards the EPA uses to evaluate antimicrobial products, such as sprays and disinfectants. The EPA made changes to the performance standards it uses in hospitals based on the researchers’ published findings. MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University research professor Albert Parker is part of a team awarded the 2015 Scientific and Technological Achievement Award, level 1 from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The award is the highest honor the EPA gives to a research team. It recognizes research with national significance and considerable impact to the public.

The award was given for Parker and the team’s research into the effectiveness of the performance standards the EPA uses to evaluate antimicrobial products, such as sprays and disinfectants. The EPA made changes to the performance standards it uses in hospitals based on the researchers’ published findings. The winning research was chosen from among 118 entries.

Parker, a research professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Letters and Science and the MSU Center for Biofilm Engineering, works with statistical models of complex biological systems. Previous data with which he has worked has applications in vision science, image processing and neuroscience. Since joining the Center for Biofilm Engineering in 2008, biofilms – or slimy coatings comprised of microorganisms, like bacteria, that stick together – have been central to Parker’s work.

“I’m proud of this recognition of the collaborative work that our team conducts at MSU and the Center for Biofilm Engineering,” Parker said. “Those of us who work in the field of antimicrobial testing are in a somewhat obscure scientific niche. It’s the relevance of this work to human health in hospital settings that caused it to be recognized across all the different areas that the EPA regulates.”

The team’s award-winning research dates back to 2009, when five different laboratories began collecting data on the reproducibility of what is known as the “use-dilution method.” The use-dilution method is a laboratory protocol that EPA uses to evaluate the effectiveness of a liquid disinfectant against microorganisms that have been dried onto a surface. If a product passes the established performance standard for the use-dilution method, then EPA registers that product for sale in the U.S. Parker and the research team analyzed the data to determine how often the performance standard correctly evaluated products.

“One way to think of it is that a performance standard is like a yard stick by which the effectiveness of products are measured,” Parker said. “The EPA had been using an old yard stick, one from the 1960s. What we did is basically update that yardstick so that it is more accurate in determining which disinfectants are ineffective and which are highly effective.” 

The team produced two publications in 2012 and 2014 based upon the research. Both appeared in the Journal of AOAC International, which focuses on basic and applied research in the analytical sciences related to foods, drugs, agriculture and the environment.

“Having high-quality performance standards helps get the most effective products into hospitals and laboratories where they can play a role in patient health,” Parker said.

Other members of the winning research team included EPA senior scientist Steve Tomasino; Martin Hamilton, MSU and Center for Biofilm Engineering professor emeritus in statistics; and Gordon Hamilton, a statistical analyst with Big Sky Statistical Analysts.

“I look forward to further collaborations with MSU on even more impressive topics,” Tomasino said. “Incorporation of new ideas and approaches to better understand and utilize scientific data remains a key feature in EPA’s approach to maintaining the highest level of scientific integrity.”

The MSU Center for Biofilm Engineering develops beneficial uses for microbial biofilms and finds solutions to industrially relevant biofilm problems. This academic year, approximately 50 undergraduates and 50 graduate students conducted research through the center.

Parker noted that MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering has been working more recently with the EPA to develop and evaluate the first anti-biofilm effectiveness test method using the same tools that were developed for the use-dilution method. 

“Scientists now understand that biofilms are important in hospital settings. Because biofilms are very different than microbes dried onto a surface, the anti-biofilm method is the first of a new generation of methods for testing antimicrobials,” Parker said. “Once EPA sets performance standards for the anti-biofilm method, which are expected this year, you will see products registered for sale in the U.S. with claims of anti-biofilm effectiveness.”

Contact: Albert Parker, (406) 994-5145 or albert.parker@montana.edu