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Ana Clemmer
IR 2/10-GT
Period 2
First Interview

Interviewee: Ellen Silbergeld, PhD.


Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Interview Conducted on November 21, 2018 at 11:00 am

ES: Hello?

AC: Hi, Dr. Silbergeld. This is Ana Clemmer.

ES: Hi, how are you?

AC: Good, how are you?

ES: Very good, getting ready for tomorrow.

AC: Yeah, sounds fun! Thank you so much for being available!

ES: Certainly.

AC: I just have a few questions I’d like to ask you that I think would help me develop my thesis for
my research project this year

ES: Well, why don’t we start with what have you been doing so far?

AC: So far, I’ve become more interested in how the waste management process might affect the
amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the environment. And, I read this article, and it’s called
the “Occurrence of multiple antibiotic resistant enteric bacteria in domestic sewage and oxidation
lagoons.”

ES: Well, of course. I mean, that’s because they’re receiving waste.

AC: Yes.

ES: The issue is how much of it gets through.

AC: Yes, and I wanted to look at the ways the waste is managed and processed to see what factors,
what parts of waste management might allow more of the antibiotic resistant bacteria to get
through into the environment, thus spreading to everybody else.
ES: Well, are you looking at all waste, or are you looking at agricultural waste, or you know human
waste? What are you doing? I mean we have very strict rules in this country and processes which
optimize this, and all of this is available on EPA’s website on wastewater treatment, so I think
what I’m really going to push you towards - what I do to my students - you need a question. What
is it you’re trying to answer? You have a concern that there isn’t effective management, or what
is
it that you want to do because right now you’re getting close to having to make up your mind on
what you’re going to work on, so this is what we call a problem statement. So what is your
problem statement?

AC: I started making an outline for the class and I will email it to you, since it is the updated outline.

ES: No, I don’t want to see the outline yet. I’m treating you like one of my students at Hopkins. What
is your problem statement? Because your paper has to begin with this.

AC: Currently, the question that I wrote down is “What type of livestock waste management system
best minimizes the effect and amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the soil, sediment, surface
water, and groundwater?”

ES: Well, there is no waste management system required for agriculture. That’s what I’m afraid.
Okay, so we don’t know. We don’t know the answer. There is no data available to say “we do
this,
then it takes care of the problem, but if we do that, it doesn’t.” Because the fact is, there is no
requirement to manage agricultural waste.

AC: Okay, and it seems like the oxidation lagoon is a very common process used, and I’ve just been
trying to learn about how that works.

ES: No, no, no. That’s within a wastewater treatment plant, where it’s part of a multi-step process.

AC: Oh, ok.

ES: Ok, that’s why you really need to distinguish this. We have, the US has, and many other
countries,
very well articulated, detailed requirements on how domestic wastewater is handled. And, the
EPA regulates this, they actually helped fund it; most cities and towns get funding to you know,
make their wastewater treatment plants meet the criteria. So, that’s good. But on the other hand,
the problem here is that we don’t have any requirements for any management or treatment of
agricultural waste.

AC: Oh, that’s very interesting. Somehow, I haven’t caught that in my reading.
ES: Yeah, well you’re right. You would have to spend some time on this. Some of our
papers do talk about this. You’ve done exactly what I expect my students at Hopkins to do, which
you’ve been kind of looking through this problem, and picking out the parts of this that interest
you, and now, I have to put you on the spot and say “What’s your question?” And it’s when at
this point, it sometimes takes weeks to do this with my own students. So, don’t feel bad about this
at all. Now that you’re interested in antibiotic resistance in waste, and how we can deal with it.
Now you need to formulate a question. Now, unfortunately, in this area, we have - and it’s not
just the US - [people think that] animal waste just like it doesn’t happen, which is ridiculous. And
by the way, have you been reading about the romaine lettuce problem?

AC: I have heard about it, but I haven’t specifically been reading about it.

ES: Okay, well the CDC has just announced that no one should eat any Romaine lettuce because there
has been many cases of disease and some deaths, and they’re not sure where it’s coming from.
Well, they just issued a statement saying “No Romaine.” And, where it’s coming from [is]
agriculture. So, one thing you might want to look at is since we’re not doing anything about
agricultural waste in terms of treating it, what are the risks that might result from it? That might
be a topic you could write on. You could start trying to build the case that we really need to get
control of it. And the kind of things that can happen are obviously- So you know, farmers have
the option to just dispose of the waste on land, with no treatment. So, there is no treatment. There
is no required treatment. And even in countries that have kind of gotten a little concerned about
this, it’s still not required. So, this is kind of like the open gaping hole in terms of public health,
and you might want to summarize that. Like, you could for example start with that as a
description of how after about 40 years, we’ve really gotten control of ensuring that human waste
is adequately treated before it is released back into water. So, all your sewage goes some place,
and it goes through a very expensive process, including oxidation pools, and at the end, it’s
tested. It is not allowed to be released until it’s tested and found not to contain any bacteria,
regardless whether it’s drug resistant or not. And, other chemicals, minerals and other things have
to be taken out. So that’s all under control. Now, the question is: what’s going on in agriculture?
And what you might like to do, particularly for our state, because we are a big agricultural state,
in terms of chickens, and lots of chicken poop which is put on the soil; how big is the problem?
How many pounds of chicken waste is being produced each year by all those chickens?

AC: Oh, yes.

ES: So, you could actually build the case that this just doesn’t make sense. I mean, we know what we
need to do, we’ve got the technology, now we need to really recognize that this is an important
problem. And, the romaine is important because what has happened here, and it has happened
several times, we don’t know where or how many places, but essentially what happens is: surface
water in an agricultural area gets contaminated by runoff from all the animal poop that’s just put
on the soil, along with the antibiotic resistant bacteria. Now, you know, maybe 60 miles
downstream, there’s a farm that’s growing romaine lettuce. And they’re going to use that water to
irrigate their lettuce. That’s where it’s coming from. It’s all part of the animal/agriculture circuit.
So, it’s not just related to people are rightly concerned about food safety, and for example the
potential for the presence of drug-resistance bacteria, say, on chicken. But, it doesn’t stop there,
because the waste stream is like an open door, leading into the environment, and we have this
possibility - and in fact it’s happened many times - we have these events where in fact produce
gets contaminated by drug-resistant bacteria. And, we can trace it back to the farm using
molecular methodology. So, we really have to think of this as something that is probably a very
important part of the whole picture.

AC: Ok, so would the land application of the manure, if it is applied to a crop field, would that also
cause, for example the romaine, to be recalled because it leads to disease?

ES: Yeah, that could. Well what’s happening is that it will contaminate the surfaces of the leaves - I
have a student who’s do a study of this - because you know, when you put something on top of
the soil, and then you plow it in, and you grow the plant, as you know, you have to wash the
leaves to get the dirt off. The problem is, it’s very hard to wash lettuce, if you’ve ever tried to do
that, because it has a lot of bumps and folds in the leaf. Therefore, you’re getting probably spread
from the soil. Also, it can come, even if you’re not using any animal manure from farms that are
using antibiotics. The other part that has been very serious is the waterborne. There were some
very big outbreaks of E. Coli infections that were finally traced back down to of course, in one
case, a dairy farm that was 150 miles north of where they were growing the lettuce, and this is in
California. But, before, it was the water that the lettuce farmers were using, flowed through the
dairy farm.

AC: Oh!

ES: Yeah, so this is really an area that we need a lot more attention being paid to, let’s say. And then,
if you had time, you might even start interviewing various people, like in our state department of
health, and our state department of the environment - and I have a very good friend there that you
could talk to - to get perspective from people who should be thinking about this problem.

AC: Yeah. It’s very interesting that nothing much has been done for this problem.

ES: You are absolutely correct. You’re right.

AC: When I first started looking at this, I thought there would be a lot of research already done on it,
and I would have to find a really, really specific thing for me to do to bring new information. But,
as you said, there isn’t much data.

ES: It’s because we don’t regulate it. Now you can share my kind of frustration on this. It’s like
people are pretending this doesn’t exist. And you might even want to talk to some farmers and
somebody in the governor’s office, because Governor Hogan has been very concerned about
impacts of poultry farming, and I don’t know if he’s thought about this. I think this would be
great, and the more you can do to raise people's’ consciousness about this, I think that’s the place
we’re at. What you’re doing so far, it’s just what I expect my students to do, is to kind of wander
around on a topic, gather some things and decide “this is what I’m really interested in.” And my
job is to steer you to do something that I feel really has an impact.

AC: Do you think that if the general public knew more about farming in general, and agriculture, do
you think that problems like this would be easier to solve, or they would’ve been already solved?

ES: Well, I think that’s for you to think. I’m going to leave that in your hands.

AC: Okay.

ES: Say, “Is this a problem that people just don’t realize, is this a problem that people don’t want to
deal with it? Is this a problem that nobody has figured out who should deal with it?” You see the
great with water treatment in the United States was when we realized that we need to do
something about the quality of our water. This is going back 40-50 years. It was decided that the
government would help cities and towns build proper wastewater treatment plants instead of just
saying “you have to do it, now good luck, find the money.” They said “ok this is what you have to
do, and we’re going to give you a grant so you can afford to do it.” So, I think there were all kinds
of reasons. But, definitely, I think in general, people are not aware of it

AC: I also think that people are unaware of agricultural in general. Like, I realized that so many people
don’t know where their food comes from in my community. Especially after I joined 4-H, and I
started learning more about agriculture, I realized that a lot of my classmates didn’t know as
much as I did.

ES: That is very true. I found that exactly very much, that people still have a vision of agriculture
being like my grandfather. You know, an individual farmer that’s been a farming family for
generations, and beautiful barns and fields with happy animals running around. That is definitely
true.

AC: I think that image that people have in their heads, they might like to think that, but it’s also sort of
toxic for the attitude towards farming and industrial farming. Because when food is
mass-produced, they don’t actually know that it isn’t like the small family farms that are bringing
them their food.

ES: Yeah, and even if it is being done, say you go to a farmer’s market, you’re right. I think that’s the
other reason, I’m glad you brought this up, the other reason why we haven’t done anything about
it, is because we don’t have a very realistic approach to what farming is these days.

AC: That’s actually one of the things I was going to look at when I was thinking over the summer
about my research project because I thought I might work with the Howard County Farm Bureau
and see if there were different ways that we could bring knowledge about agriculture and
farming, especially in our community, and just in general to the general public. One of my friends
in 4-H, there’s an academy program in Howard County at the Applied Research Lab, and she
made an agriculture program where students can go and spend the first two periods of their school
day learning about different parts of agriculture. And, there’s also different academies like
biotechnology and it’s in with them. I think that was a really good step to bring more knowledge
about agriculture to the community.

ES: Yeah, there’s a program that the state of Maryland runs and it’s headquartered out near Arden
Ridge. They have a sort of demonstration farm, and they have programs, and I think that helps.
But, I’ll be honest with you, I think it still gives the romantic picture of farming. You go out in
some corn, and you pet the goats, and things like that. But, it’s not really saying “This is
farming.” So, in a way that keeping that old vision of farms, like my grandfather’s farm, is
stopping people from understanding what’s going on. And, if people understood that the millions
of chickens that are raised each year in Maryland, each chicken is pooping out 5 pounds of waste
in its lifetime, and if you multiply that, it’s a lot of poop.

AC: So, is it that since people do not have that much of a realistic vision of farming, they don’t
understand how much waste is being produced and what is in that waste, and how it’s affecting
the environment?

ES: I think that’s very true. It all seems to go, you’re absolutely correct, that it’s all connected. It’s the
lack of familiarity with farming, food is something you get at the supermarket, maybe you get it
from the farmer’s market or you go to a petting zoo, but you have no idea what really is going on
in agriculture. And this is not to criticize big agriculture. I am really a believer that we need big
agriculture.

AC: Yeah, same here.

ES: Yeah, so I’m not opposed to that. But, if you don’t have your mind firmly fixed on what’s going
on here, then you don’t have an idea of what are the potential problems, what are the
opportunities to fix them.

AC: Wow, that was really helpful. I think I might add that to my research question.

ES: Yeah, and whether you’d want to think about doing a survey, I don’t know, but I think the FDA
has done some surveys about people’s knowledge of food. And just what you’re saying, most
people are clueless, or they don’t think about their food. I found this everywhere, because I was
in Italy for a semester, where I read a book about farming, and I gave a talk about it. Somebody in
my audience said “Well, that’s the United States. That’s not the way we raise food in Italy.” And
I said, “I really hate to break the news to you, but actually 90% of your chickens in Italy are
grown just as they are in the United States.” And that was like total news to them.

AC: So, do you think that, like that person thought, do you think that there are differences, because
there’s obviously differences in regulation, in different countries and different parts of the world.
But do you think that it’s especially important in developing countries where there might not be
as much regulation?

ES: Well, no I don’t want you to diss developing countries. I’ll say this again. We have no regulation
over animal waste. Okay?

AC: I was just thinking in general. I wasn’t sure, it was just a speculation.

ES: No, but nobody does. Rather than going around to wave a finger at developing countries, I really
believe in looking at ourselves first. And the other thing is, not only do we have no regulation, we
have a huge agricultural sector. So, just think of Delmarva and how many chickens are being
grown over there. So if you don’t regulate something, this is really serious. It’s not like it’s a little
thing going on over there, it’s a big thing. And it’s very successful, and it’s very important. But,
my take is, we’ve got to get control of it.

AC: So, do you think that if regulations for animal waste are regulated in the United States, and we
first fix our problem, do you think we would be able to help the rest of the world?

ES: Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure it would be influential. The fact that we don’t, and nobody does, there’s
no one doing this, nobody in Europe, no one is doing it. It means if that the industry is developing
in say Africa, they’re going to follow this, say the best practices are clearly going to be in the
United States and Europe, so that’s what we’re going to do.

AC: So, this has been really eye-opening for me, actually. I can’t believe I didn’t realize that there
were no regulations in the United States for animal waste, I just thought that it was very little
regulation.

ES: No, I know, it’s amazing when you realize this. Yeah, it’s just extraordinary. If you could get
some people interested in this, aware of it, I think that will be very important.

AC: Okay, thank you so much! I’m going to be thinking about my research question in the following
weeks.

ES: This is what I’m going to do. I teach a course to students on this. The next thing I want to hear
from you is what is your question.

AC: Yes.

ES: Okay?

AC: Okay.
ES: And then we can strategize. And right now don’t think about how you’re going to answer the
question. Don’t let that hold you back. You need to do this step by step. First thing is for you to
get a question that represents exactly what you are interested in now, and I think you are very
close to that. Then, this is where I can help you also, in terms of saying here's where you can
probably get the information about this, and move from there. How does that sound?

AC: That sounds really good! Thank you so much! I’m very excited for this.

ES: Yeah! And like I said, I’m treating you just like my Hopkins Grad students, so this is what they
have to do as well. And always you know, I find when you’re doing what you’re doing, almost
most of your time is going to be figuring out what your question is.

AC: Okay.

ES: Okay? So just try out some ideas, it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, in fact, it usually is
not. Because usually when you say, “this is my question.” I say “what do you mean by that?”
And, yeah. So, as you get through, you’ll be ready to come to Hopkins and get a graduate degree.
Okay?

AC: Okay ha ha! Thank you so much! Have a great Thanksgiving!

ES: Oh you too, have a great time!

AC: Bye!

ES: Bye!
Reflection:

There are many key things that I will take away from this interview for my research, including

multiple possible questions. For example, I asked my advisor, Dr. Silbergeld, “Do you think that if the

general public knew more about farming in general, and agriculture, do you think that problems like this

would be easier to solve, or they would’ve been already solved?” Her response to this was for me to think

on it, and I think this may be a good research question. The fact that there is no regulation on the

management of animal waste in the United States is also a very important fact for my research. This is

what my advisor told me, but I know that there are regulations on animal waste management in the state

of Maryland, so I think she meant that there is no regulation at the federal level. The interview went very

well. I was able to hear what my advisor expects of me in the next weeks moving forward. Also, I learned

a vital fact about animal waste management in the United States: there are no federal regulations. This

may prove to be a determining factor in what my research question is. Dr Silbergeld also recommended

different final projects I could have, as well as different questions I may be able to have. In my next

interview, I will try not to go on so much of a tangent. I will also try not to say “um,” “uh,” “uh huh,” or

“yeah.” In addition, I will make sure that miscommunication does not happen again, since it might affect

my relationship with my advisor. Also, I will come up with more questions beforehand, preferably not

dependent on each other. At first, it was fairly easy to prepare for this interview, since I had help coming

up with questions. However, when the interview took a turn and I did not have any questions prepared, I

still found it relatively to come up with questions on the spot, since I did not always fully understand what

my advisor was saying. It was not difficult to keep the interview moving, since I am pretty passionate

about the subject.