Montana State University
Miles City student looking for reasons behind sinus infections

Ellen Swogger didn't envision herself studying mice sinuses in college. She disliked biology in high school. And physics, come to think of it, wasn't her strong suit either.

Instead, Swogger figured she'd stick to chemistry--her true academic interest and perhaps an inherited one--until, that is, the sinus project came up.

Now Swogger, a Miles City native who just finished her sophomore year at Montana State University-Bozeman, is awaiting the arrival of mice sinuses from a research physician at the University of Chicago. Once the samples are sectioned and mounted on slides, Swogger will use a lab technique she's just learned to see what kind of bacteria are in the samples.

Ultimately the project is aimed at better understanding sinus infections, which afflict both adults and children and are thought to be caused by a biofilm. Biofilms are sticky clusters of bacteria that can cause a variety of illnesses. Biofilms can be hard to treat because their sticky coating keeps antibiotics out.

"Kids have a high rate of acute sinusitis, and adults have a high rate of chronic sinusitis " said MSU scientist Mark Pasmore, who is Swogger's advisor for the project.

Swogger, he said, will analyze the mice samples for a particular bacterium thought to cause the infections. She'll see if the bacteria form biofilms. She'll look for other bacteria too, perhaps some "friendly" ones that may help maintain sinus health. She and others may even learn why some sinus infections go away with antibiotics whereas others become chronic.

All this biology is somewhat of a surprise to Swogger, a chemical engineering major whose older sister, Emily, is a chemical engineer in Boise, Idaho, and whose grandparents worked for DuPont.

"I think I've had a thing for chemistry ever since junior high or high school," she said. "That's what I've wanted to do."

She ended up with the sinus job because her engineering advisor took her to the Center for Biofilm Engineering at MSU, thinking an internship would be a good idea. Swogger applied for a job in Pasmore's lab and started last May.

"I didn't see how important this project is," Swogger said. "I just thought, 'I need a summer job,' but then I heard lots of people around the [biofilm] center talking about it."

"But it's really worth it to actually get to the point that you have that final success," she said.

She's paid for her work--part time during the school year and full time in the summer--by the Undergraduate Scholars Program at MSU and the biofilm center. She's also a member of MSU's cross country team, meaning she spends most of her free time running.

Swogger said she's still aiming for a career in chemical or environmental engineering, even though she has a much greater appreciation for biology now. Her sister, Laura, is in medical school in Pennsylvania, and her younger brother Logan seems to like history. The youngest Swogger, Taylor, is just 4.

Swogger's mom, Shirley, is a caseworker for Hi-Line Home Programs based in Glasgow, and her father, Dave, is retired from the Bureau of Land Management.


by Annette Trinity-Stevens
MSU research editor
July 9, 2003