Clean Sweep

Those of you who (like me) took medical microbiology 10 or more years ago might have a thing or two to learn about where the most risk comes from in hospital infections, according to Maryn McKenna, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism here at Brandeis. In a recent article “Clean Sweep” in Scientific American, McKenna discusses the rise of  drug resistant organisms (e.g. vancomycin-resistant enterococci) that survive well on surfaces (keyboards, bed rails, and other hospital surfaces).

Inga Mahler (1925–2011)

A grand lady and long-term friend of the life sciences at Brandeis has died. Inga Mahler succumbed on November 12, 2011 at age 86, after fighting pancreatic cancer for two years. As she wished, she died peacefully at home, lucid and joyous until near the end.

Inga quietly played a significant role in the life sciences at Brandeis for over a half century. Inga’s family escaped Germany and settled in the United States. After college, she became interested in microbiology, and while her anesthesiologist-husband Donald Mahler served in a MASH unit in Korea, she did research on dental (oral) bacteria. When her husband moved to the Boston area, she continued her interest in microbiology by entering the Biology graduate program at Brandeis. She received her Ph.D. in 1961 with Margaret Lieb, studying how the replication of one virus (T4rII) in Escherichia coli interfered with another virus (λ). She was proud to have been the first woman who received a doctorate in Biology from Brandeis.

Inga remained at Brandeis until she retired in 2007, working as a senior research scientist in the laboratories of several faculty members in Biology and Biochemistry, mostly studying problems using bacteria. She studied DNA repair in collaboration with Lawrence Grossman.  In the 1960s, she became the first person to isolate and characterize the DNA of the amoeba-flagellate protozoan Naegleria, in the laboratory of Chandler Fulton. In those days this was a major challenge because then-standard methods for isolating DNA did not work with organisms like Naegleria. She worked on bacterial and viral DNAs in the laboratories of Julius Marmur and Herman Epstein, in studies ranging from enhancing transformation of cells by DNA to studying genes involved in the biosynthesis of the amino-acid arginine. She then worked for some years in the laboratory of Harlyn Halvorson, mostly studying Bacillus, and there began to use the then-new techniques of genetic engineering, such as DNA cloning, as they became available. She loved doing research at the bench, and was always interested in challenges. She discovered and isolated bacteria resistant to mercury, and studied how they could become resistant to such a toxic substance. In her last project, she worked with Karl Canter in the Physics Department, where she studied bacteria called Magnetotactic Multicellular Prokaryotes that grow in permanent clumps which collectively move and behave as single organisms, and whose mobility is affected by magnetic fields. Inga made important contributions to each lab in which she worked, and she left a succession of influential publications that span from 1952 to 2005.

She preferred bench-work to other tasks, and never sought an independent position. Yet in each lab where she worked, she provided leadership that helped that lab thrive during her years there. She mentored many students, and befriended and helped hundreds of colleagues. While never herself seeking fame, she contributed greatly to the “fame” of Brandeis.

In her early years at Brandeis, she ran a Friday afternoon “Happy Hour” at which all of us in the life sciences would gather for a little gin and conversation at the “end” of our seven-day weeks. These were the teenage years of Brandeis, when the faculty and staff of Biology and Biochemistry were rapidly building a reputation for themselves and for Brandeis in the life sciences. We were also young then, and having a lot of fun. With much less funding pressure, we worked day and night for the joy of it. Happy Hour was but one of Inga’s many contributions that helped make the life sciences become strong so quickly in the formative days of Brandeis.

Inga was a grand and cultured woman with an amazingly versatile mind, direct and outspoken but invariably polite, who always showed great kindness to others. She also loved life, including fast cars and reading great numbers of books, especially mysteries. She and her husband Donald, whom she survived by two years, were accomplished scuba divers, and enjoyed many visits to the Caribbean.

Inga was fluent in German and French as well as English. She told a story about a visit to Marienplatz in Munich where she stopped to taste brandy-filled chocolates at an upscale Chocolatier. She enjoyed them so much she enthusiastically recommended them in three languages. In consequence, the storekeeper kept feeding her additional samples, since her multilingual endorsement brought customers into the store!

Above all, Inga made the lives of all around her better. Many of us she touched at Brandeis will miss her greatly. As she wrote in the acknowledgment of her thesis in 1961, “The author wishes to express her thanks to the Biology Department — graduate students, faculty and staff — for their continued helpfulness, kindness, and advice.” No one encompassed these generous traits more than Inga herself.

Chandler Fulton, Professor of Biology Emeritus

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