You can feel it in the air every spring and fall when it’s “allergy season” in Berks County: the sneezing and running nose, the itchy, watery eyes. But did you ever wonder what your allergies look like? It may soon be possible to actually see your allergies — or, rather, the pollen and mold that cause an allergic reaction in some individuals, through a partnership between Penn State Berks and Berkshire Allergy & Asthma Center.
It all began when Edward Hein, owner of Berkshire Allergy & Asthma Center, located in Wyomissing, was looking for a site that he could partner with to read and take photos of the information from his pollen collection equipment. His goal was to establish an official pollen reporting station in Berks County.
Hein explains that the closest official pollen reporting station is in York, Pennsylvania, and it can be as far as two weeks ahead of Berks County in terms of pollen activity.
“Allergic patients may have allergies to tree pollen, grass pollen, weed pollen or molds. In many patients they are allergic to all these items. It is helpful to know when their specific pollens are coming out so that they can begin using their medications,” said Hein. “Tree pollen allergic patients will begin their meds in March. Grass pollen comes out in May. Weed and ragweed pollen comes out in August. It is very helpful for patients to know when their allergies are appearing so that they know when to begin their treatment.”
As luck would have it, Greglynn Gibbs, research support technician at Penn State Berks, visited Hein’s practice with her daughter, who suffers from allergies. As they talked, the topic of the pollen collection equipment came up and soon the two were collaborating on how Penn State Berks could get involved. Gibbs is also the staff adviser to the campus' American Chemical Society chapter, and the project seemed like the perfect fit for the students.
Michael Fidanza, professor of plant and soil sciences, supported the project by offering two of the students involved, Jonas Estevez Corniel and Angelique Nertavich, the opportunity to develop the endeavor into research projects. In addition, Mikayla DeLuca joined the student project team.
The first trial run was in the summer of 2015. This year, the equipment has been fitted with a new motor and a solar panel and reinstalled on campus alongside the newly renovated Luerssen Science Building. “The location is ideal due to the many types of trees on campus and the proximity to Gring’s Mill Recreation Area,” said Nertavich, a sophomore biology major.
The purpose is to study allergenic pollen and mold (aeroallergens) affecting patients in Berks County and collect enough data to show environmental trends regarding pollen in our area so that allergy patients know what to expect.
Another goal of the project is to have Penn State Berks designated a national pollen reporting center.
This study involves collecting, examining, counting and photographing local allergenic pollen and aeroallergens using microscopy. The equipment allows collection through a pollen sampler using pegs coated with silicon, which the pollen adheres to as they spin beneath the sampler. Then the students, under the supervision of Gibbs, take a pollen count in which they count the pollen and mold spores and plug the numbers into an equation. The results are then sent to Hein.
Estevez Corniel, a senior biochemistry and molecular biology major and member of Penn State Berks' American Chemical Society chapter, worked on this project as part of his research.
“I got involved in this project because it is a way of serving the community, using science to look at an issue which affects a large part of our population,’' he said.
DeLuca, a first-year science major and a member of the campus American Chemical Society chapter who will be president next year, agrees.
“This project is a great way to help with a health-related issue that affects so many people," she said. "By collecting, counting and identifying pollen samples, we can show people what exactly is causing the issues they are experiencing.”
As the project is refined, results will appear on the Berkshire Allergy & Asthma Center website at berkshireallergy.com.