BYU microbiology professor finds silver lining during COVID-19 pandemic

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BYU microbiology professor Brad Berges works on an experiment researching HIV. Berges’ expertise in viruses led to different opportunities to study SARS-CoV-2 during the pandemic. (BYU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology)

Many BYU research projects were halted or postponed because of restrictions or social distancing concerns when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. However, microbiology professor Brad Berges was able to make the most of a tough situation and even contribute to research on SARS-CoV-2.

As an expert on viruses, Berges could take advantage of new research opportunities during the pandemic related to COVID-19. He said he had more publications this year than any other year at BYU, two of which had to do with COVID-19.

“I recognize there are a lot of faculty members who have not been able to come into campus or have not been able to work with our students as effectively, so I feel blessed,” Berges said. Doing research on COVID-19 has been a silver lining for him during the pandemic.

Some of the research Berges has done with his students and colleagues includes a study on alcohol-free hand sanitizer’s effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2. Berges also helped write a publication outlining the influences on people’s reaction to potential COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S.

His journey to becoming a virologist started at a very young age. “I’ve always been fascinated by biology. When I was a little kid, I was always trying to catch whatever kind of animal I could so I could learn about it,” Berges said.

His love for biology moved into virology during his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Brazil. “There were a lot of infectious diseases that I experienced in Brazil that I wasn’t that familiar with,” Berges said. “I think that was a lot of what piqued my interest in trying to understand infectious diseases better.”

After graduating from BYU with his bachelor’s in microbiology in 1999, Berges went on to pursue a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania. He then did postdoctoral research on HIV at Colorado State University.

Brad Berges stands with his wife and their four children. Berges has used his knowledge of microbiology to help with science fair projects, the most recent one involving the effectiveness of masks. (Brad Berges)

Berges said his wife Brooke has always been supportive, even during his six years as a Ph.D. student. Berges met Brooke at BYU while she was studying elementary education. They have four children, one boy and three girls. Their oldest son is studying cybersecurity at BYU.

Berges recently did a science fair experiment related to COVID-19 with his youngest daughter, Sadie. They tested to see if different types of masks stopped bacteria from coming through when people cough. While their data isn’t publishable, Berges said this is one of the reasons it is fun to have a microbiologist as a dad.

Berges said he didn’t always plan on being a teacher but BYU ended up being a great fit for him and his research.

“I was somewhat surprised that BYU had all the resources I needed to do my research because some of it is highly specialized, but everything I needed was here,” Berges said. He has now worked at BYU for almost 13 years.

Though Berges didn’t plan on being a teacher, two of the students in his lab say he is an excellent one. Former microbiology master’s student Benjamin Ogilvie said Berges is not only great at research but at helping his students get involved.

“He does a great job of connecting students with opportunities and coaching them through the whole life cycle of a project. He might have been an HR guy in another life,” Ogilvie said.

Brandon Lopez is a microbiology undergrad and research assistant in Berges’ lab. He said Berges has been an amazing mentor during the two years they’ve worked together. During an especially hard experiment, Lopez said Berges took the time to encourage him and help him find new ideas to make the experiment work.

“I feel that Dr. Berges is not just a mentor, but a good friend, and I know that he is happy to be that for anyone who walks into his office. His door is always open, both metaphorically and physically,” Lopez said.

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