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Marylynn V. Yates

Professor of Environmental Microbiology
Marylynn Yates
Protecting Resources, Informing Policy
Policies that protect the safety of our water resources are critical to public health. Yates contributes to these causes doubly—through research on the transmission of human pathogenic microorganisms in water and wastewater, as well as through her extensive service on national and scientific committees relevant to water-borne diseases.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Transmission of human pathogenic microorganisms in environmental media
  • Pathogens in water and wastewater
  • Cultural and molecular methods to detect microorganisms in environmental samples
  • Methods to assess ground water vulnerability to contamination using bacteriophages
  • Mathematical models to predict survival and transport of microorganisms in soil-water samples
College: Affiliations
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Advisory Board Drinking Water Committee
  • National Research Council, Water Science & Technology Board
  • Editor, Applied & Environmental Microbiology
Articles: Profile:

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology (2011)
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (2007)
  • UCR Distinguished Teaching Professor (2006)
  • UCR Distinguished Teaching Award (2001-02)


Q: What are the goals of your research and how did you get interested in this field?
All of our research is directed towards reducing environmentally-transmitted disease, especially waterborne disease. The focus is on microorganisms that are transmitted from environmental media to people. Most of the microorganisms that we study are human viruses that are found in human waste and are therefore present in sewage. The research spans several areas, from studying the factors that control whether microorganisms move from the land surface to surface or ground water to the development of better methods for detecting these microorganisms. I became interested in this topic many years ago as an M.S. student while doing the literature review for my thesis. That led me to the lab where I earned my Ph.D. doing one of the first comprehensive studies on the factors that control how long viruses can survive in ground water.

Q: Why is your work important? How does it benefit society?
Worldwide, there are about 2 billion cases of diarrhea annually, and more than 1.5 million deaths from diarrhea in children. The majority of these cases are caused by fecal contamination of drinking water and food. By developing a greater understanding of the factors that control these microorganisms in the environment, and improved methods for the detection of the microorganisms that cause diarrhea, we hope to contribute to a decline in these alarming statistics.

Q: What are the big challenges researchers in your field are trying to answer?
A lot of work is being done on detection methodologies — new sensors are being developed that are field-deployable and extremely rapid. They are also looking for new methods to detect sources of fecal contamination in order to try to control those sources. There is also an increasing interest in zoonotic diseases — transmission of diseases from animals to humans, as we are seeing more of these cases in recent years.

Q: What doesn’t the public know or understand about this kind of research?
Most people in the U.S. don’t think of diarrhea as a problem, because relatively few people in developed countries die from diarrhea. What many people don’t realize is the burden that diarrhea places on society — even in a developed country like the U.S. There are millions of cases of food- waterborne disease in the US every year, but because we are generally sick for a few days, we don’t consider it a big problem. However, the costs due to lost time in school, lost time at work, doctor visits, etc. are huge.

Q: How do National Research Committee (NRC) reports and recommendations impact government policies?
The Water Science & Technology Board (WSTB) of the NRC provides independent, expert review of some of the most complex water-related issues, and provides that information to support science-based management decisions, which are essential to a balanced and secure national water future. Examples of some of the issues that have been the subject of WSTB reports include the Florida Everglades, the California Bay- Delta, and global change and extreme hydrology. The WSTB also provides on-going assessment of and advice to federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, regarding their water programs.

Q: Why should scientists get involved in public policy?
That’s an interesting question. As scientists, we generally tend to do our research because we find it interesting and important, and don’t necessarily worry about what happens after we publish it. When you get involved in public policy, you are putting yourself or your research “out there” where people who are probably not scientists will evaluate it in the context of the political, economic, and societal realities of the situation. It can be very uncomfortable to do this, because you are no longer in control of how your science is used.

Q: Is there a realm of public policy in which your research has been particularly influential? Please give us an example.
I can give a local example of what I have been talking about. Several years ago, a new reservoir (Diamond Valley Lake) was being built by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the issue of whether to allow body-contact recreation arose. I was asked to conduct a study and determine the risk to consumers of treated drinking water from that reservoir if body-contact recreation were allowed compared to that if the recreation were not allowed. I assembled a team, and we did a start-of-the-science study. The hardest part was handing the report over to the Board of Directors, who had to make the final decision — based not just on our report, but on an economic analysis, an engineering, report, etc. In our minds, the choice should have been very clear, but the reality was that this was just one piece of information in a very complex issue. It was a lesson that I have not forgotten, and one that I try to impart to my students.

Q: What does “Living the Promise” mean to you?
Every individual on this campus has the opportunity to take advantage of the amazing resources available at UCR — and use them to become the best person they can be.

Marylynn Yates “There are millions of cases of food and waterborne disease in the U.S. every year. Lost time in school, lost time at work, doctor visits and other costs are huge. We hope to contribute to a decline in these alarming statistics through research and policy recommendations.”

—Marylynn Yates