When Research Reporter first described Karen Leonas work eight years ago (November 1992), the UGA textile science professor had a very specific focus: to design safer medical garments to protect hospital workers from contracting infectious disease.
But the very techniques she used in that research have pushed the frontiers in development of fabrics for all kinds of purposes from surgery to schools.
In particular, Leonas team including both a microbiologist and a lab equipment technician has revolutionized the use of laser scanning confocal microscopy, a method of analyzing how bacteria can penetrate the mesh of different fabrics. The technique uses tiny synthetic spheres roughly the same size and shape as Staphylococcus bacteria to trace the penetration through tiny spaces in the fabrics. Florescent green dye tags and super-powerful electron microscopes help technicians capture and photograph those movements in fine detail.
Usually people think of fabric as simply a flat, two-dimensional thing, but its actually three-dimensional; it contains void and nonvoid spaces, Leonas said. Weve been successful with this research, I think, because we see it that way.
Among the research findings:
The problem with polyethylene is that it becomes very uncomfortable, Leonas said. Theres no air flow; doctors dont want to sweat bullets while theyre trying to operate. So the doctors comfort will need to be addressed by the manufacturers.
I really enjoy what I do, she said. We feel that our job here is to help make the medical environment safer. The information we gather can be used by the manufacturers to better protect both the doctors and the patients.
Leonas work doesnt include garment design, but some of her students are working on this logical extension of her research. One of her graduate students, for example, has developed a composite finish for surgical gowns that incorporates anti-microbial and repellent fluorocarbon compounds.
As another outgrowth of her work with anti-microbial substances, her lab recently began a pilot project in an elementary school to measure the effectiveness of various brands of mold-inhibiting carpets. This research project was underwritten by a state-funded industry group concerned about keeping Georgias carpet industry competitive on the global market.
For previous story, access ../92f/surgery.html.