Biology professor takes virology lessons into virtual classroom

Science and Tech
April 13, 2020

by Alex Z. Salinas (B.A. ’11, M.A. ’19) 

In nearly three decades teaching at St. Mary’s University, Gary Ogden, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Sciences, remembered a touching moment that happened early in his professorship at St. Mary’s that brought him to tears. 

“A student slid a letter under my door addressing his upcoming graduation, and how he would’ve never graduated if I hadn’t allowed him to redeem a bad grade he’d received in my class,” Ogden said.

“It reminds you how fragile some students are — their situations — and how we as professors must always be mindful to work with them during a very important time in their lives.”

Ogden, who also serves as Associate Dean of the School of Science, Engineering and Technology, received his Ph.D. in Microbiology/Molecular Virology from the University of Kansas in 1983. 

In the midst of a global pandemic triggered by COVID-19, the virology expert has adjusted his now-online lesson plans to more deeply cover coronaviruses. Ogden is conducting class on Zoom now and said being able to still see his students “nod in agreement or laugh occasionally at a lame joke is rejuvenating.” 

Before coming to St. Mary’s, Ogden — the longest-tenured professor in the Department of Biological Sciences — made stops as a research scientist at Yale School of Medicine, Harvard School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

While at the NIH from 1987 to 1989, Ogden’s lab was “down the hall” from Tony Fauci’s — a top infectious diseases expert who’s now a household name as he delivers coronavirus updates to millions of Americans alongside the president. 

“Tony Fauci is an M.D. (medical doctor), involved in clinical research, and the NIH is where physicians go to learn how to do research,” Ogden said. “Dr. Fauci was very friendly, very respected by my colleagues. I sang Christmas carols with him once in Maryland.”

About the COVID-19, Ogden said that it is an envelope virus — meaning it is surrounded by a membrane that renders it unable to spread when people use hand soap or hand sanitizer.

“Wash your hands for 20 seconds with bar soap or liquid soap,” he recommended. 

And why 20 seconds and no longer? 

“You can wash your hands too much and lose some of the integrity of your skin, which can leave it open to other infections,” Ogden said.

Ogden said the main key to avoiding the spread of viruses is cutting off their food source — i.e., people. 

“Infections can increase exponentially, but only if the virus has sufficient food available. We are that food,” he said. “We have to limit the virus’ ability to find us.”

Though people worldwide anxiously await a vaccine for COVID-19, Ogden said “everyone could benefit from fresh air” at an appropriate distance from others.

Hector Garcia, senior Biology major, who has taken several courses with Ogden, said of the professor that he is “quite an interesting person” who is passionate about teaching microbiology.

“He is the definition of a role model who keeps an open mind,” Garcia said. “He’s taught me that when facing a scientific problem, look at the big picture. That’s how you can create multiple solutions to one problem.” 

Ted Macrini, Ph.D., Chair and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, said “we are fortunate to have Gary Ogden at St. Mary’s University.”

“He has received grants from the NIH and the National Science Foundation to support his research with our students,” Macrini said. “And he has published a significant number of papers from this work.”

Since the pandemic began, Macrini said, “at least a few students at St. Mary’s have mentioned a new interest in studying virology and public health.”

A native of Massachusetts, Ogden said he knew long ago that he’d end up teaching — and that St. Mary’s has been the perfect place for him since Day One. 

“It’s not hard to like our students here,” he said. “They have the values that we do, not least of which are working hard and treating people with respect.”

Back to top