Meet the faculty: Water runs deep for microbiologist from Russia

Meet the faculty: Water runs deep for microbiologist from Russia

I t was along the banks of the mighty Volga River—a waterway that flows through much of Russia to the Caspian Sea—where Dr. Andrei Barkovskii learned to swim as a toddler. His father, “with an attentive eye,” simply dropped his son off the boat to see if he would tread water. 

Dr. Andrei Barkovskii talks about biology and scuba diving.
Since then, Barkovskii and water have been in a love affair that has followed him from his childhood, growing up in the southwestern city of Saratov, Russia, to the red-clay shores of Lake Sinclair and science halls of Georgia College—where he enthralls students with tales of scuba diving, strange sea creatures and waterborne pathogens. 

“I believe the love for water runs in my veins, because the common land in Russia is very full of different types of waters, streams, rivers, bogs, swamps,” Barkovskii said. “I started swimming, basically, at the age I learned to walk. Then, I was snorkeling.”

“The most impressive memory is the majesty and power of the ocean itself. I learn from the ocean, and I bring that knowledge back, and I share this knowledge with my students,” he said.  

The most impressive memory is the majesty and power of the ocean itself. I learn from the ocean, and I bring that knowledge back, and I share this knowledge with my students.
– Dr. Andrei Barkovskii
This is why many of Barkovskii’s students stay in touch after graduation. In fact, some even follow Barkovskii’s example and become scuba divers too. 

It’s a pastime that makes them better scientists and Barkovskii a better professor of microbiology. 

Barkovskii came to Georgia College after getting his degrees at Saratov State University and the Council of Ministry of USSR in Russia. After years of research in Russia, he received a grant from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) to work in Lyon, France, before doing research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

He thought about returning to the cultural richness of Europe. But the South, with its warm waters and congenial ways, led him to Georgia College. 

Barkovskii at home and his wife, Marina.
Barkovskii at home and his wife, Marina.

And he must like it. He’s been here 19 years. 

“I have chosen America over Europe, because I felt the spirit of the country: Go, do and be happy,” Barkovskii said. “When I came to Georgia College for interview, I got charmed by the people, the place and the atmosphere. I happily refused other offers. I feel I am in the right place.”

Barkovskii teaches biology, general microbiology, environmental microbiology, environmental toxicology and his favorite, water pathogens, which he designed and taught for the first time last year. 

Now, he’s redeveloping his general microbiology course from scratch, so students can better understand the science and be prepared for changing trends in the future. It’s filled with data from recent studies on emerging pathogens that, in some cases, are spreading out-of-control. Bubonic Plague has returned, and bacteria like E. coli and Vibrio—a foodborne infection from eating undercooked seafood—are becoming more problematic.

The pathogens we considered dead or not so important—they are coming back. Things that were never anything but a small nuisance now are getting really hot. Viruses, as well as bacteria. It’s speeding up.
– Barkovskii
“The pathogens we considered dead or not so important—they are coming back,” Barkovskii said. “Things that were never anything but a small nuisance now are getting really hot. Viruses, as well as bacteria. It’s speeding up.”

“Antibiotics cannot outrace that. To develop new medicine,” he said, “it takes a lot of time, and pathogens are changing quicker than that.”

Much of Barkovskii’s research centers on aquatic environments, evaluating the influence of human activity and runoff from animal farm activity into creeks, rivers and estuaries. Coastal dredging also makes a huge impact on microbial communities and the rise of pathogens and antibiotic resistance in coastal waters. 

Barkovskii with former biology students Scott Johnson and Rachael Brinemann.
Barkovskii with former biology students Scott Johnson and Rachael Brinemann.
In the lab, Barkovskii and his students work on a variety of projects. One area of research showed local kaolin could be used for water sanitation. Currently, his students are measuring environmental health by identifying pathogens in oysters.
 
Environmental sustainability is important to Barkovskii. When scuba diving, he’s attentive to the health of coral reefs. They are a prime indicator and predictor of ecological vitality. 

It’s a different world beneath the sea—quiet and tranquil with a variety of fascinating sea organisms. He’s seen beautiful and deadly creatures, while floating weightlessly in the waters of Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico, Caribbean, Canada, California and Florida. 

He feels as though he’s “flying through water,” eavesdropping on a world of magnificence and mystery. 

Barkovskii's undersea world.
Barkovskii's undersea world.

“Wow. Gorgeous. That world exists,” Barkovskii said. “Let’s keep it. Let’s preserve it. We can’t afford to lose its beauty. It should be there for generations.”

It’s a feast of colors, shapes, behaviors. It’s just fantastic. When I dive, I feel dislodged from daily stresses. After a few weeks of diving, I feel completely recharged and completely fresh, brand new.
– Barkovskii
“It’s a feast of colors, shapes, behaviors. It’s just fantastic. When I dive,” he said, “I feel dislodged from daily stresses. After a few weeks of diving, I feel completely recharged and completely fresh, brand new.”

Diving comes up often in Barkovskii’s lectures. In environmental microbiology class, he shows pictures of healthy and not-so-healthy reefs. In toxicology class, he talks about venomous creatures he’s seen—like the yellow-lipped sea krait, a long black-and-white swimming snake, or the blue-ringed octopus with enough poison in one bite to kill 26 adults. 

He shows students pictures and video of these and other amazing creatures like box jellyfish, barracudas and Portuguese man-of-war and details their mechanism for transferring toxins. He tells stories about surfacing to unexpected storms and waves that seemed as tall as skyscrapers. Barkovskii’s been dwarfed by humongous whale sharks and seen thrasher sharks that kill prey with a whip of their tails. 

Some events can be “unpleasant,” he said, but they’re mostly wiped from memory. 

All that remains is the splendor.

A coconut octopus in the Philippines.
A coconut octopus in the Philippines.
“Scuba diving enriches my experience as an environmental microbiologist,” he said, “but diving isn’t all about science, of course. It’s about pleasure... With all the work I do, there should be a place where I’m not a professor but a human being with a lot to share—where I can be one-on-one with Mother Nature and all her beauty and simplicity.” 

Still, it’s a mystery to Barkovskii why some students learn to scuba dive after spending time with him. 

When asked, he shrugs. 

“I don’t know if they took after me or this is a coincidence,” Barkovskii said. “But, likely, I made some impact on them and either sparked their interest in diving or supported their desire to become a diver through my stories, through my pictures.”

Either way, this feels good. Now, I listen to their stories. We exchange stories. We became colleagues, not only professionally, but we become colleagues of diving.
– Barkovskii