Faces of FASEB

Taking an Atypical Path to EPA

Before joining the U.S. Army in 1988, Swinburne “Jason” Augustine worked as a journalist and police detective in his native Dominica. In 1983, he participated in Operation Urgent Fury (the invasion of Grenada), serving as a member of the Commonwealth of Dominica Police Force’s Special Services Unit (SSU) and the Caribbean’s Regional Security Force supporting U.S. troops. Six years later in 1989, he was a U.S. airborne combat medic in Operation Just Cause, which lead to the ouster of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. Months later, he deployed to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (the first Gulf War) that removed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army from Kuwait. 

These days, you’ll find Augustine in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he’s a microbiologist/immunologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Or, you may find him, in his spare time, jamming on his Jimi Hendrix Fender Stratocaster, gardening, judging high and middle school science fairs and mentoring minority researchers.

During his eight years in the military, Augustine says, a nursing-instructor staff sergeant introduced him to the molecular world.

“When we did our rotations at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, he would ask us to write our patient reports,” says Augustine, who is also an LPN. “We had to go to the molecular level, describe what the conditions were and how the medications worked. So I spent a lot of time in the medical library at Womack.”

Intrigued and inspired, he went on to enroll at Meharry Medical College, the oldest medical school for African Americans in the South.

Another mentor, Ann Fuqua, PhD, guided him toward a doctorate in biomedical sciences, rather than an MD, he says. (Fuqua, who passed away in 2016, was professor emeritus of biology at Trevecca Nazarene University, where Augustine earned his bachelor’s degree in biology/chemistry.)

Public service has been the constant thread that runs through Augustine's life. Given his careening careers, he earned his doctoral degree at 42 and joined the EPA in 2007 after completing his studies.  

In his voice, you can hear the rich lyricism of the islands. It is his love of nature and island life that lured him back to do research in the environmental and public health space.

“You notice how clear and blue the ocean water is in the Caribbean?” he asks. “The clarity says a lot about water quality. It is a sign that the water may not be heavily contaminated.” 

However, once wastewater is dumped into it, water quality is reduced sometimes resulting dire impacts on aquatic life and human health. Traditional beach studies involve testing the water for contaminants and surveying people recreating in the area to help determine their level of exposure. However, he says, local beachgoers typically don’t present with diarrhea and vomiting after swimming in contaminated waters.  

“The way they did the studies was actually wrong because if you needed to find symptoms, you would have had to, say, take people from Ohio and bring them there and let them recreate there because they would not have been protected immunologically,” he says.

Makes sense. As travel advisories say: Don’t drink the water in Mexico if you’re a tourist, even though the locals can handle it.

Accordingly, his idea was rather than using water sampling and epidemiological studies to estimate occurrence, we could directly assess exposure by examining biomarkers of exposure from human samples. Serving as the sole immunologist on staff, he and his team enhanced existing protocols to develop a saliva-based rapid test to examine antibodies in the human samples against pathogens of interest. Because the test was new and there were no existing approaches on optimizing the experiments or criteria for analyzing the samples, his team worked tirelessly to fill in these critical knowledge gaps.  

It took many years to get consensus within the interdisciplinary team on key aspects of the assay.  But it wasn’t until researchers at a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Water Microbiology Conference stood up for his work that Augustine finally got noticed and his efforts were validated. Among those who did, he says, was Chuck “Dr. Germ” Gerba, the noted University of Arizona environmental microbiologist.

“Let's say I were a white, young guy who came from Harvard,” Augustine says. “Right from the beginning, they would have believed me and trusted my expertise. It would not have taken nearly a decade to really get buy-in from my colleagues and traction for our work.”  The contributions of his efforts are clear as even from the publication of the first papers from his team, there has been a marked uptick in scientific advancements in this area. Last February, the American Association of Immunologists included him in its newsletter to honor his 2020 Caribbean American Heritage Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Health.

Augustine is also a wholehearted mentor.

“Mentorship, to me, especially in the scientific world, in any world, is integral to one's success,” he says, adding that he has helped to guide many young scientists who have gone on to medical school, research careers, and university faculty positions. As one of the few black principal investigators, he knows his presence and achievement are critically important for opening doors to scientists coming behind him.  

As he says in an EPA snapshot, “Scientific inquiry may not be glamorous. The work is usually hard and painstakingly meticulous, but the rewards are enormous. In no other profession can one make a global impact as in science.”

And as he tells FASEB, through all of his challenges as a minority researcher, a scientist, and his diverse and colorful adventures, “It's been a good ride.”

Swinburne “Jason” Augustine is a member of the American Association of Immunologists, a FASEB member society.