Prof. makes NKU her cave

Edward Morris/Photographer

On the third floor of the New Science Center are the offices of Northern Kentucky University’s biology professors. Tucked away in the corner of a narrow hallway is a very crowded office. The cherry oak desk is too big. The two, standard metal bookshelves are too big. There’s barely room for the two offices or chairs for guests. Cave maps cover the wall above the chairs. Other maps, rolled tightly and rubber-banded, squeeze into the few crevices available in the confined space. Even stuffed animals fight for room on the desk. The plush jellyfish sitting on bookshelf looks scared, almost as if the microbiology books will shove it onto the floor.

If it wasn’t for the sliver of a window that offers a view of a filled parking lot, this room could be deemed a closet.

None of it seems to bother the professor sitting behind the desk though. She points out that there’s a stalactite hanging from the ceiling (not to be confused with stalagmites that come from the ground because they ‘might’ grow up) above her.

‘It’s not real though,’ she quickly says. The skinny rock hanging straight above her head came from the set of The Matrix.

As an avid caver, Dr. Hazel Barton knows better than to touch any part of cave with bare hands. The oils in our hands alter the composition of the rock. Plus, with such a world of unknown organisms thriving in these dark and dank areas, Barton would rather study caves and the life thriving inside over harming them.

Cincy Magazine named the associate professor as one of the most interesting people in the tri-state this year for her leading research in microbiology. She could explain what microbiology is, but Barton would rather show it in her lab.

Only a hop, skip and a jump away from her office is the lab that NKU gave her back in 2003. Inside is a two-room space to grow and examine microbes from caves. In the first room she pulls out a stack of petri disks from a cabinet. Barton refers to as ‘glowers’ – an organism that pulls iron out of caves in order to live.

‘It has to learn how to juggle its metabolism,’ she says with excitement. ‘It can pull that energy and eat that rock, but it does it without killing itself.’

Among her twelve current collaborations, Barton works with a pharmaceutical company. Many doctors are skeptical if caves really hold medical miracles. However, Barton’s studies shown that some of the microbes she extracted from caves are antibiotics.

Over in the second room she’s working on another project, this one with bats. The white noise syndrome is wiping out the species. It may not sound like a big deal, but Barton said that bats can eat 600 insects a day and pollinate the earth. With a potential increase in disease-carrying insects and a decrease in crops, it basically spells out disaster for people. She wants to save bats because it saves people, but there’s also the fact that she just likes them.

‘They’re really inquisitive,’ Barton says as she toys with the charm on her necklace, a bat. ‘They’re so cute. They’re like little mice’hellip;They’ll check you out and look at you like, ‘what are you doing?”

As much as she loves bats and caves (tattooed on her left biceps is the South Dakota Wind Cave map-she says it possibly the home of the cleanest water on the planet), Barton explains that she didn’t always research organisms in caves. Blending work and play was a problem in her book. Caving, an activity she picked up in high school to overcome claustrophobia was strictly for fun.

‘I always thought that you shouldn’t mix your science with your hobby because I thought it diluted your science, but it turns out to be quite wrong,’ she said. ‘You can bring part of your personality and what interests you in your science’hellip; I can go into a cave and I can see things and I’ll know if it’s strange or unusual because I know what caves look like… It’s hard to be a cave microbiologist without truly understanding caves.’

It wasn’t until she moved to the United States from England to pursue a Ph.D in medical microbiology that Barton considered marrying the two. The University of Colorado graduate credits the renowned microbiologist and friend Norman Pace for that.

Since she’s been in cave microbiology, Barton has traveled the globe, one of her favorite parts of her profession. She’s been to all seven continents (Antarctica is teeming with microbes for her to study she said), five for business and two for pleasure. Last year she stayed in China for a month – a dirty but satisfying experience.

‘We [other scientists] were in a farmhouse. There was a pig in the toilet, there were chickens on the roof of the toilet and while you were peeing, you were peeing with a pig and chicken and you were pooping on the ground and that was one of the most personally rewarding things I’ve done in a long time,’ she laughs. ‘NKU allows me to do things that are not only recognized, but personally important to me.’

Barton is modest about her status, saying that she never dreamed of being or wanted to be famous. Even though she came from a family where she was the first to attend college, she went above and beyond what anyone imagined – she hasn’t let it go to her head. Barton recalls a time when she visited University of Cincinnati and another professor literally trapped her into a corner and felt the need to tell her how ‘fabulous’ he was.
‘While he thought I was fabulous – I needed to understand that he was much more fabulous,’ she shakes her head and pauses for a moment. ‘I never want to be that person.’

And she won’t. Barton seems content with life she has. She leans back in her chair, almost hitting the bookshelf behind her. Looking around the cramped quarters, she beams and says she can’t ask for more.

‘I’m where I want to be, doing what I want to do.’