Cholera cookies, delicious or gross?

TCBS is a selective medium for Vibrio cholerae, but this cookie didn't make me sick!


Every December the Georgia Tech School of Biology has a holiday party with one of those never ending gift swaps.  Most of the presents are silly, and you never know if you are going to wind up taking home a ramen noodle cookbook or a puka shell necklace.  This year, every time I had a present I liked it was stolen and ulitmately I was left with the decision of whether to open the last unwrapped gift or make the game go on for another round.  I took the last gift, ending the game, and to my delight found it was filled with hilarious homemade science cookies!  Maria Nellessen, an Emory University biology major doing research in Dr. Brian Hammer’s lab at Georgia Tech made the cookies.  I recently asked her about herself and the cookies.  Read on to learn more about this budding microbiologist with a sweet tooth!

A beaker, an erlenmeyer flask and a test tube. All edible!


1) I understand that you go to Emory and are graduating this semester. What are you studying and what are you planning on doing after graduation?

Yes, I am a senior biology major at Emory.  I have spent this year in Brian’s lab at Tech doing research in order to write and defend a thesis, ultimately graduating from Emory with honors.  I was initially planning on pursing a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics immediately after graduation, however, I recently decided to act on my desire to obtain a medical education.  Part of the reason I found and fell in love with science is because of all its implications in medicine.  I truly want to make a contribution to the medical field using a strong scientific background.  Therefore, I am planning to enter a MD or a MD/PhD program in the fall of 2013.  In the meantime, I hope to find a job to keep me occupied (maybe I should add cookie making to my CV).

This cookie looks like an agarose DNA gel. Hope there's no ethidium bromide in there!


2) What inspired you to make decorated cookies depicting one of the most dangerous bacteria in the world, the causative agent of cholera? What about the other cookies? Could you describe the mice?

To promote eating cholerae. Okay, not really.  Actually, I was in a grant writing course at Emory with a mix of both science and humanities students, and we were asked to give a creative presentation based on the project we were working on.  Since not everyone in the class was a biologist, or scientist for that matter, I was reminded of my first time learning about microbiology in my intro course and I distinctly remembered the proud feeling that came along with doing a streak plate for isolation.  To this day, I get that same proud feeling when I come into the lab the next day to see my plates with isolated colonies (success…I’m a scientist!).  I really wanted to share that feeling with my classmates, but I was limited by the fact that I couldn’t allow them to work with bacteria.  So I thought I would teach them the streak plate method and let them enjoy “results” through a cookie.

I started getting practice making the streak plate cookies by making them for science related events (such as lab meetings and for my microbiology students).  I really didn’t want to go out and buy anything for the Christmas party (because I’m a poor college student), so I decided to make some science cookies, even branching out to new designs in efforts to brighten a fellow science nerd’s day.  Choosing to do a TCBS plate with Vibrio cholerae was easy because I work with V. cholerae in the lab and we use this green media (called TCBS) that causes V. cholerae to turn a bright yellow on the plate.  In a way, V. cholerae is actually quite pretty on the plate and I wanted to represent that in a cookie.  The other designs were just me thinking of other scientific designs I could do, as well as searching the internet for other ideas.  Sure enough, other people also make science cookies  I got a lot of inspiration from Not So Humble Pie (she makes streak plate cookies too!).  While I don’t research on mice, I thought they were cute, so I gave them a try.

Uh oh, looks like one of those mutations is lethal!


3) How did you make the cookies? Do you have any tips for the novice baker?

For the record, I do not in any way consider myself a baker.  I don’t even have the tools that most bakers have, which would actually make decorating these cookies a whole lot easier.  I’m not going to pretend I have a secret recipe (let’s be honest here…I’m in college!).  For the cookie, I just follow the roll-out cookie recipe on a sugar cookie mix (I prefer Krusteaz) and use a cup to cut out the circle shape. Since I only made a few of the other designs, I just cut them out with a knife.  Then I throw together a powder-sugar based frosting to decorate my cookies.  I know….no big secret, right?  Anyone can make and decorate cookies.  Each time I make them, I may modify something to perfect my “recipe,” but getting the signature cookie takes time and practice.  The good thing is that your mess-ups are usually still edible and delicious!

It must be hard to make a cookie flagellum.


4) Have you ever made any other strangely decorated cookies or do you have plans to?

My busy lifestyle rarely leaves time for me to bake for fun, but sometimes I’ll come across something (usually science-related) and think to myself “that’d be a cute cookie.”  I honestly have thought about perfecting recipes and publishing them along with information/instructions as I often do when I make my streak plate cookies for students.  When I made a batch of cookies for the Christmas party, I attempted to make a V. cholerae bacterium but it ultimately looked like some kind of squash.
I’m sure my future medical education will provide me with plenty of opportunities to make all sorts of weird (and probably disturbing to most people) cookies.  I’d love to try to create a complete skeleton, where each bone is a cookie.
Perfect technique!


– So, it turns out making weird cookies is not as hard as I thought.  Maybe I’ll make some T cell cookies this weekend!
Jennifer Leavey
I love to write about science, sing about science, teach about science and DO science! My favorite animal is Apis mellifera, favorite color is 440nm and favorite solvent is EtOH.