Professors’ research on ball pits goes national

Faculty members at UNG strive to reach new heights and highlight the latest trends in research.

Dr. Dobroslawa Bialonska, assistant professor of environmental microbiology, and Dr. Mary Ellen Oesterle, former head of the physical therapy (PT) department, are being recognized nationally for their research on the bacteria found in ball pits.

The pair had discussed conducting the research ever since they met at a new faculty orientation session in 2015. They struck up a conversation about microbiology and Oesterle noted that, in her experience, children who were exposed to ball pits in PT seemed to develop infections.

“It’s good to remember that the balls can harbor potentially dangerous microorganisms, so hand washing after using them is probably a good idea,” Bialonska said. “Not many people realize that the ball pits are used in pediatric PT, where microbial accumulation may potentially cause more severe consequences.”

The duo received a Presidential Incentive Award in 2015, which is an award given by UNG President Dr. Bonita Jacobs in order to provide funding to faculty and staff members who are looking to pursue research opportunities. The award allowed them to purchase a system, called BIOLOG, to test and identify the bacteria on the balls.

Oesterle and Bialonska have used the research as a teaching opportunity, because their students have taken advantage of the BIOLOG system. The software provides valuable information on the strains of bacteria, which make them easier to identify.

“Students in my general microbiology lab actively participated in the project, helping in the identification of bacterial species,” Bialonska said. “The BIOLOG system has been used┬áby other research groups and my students working currently on different projects.”

With the help of students, the pair tested six different clinical ball pits in the community. They found the clinics typically go days or weeks without proper cleaning, which allows microorganisms to grow that are capable of transmission to patients.

The duo first published their results in April 2019 in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC). After publication, news outlets such as The Daily Mail, U.S. News and World Report, and HealthDay News reported on their findings.

“Information about our manuscript showed up more than 40 times in the news all around the U.S. and even abroad (U.K., Australia),” Bialonska said. “Research performed at UNG was mentioned on WebMD, ABC News, Fox News, Huffington Post, Metropolitan, and others.”

Bialonska and Oesterle know their findings hold significant weight, especially for families with children. The duo is looking toward future projects that will explore the link between kinesiology tape and skin bacteria.

“This project has already attracted significant attention. Our abstract was accepted for presentation at the prestigious Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) PT conference in February 2020,” Bialonska said. “I was also contacted by the Kinesio Taping Association, and they want to (include) the information about our project in their materials.”