Poison Ivy, A ‘Familiar Stranger’ That Could Ruin Your Summer

It was a close encounter in 2012 that made microbiologist John Jelesko take an interest in poison ivy.

The Virginia Tech associate professor was cutting up a downed tree with an electric chainsaw. What he didn’t realize was that his power cable had been dragging through poison ivy. So, at the end of the day, as he coiled the cord around his palm and elbow, he inadvertently launched a career-bending science experiment.

“Within 48 hours, I had your classic case of poison ivy on my arm. And as a scientist, I said, ‘This is interesting, how bad can it be? I’ll just leave this untreated,’” he recalled, sheepishly. “In about two weeks, I had learned just how uncomfortable poison ivy rash could be.”

Uncomfortable sounds like an understatement. Jelesko said he barely slept while fighting the urge to “claw my itching flesh off.” Eventually, he went to his family doctor, who prescribed oral steroids.

The experience sparked years of research into a plant he calls a “familiar stranger.” He has studied the chemical, urushiol, that triggers that telltale rash and the plant’s biology overall.

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