Meet Minnesota's pollen police

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2014 - 10:15 AM

Two investigators – working side by side, out of the limelight – search for clues to identify the offenders that attack unsuspecting sinuses.

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Pollen detectives Jenjira Skrei and Krista Sullivan of Clinical Research Institute.

Photo: Photos by GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Even before she left the scene, Krista Sullivan knew what the evidence would reveal. She spotted the offenders’ tracks, then rounded up the remains. It looked like an open and shut case.

Back at headquarters, she placed the proof on a slide, stained it with dye and studied it under a microscope.

Just as she suspected: Pollen. Everywhere.

After counting the number of grains on the slide, she plugged the total into a formula and reported a“very high level” pollen reading to the National Allergy Bureau.

Sullivan, 33, along with fellow allergy researcher Jenjira Skrei, 26, has been tasked with a special duty. As the only two certified pollen counters in the state, they track the amount and variety of pollen circulating in Minnesota’s air — posting their findings on websites used by allergy doctors and scientists.

The two women, the keepers of the state’s official pollen tally, are especially busy now that Minnesota is nose-deep in the spring allergy season.

While weather reports, websites and mobile apps provide allergy alerts, pollen counters like Sullivan and Skrei are a rare breed. They’ve undergone extensive training by the National Allergy Bureau, and have mastered the science of identifying the dizzying array of pollen grains as small as dust.

It’s tedious work, but Skrei and Sullivan relish it. For them, discovering what exactly is causing so much misery for the millions with seasonal allergies makes every day feel like a whodunit.

“It’s like we’re detectives,” Sullivan said.

The pair wear scrubs and sneakers and sit back-to-back in their shoebox of an office in downtown Minneapolis.

Self-described “science nerds,” they both hold bachelor’s degrees in biology and work for the Clinical Research Institute, the research arm of Allergy and Asthma Specialists, a clinic in the Twin Cities.

Sullivan and Skrei stepped up to take over the pollen counting duties a few years ago after two other researchers left. In doing so, they joined the little-known ranks of certified pollen counters in the United States — a loosely knit group that includes doctors, researchers and others keen on allergy science.

“It’s a very small group of people,” Skrei said.

She and Sullivan take turns counting grains — alternating days for the chore that typically takes an hour.

Springtime keeps them hopping, with tree pollen starting around April 1, followed by grass pollen season around Memorial Day. There’s a break in the action in July, but by the middle of August, ragweed season kicks into high gear.

After such a long and harsh winter, there was speculation that the polar vortex would usher in a sudden spring — causing all the trees to pollinate at once. But the local pollen police, and their boss Mary Anne Elder, say there’s no proof to support such dire predictions.

“Everyone subjectively feels like this is the worst pollen season,” said Elder, research manager at the Clinical Research Institute. “[But] your memory is influenced by the fact that we haven’t had tree pollen for a year. And we just came out of a really tough winter and everyone just wants it to be spring.”

When allergies hit, most people find relief in over-the-counter medicine to combat the constantly runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes. But knowing the day’s pollen count can help allergy sufferers to be more proactive. That’s where Sullivan and Skrei come in: They sniff out the culprits and alert patients before their sneezing starts.

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