As the federal government completes the construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, it is prioritizing training for the next generation of scientists to work in the region.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) developed a nationwide scientist training program in 2018 to build the necessary technical and subject matter expertise to support the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (FADDL). This program also serves as a talent pipeline for NBAF, which is currently being constructed adjacent to the Kansas State University campus.
The USDA APHIS NBAF Scientist Training Program is a graduate-student fellowship that allows students to conduct critical scientific activities for FADDL. Once the fellowship is complete, participants are committed to work for the government — at FADDL — initially at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York and, once open, at NBAF.
The symbiotic nature of the program benefits participating students, faculty and project stakeholders by advancing important research; opening new pathways in the public health, animal health and biosecurity sectors; and building participants’ resumes. With its expertise in animal health and biosecurity, K-State has produced many of the students chosen for the program. To date, a total of eight students have participated in the program, with at least one selected for each cohort.
“The NBAF Training Program Fellowship offers K-State students unique opportunities to enhance research skills and knowledge to prepare them for a successful career in foreign animal disease diagnostics,” said Beth Montelone, interim vice president for research. “Providing this training is critical in preparing the talent that will be necessary to staff the NBAF laboratories.”
Two K-State program fellows and their mentors recently discussed their experiences and the value of the program.
Detecting and preventing emerging and transboundary animal diseases is a passion Jerusha Matthews discovered as an undergraduate student in wildlife ecology at K-State. Matthews, who is currently a master’s student and 2019 cohort member, is studying CCHFV by using serodiagnostic assays, which is a blood diagnostic test to determine exposure to a natural virus infection. Basically, she is testing blood samples for antibodies to diagnose possible exposure to the virus and communicating those findings to inform control measures on a larger scale.
“I spent a lot of time in the K-State veterinary diagnostic laboratory,” Matthews said. “Being able to see actual illnesses started me down this path. I wanted to learn more — not just to make an animal feel better, but to combat these diseases.”
While pursuing a master’s degree in veterinary biomedical sciences, Matthews worked with Bonto Faburay, former research associate professor at K-State, who was developing a CCHFV research project.
“This is a very interesting area, not only looking at it from the point of view of animal health, but also protecting the public health from diseases,” Faburay said. “We don’t know much about this virus in livestock. That’s a gap in the research, so there’s an opportunity to safely study this pathogen at NBAF because we’ll have the infrastructure in place.”
As very little research has been done on CCHFV at biosafety level (BSL)-4 to date, it is a priority for future work at NBAF. Faburay now serves as the section head of Scientific Liaison Services (SLS) at USDA, as well as Matthews’ co-major professor and mentor in the Scientist Training Program. Together, they’re working to develop a program to better understand CCHFV.
“CCHFV is becoming increasingly important. It’s a zoonotic disease. It’s transmissible from livestock to humans. There is also human-to-human transmission,” Faburay said.
Matthews is looking at the risk of exposure to humans in an endemic setting. The project is being conducted in partnership with a lab in West Africa, where CCHFV has been detected in animals and humans. The international collaboration is key to providing inactivated samples for these initial studies at FADDL, which will inform the future work at NBAF with live CCHFV.
“The value of this project will be in understanding risk. What Jerusha is working on can be applied to the investigation of other livestock diseases,” Faburay said.
The scientist training program includes the research component as well as an employment commitment. After Matthews wraps up her graduate program and receives additional training at Plum Island, she’ll head back to Kansas to work at NBAF once it opens.
“The program provides a great deal of opportunity, particularly for students, to engage in science, while at the same time setting them on a career path,” Faburay said. “Because they have a mentor, they know what the expectations are and have motivation. Upon completion they are guaranteed a job working in the field where they started. It’s a great opportunity.”
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Matthews added. “Being here has given me tons of training opportunities and a variety of networking opportunities I don’t think I would have had. I’ve definitely learned more about CCHFV.”
Her experience also helped crystallize her career goals and the greater meaning behind that work.
“Essentially the work we’re doing is to improve both the agricultural and human health sectors. The focus is on how we can make the world better for animals and humans,” she said. “After graduating I will start working for SLS, and I’m very much looking forward to getting to help out with some of that work. I enjoy working on the epidemiology side and helping build public health measures — like engaging with agencies, helping control risk and developing measures for proper control.”
In March 2020, when the U.S. went on lockdown, Konner Cool, doctoral student and 2020 program fellow, was part of a research group working with K-State’s Juergen Richt, Regents and University distinguished professor at K-State’s department of diagnostic medicine pathobiology.
By April, the team had switched gears to focus their project on SARS-CoV-2, developing preclinical animal models for COVID-19 and developing and validating specific diagnostic test systems for SARS-CoV-2, and to evaluate susceptibility and transmission of the virus among livestock and companion animals.
“We were able to pull from the expertise of the group and start working with this emerging pathogen very quickly,” Cool said. “People are working in Richt’s lab seven days a week trying to fulfill that mission of protecting U.S. agriculture and public health.”
Cool traces his love of science back to high school, where he credits great teachers for sparking an interest in the field. The news of NBAF’s construction in Manhattan planted the seed that biodefense could be a possible career path.
“I’ve always had great science teachers that made me excited about the subject. I decided to pursue microbiology as an undergraduate degree,” he said. “I was able to work in a couple of different research labs at K-State, which opened my eyes to how research is done and enabled me to get hands-on experience in the lab.”
Cool also took advantage of science seminars, workshops and informal get-togethers.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for young people to get involved in the scientific community here in Manhattan,” he said.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Cool worked at K-State’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory, where he was introduced to diagnostics and pathobiology. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in veterinary biomedical sciences, before he started working with Richt, who is the director of the Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases and the Center on Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
Richt pointed out that this program helps students advance professionally before they even finish their training, improving their knowledge base, resiliency and ability to work in a team.
“In a very real way, they discover previously unknown things, and in so doing they become the experts in specific areas. This increases their confidence and their value within the scientific community,” Richt said. “The non-linear nature of the research they do provides a real-world lesson in the frustrations as well as the rewards of research. The result of it is hopefully a young, confident, resilient and experienced researcher who is prepared to tackle a multiplicity of scientific challenges throughout his or her professional career.”
Although the work has indeed been demanding, the program has provided Cool with numerous professional development opportunities to further build his knowledge and expertise, even during the pandemic. In addition to networking with other program fellows, Cool has participated in webinars featuring workforce development issues, NBAF stakeholders and updates, subject matter experts and more.
“It’s so important to develop these skills now, so I can apply them when I’m working on a broader range of topics at NBAF. I’ve always wanted to serve a greater purpose and I enjoy playing a role in protecting American agriculture and public health,” Cool said. “The program pays for my education, which is excellent, allowing me to work here and pursue really interesting research.”
Richt said students such as Cool have a great desire to learn, and that everyone involved benefits from such passion being on the team.
“One of the joys of working with younger researchers including Konner is the energy and desire to learn they tend to bring to their work. That's important because our research is demanding, time-intensive, sometime frustrating and cannot be undertaken half-heartedly,” Richt said. “In all of his research, Konner's passion to discover prompts him naturally to throw his full energy into the search for new knowledge.”
Learn more about the USDA APHIS NBAF Scientist Training Program through K-State. Applications are typically due in May for the following year.
Learn more about local advantages for companies in the biosecurity and animal health sectors.