Plum Island Animal Disease Center Research Participation Program
Plum Island Animal Disease Center Research Participation Program

In Step with the Rhythm of Research

Fayna Diaz-San Segundo defies easy categorization. She's a researcher, a veterinarian (with a doctorate), a scuba diver, a world traveler and—every chance she gets—a serious Flamenco dancer.

Researcher and veterinarian dovetail nicely considering Diaz's career pursuits in animal-disease research. The other roles, however—especially dancer—sound more like getaways that provide a break from hours staring into a microscope, trying to limit the Foot-and-Mouth disease virus (FMDV) that causes lesions in livestock and threatens global agriculture.

Flamenco dancing is a release, to be sure. "It allows me to keep close to my culture and express myself without words—something that is very relieving when you are in a different-language country," said Diaz-San Segundo, a native of Spain. But to her, dancing isn't far removed from lab work. In the fluid movements, intricate rhythms and percussive footwork of Flamenco, she sees parallels to the fluidity, intricacy and repeated rhythms necessary for laboratory testing and analysis.

"I could not live without music and rhythm," she said. "Every day has a rhythm for me that can be expressed with a melody."

Diaz-San Segundo has also found her rhythm in research as a melodious member of the PIADC Research Participation Program at one of America's most unique research facilities—Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) off the northeastern tip of New York's Long Island. She began her assignment in April. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

The program "gives me the opportunity to work on one of the most important foreign animal diseases," she said, "understanding the pathogenesis of the FMD virus and its interaction with the immune system, understanding the mechanisms of proteins and cells of the innate immune system in controlling the virus."

After taking a ferry to Plum Island each morning, Diaz-San Segundo and her fellow researchers don laboratory clothing and enter the quarantined lab and animal area.

"My work involves cloning techniques, sequencing the genes produced and testing these materials in animals," she said. "We do not need to use animal models, because PIADC provides state-of-the-art animal facilities for performing experiments in large animals. Immunology and immunopathology are part of my daily work, as well as collaboration in molecular-biology projects."

Diaz-San Segundo's research aims to increase the potency of the FMDV vaccine and develop rapid methods of controlling the disease thereby curtailing the spread of the virus in the event of an outbreak, such as the one that struck England in 2001. Eventually, she hopes to return to Spain and continue conducting research while teaching.

Her teammates appreciate her multifaceted abilities. "Fayna has had a very positive impact on our research," said Marvin J. Grubman, a Plum Island lead scientist and Diaz-San Segundo's mentor in the program. "Because of her background as a veterinarian and a Ph.D., she has a unique ability to tackle the problems involved with addressing animal diseases.

"In particular, Fayna is a great microscopist who has tremendously enhanced our ability to examine the cellular locations of host and viral proteins," Grubman added. "This has enabled us to propose hypotheses and, most important, to test them."

From testing potential solutions in the lab, to testing new Flamenco steps on the dance floor, Diaz-San Segundo keeps this truth firmly in mind: Life is all about rhythm, melody and the intricate footwork needed to be in step with the things you're most passionate about.©

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Fayna Diaz-San Segundo