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

Pisano’s Passion Advances Critical FMDV Research at Plum Island

Melia Pisano has always loved animals. She got jazzed about molecular biology early in her academic studies. And she counts among her heroes the scientist who was instrumental in mapping the human genome and applying genetic-diversity studies to practical, real-world solutions.

Couple those passions with a strong desire to see infectious diseases curtailed throughout the globe, and it’s no wonder Pisano has landed in her chosen field as a scientific researcher.

"It seemed natural for me to become involved in animal research that investigated the molecular basis of disease," Pisano said.

Pisano recently completed a four-year fellowship doing just that 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. The program she took part in is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

At Plum Island—a remote facility that requires researchers to ride a ferry to and from work each day, and to wash thoroughly before and after entering the quarantined lab areas—Pisano provided scientific support within the center’s Targeted Advance Development (TAD) group.

Her assignment focused on developing sub-unit vaccines and anti-viral reagents aimed at curbing the infectious and potent Foot-and-Mouth disease virus (FMDV).

The TAD group is involved at the front end of vaccine development, conducting cattle-animal studies during early-development phase testing of novel vaccines and anti-virals. The idea is to determine the efficiency of next-generation vaccines in the battle against FMDV.

"Globally, infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death in humans, and they are the third-leading cause of death in the United States," Pisano noted. "Recommendations for avoiding and/or treating infectious diseases become possible when new techniques, developed through basic research, are applied to the problem of disease emergence."

Her responsibilities at Plum Island have included sample processing and inventory of animal specimens, cell culture propagation and maintenance, virus isolation, serological analysis, and media and reagent preparation.

Pisano was first appointed to the facility in 2005 as a graduate-student researcher. While in the program, she also completed her master’s in cellular and molecular biology at the University of New Haven (Conn.) and then continued on as a post-master’s participant at Plum Island.

Dr. John Neilan, chief of TAD at Plum Island and Pisano’s mentor there, lauded the researcher’s ability to focus on vital research and continue her studies.

"As an ORISE fellow for the past four years, Melia made a major contribution to the DHS S&T science and technology] foreign-animal-disease countermeasure R&D [research and development] program, while also advancing her educational career," Neilan said. "She joined our team as a bachelor’s scientist and successfully completed a master’s during her tenure. Melia was an exceptional team player and provided valuable new data for our Agrodefense program."

Although Pisano has completed her fellowship, she remains at Plum Island in a contract position, providing further scientific support within the TAD group.

Away from the lab, Pisano’s pursuits include fine art and photography—passions that she hopes can mingle with her interest in the wonder of the biological world. "I have entertained the idea of blending science and art in a creative, viable means of expression," she said. "The prospect of illustrating what is observed in the natural world could be a tangible and rewarding."

In her scientific career, Pisano hopes to become "recognized as an expert in the field as evidenced by a solid publication record and a clear connectivity to the academic-research community."

For now, she is putting her passions into practice at Plum Island—and advancing crucial research in the fight to curb one of society’s most serious disease threats.©

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Melia Pisano