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

Researcher Seeks to Corral Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Serving on a team that’s focused on finding ways to control Foot-and-Mouth disease virus (FMDV)—a highly contagious virus that affects livestock and threatens agricultural productivity and trade—is more than a professional passion for scientist Sabena Uddowla.

It’s also intensely personal.

Although she has lived in the United States for most of her life, Uddowla’s family is originally from the South Asian nation of Bangladesh, which borders India and the Bay of Bengal and has one of the world’s highest population densities.

"Bangladesh has experienced foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in recent years, with significant economic losses," she said. "As I have always been interested in infectious diseases, I am very excited to have an opportunity to conduct research with practical applications."

The United States is free of FMDV, but the disease causes significant problems in other parts of the world, particularly developing, agriculture-dependent countries. "Knowledge gained from my studies may help to eradicate the disease, which in turn will improve the economy and quality-of-life in nations like Bangladesh," Uddowla said.

Uddowla is a visiting postdoctoral scientist in the PIADC Research Participation Program under the mentorship of Dr. Elizabeth Rieder 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.

Uddowla began her assignment in November 2008. 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).

Uddowla’s days begin with a ferry ride from the mainland to picturesque Plum Island, where teams of scientists and veterinarians conduct research designed to protect farm animals, farmers and ranchers; America’s farm economy and export markets; and the food supply.

Getting a handle on the foot-and-mouth disease virus is about as easy as, well, herding ornery cattle, Uddowla said. "There are seven distinct serotypes of FMDV and numerous strains within those serotypes that further complicate control and eradication. The current vaccine is somewhat effective, but it cannot distinguish between infected and vaccinated animals."

A "marker" vaccine that could tell the difference would be of great value—and that’s where Uddowla’s study of the virus comes in.

"I am interested in viral pathogenesis, immunology, diagnostics and vaccine development for bio-threat agents, and this program encompasses all of those research areas," said Uddowla, who earned her doctorate in microbiology and immunology from Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. "In addition, I wanted to work in Biosafety level 3 (BSL3) containment facilities so I could experience working with research projects that require special containment."

The boat that takes Uddowla to and from Plum Island crosses calmer waters than the ones that she saw on Aug. 29, 2005, when, during her third year of study at Tulane, Hurricane Katrina swept into New Orleans with devastating results.

"All of us in the Tulane scientific community suffered major losses, both personally and professionally," she recalls. "The interruption, loss of work and resources in the aftermath of the storm offered a different career perspective. I had the opportunity to work with my department (microbiology and immunology) as a team to help restore the laboratory infrastructures so we could restart our research programs. It was six months before I could begin working on my dissertation project. The experience taught me the important values of teamwork, perseverance, flexibility, hard work and the ability to start over."

Those qualities make Uddowla well-suited to her Plum Island assignment, said Luis Rodriguez, research leader at PIADC and a co-mentor to Uddowla. "We were very interested when we received Sabena’s application to the ORISE program, not only because of her background in immunology, but also because of her experience at Tulane, where she graduated despite significant post-Katrina challenges," he said. "Since joining our research group, she has shown great dedication and flexibility to successfully tackle various projects."

Dr. Rieder added, "Sabena not only has performed her work independently but has learned all new methods in a very short time. Her sincere attitude, together with her pleasant personality, makes her an excellent collaborator."

It is a collaboration, Uddowla hopes, that will help to protect America and might just make a world of difference in faraway lands—places like Bangladesh—that don’t seem so far away to her.©

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Sabena Uddowla