Long before SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, came onto the world’s stage, scientists from all around the globe have been conducting fundamental research and developing new vaccines and interventions to combat emerging viruses and bacterial pathogens. 

The race to understand, treat, and prevent infectious diseases is playing out in real time as we are experiencing the global pandemic of COVID-19. Bacteria are growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics, blight is placing a strain on agriculture, and the habitable range of disease vectors is expanding as global temperatures rise.

This fall, leading international experts in the area of infectious disease will be sharing their most recent findings at the Distinguished Speaker Seminar Series in Infectious Diseases. 

The series, hosted by the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens (CeZAP), an arm of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, invites outstanding scientists from around the nation to give presentations about their research interests, which range from salmonella in wild birds to antibiotic resistance, and from coronavirus pathogenesis to insect-transmitted emerging plant diseases.

"In keeping with the land-grant mission of Virginia Tech, the center has several overarching objectives that include translating basic and mechanistic research in infectious diseases into tangible results, such as vaccines, antimicrobial drugs, intelligent infrastructure, and diagnostics that benefit the global society. The seminar series will bring leading infectious disease researchers to inform and exchange ideas with our research community,” said X.J. Meng, the founding director of the Center and University Distinguished Professor of Virology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Coordinated by Nisha Duggal, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and Jonathan Auguste, an assistant professor of arbovirology in the Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the virtual seminar series is an opportunity for Virginia Tech’s infectious disease community to come together and learn from the best.

“I am very excited for the opportunity for all of the CeZAP faculty and CeZAP-affiliated students to have the ability to interact with these global leaders in their respective fields,” said Auguste, who is an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “We are very thankful for the CeZAP community for these nominations and for the willingness of the presenters to participate in the seminar series.”

One of those world-renowned researchers is Scott Weaver, the director of the Institute for Human Infections & Immunity and the John Sealy Distinguished University Chair in Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch. A world-renowned researcher in arbovirology, Weaver studies arthropod-borne virus ecology and transmission. His lab is also developing vaccines to control the diseases that they cause, such as chikungunya virus and Zika virus, the latter of which is now associated with birth defects and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Carrie Harwood, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Gerald and Lyn Gristein Professor of Microbiology at the University of Washington, will be speaking on bacterial longevity. Her laboratory group hopes to improve our understanding of bacterial lifetime and persistence through the examination of Rhodopseudomonas palustris, a photosynthetic bacterium that may be able to convert raw plant material compounds into hydrogen gas or other biofuels.

James Van Etten, another member of the National Academy of Sciences and the William Allington Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska, will also be presenting. Van Etten is a pioneer in the study of large double stranded DNA viruses, which he coined as "Giant Virus." Using genomics, structural biology, and classic virology, the lab hopes to better understand these giant viruses, which have the ability to infect unicellular eukaryotic organisms like green algae.

Each spring, nominations for the seminar series for the following academic year will be solicited from CeZAP affiliated faculty. A total of 50 nominations were submitted for the upcoming seminar series. The 2021 fall seminar speakers will include:

  • Kishana Taylor, a postdoctoral research associate at Rutgers University and the co-founder and president of the Black Microbiologists Association, is focusing on the role of monocytes and macrophages in SARS-CoV2 infection and subsequent development of COVID-19. 
  • Gerry Wright, a Distinguished University Professor at McMaster University and the Michael G. DeGroote Chair in Infection and Anti-Infective Research, is using fundamental and applied research to address antibiotic resistance.
  • Kim Orth, the W.W. Caruth Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research and the Earl A. Forsythe Chair in Biomedical Science at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is studying bacterial secretion systems and bacterial effectors to understand how signaling systems in eukaryotic hosts can be affected by bacterial pathogens.
  • Paul D. Roepe, the co-director of Georgetown University’s Center for Infectious Disease, and his lab are elucidating the mechanisms of resistance to cytotoxic drugs to design, synthesize, and test new drugs.
  • Rodrigo Almedia, the UC Berkeley Hildebrand-Laumeister Chair in Plant Pathology, is studying the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa to better understand the ecology of emerging diseases, pathogen transmission biology, and insect-microbe interactions.
  • Sonia Hernandez, a professor of wildlife disease and wildlife at the University of Georgia, explores how pathogens affect wildlife populations, communities, and ecosystems from an applied perspective.
  • Shawn Chen, a professor at the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines, and Virotherapy at Arizona State University, specializes in the development of novel human therapeutics and vaccines in plants to combat infectious diseases, cancer, and biological warfare agents. 
  • Juergen Richt, a Regents Distinguished Professor of Diagnostic Medicine Pathobiology at Kansas State University, investigates zoonotic, emerging, and transboundary diseases of livestock.
  • Latania Logan, the chief of the Section of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Pediatrics at the Rush University Hospital, studies the clinical and molecular epidemiology of multidrug-resistant enterobacteriaceae infections in children.

The seminars not only connect students and professors with prominent researchers in the area, but they also provide an opportunity for the CeZAP community to get to know one another.

“Last year, our seminar series was focused on internal speakers, which was awesome, because we got to know what kind of infectious disease research is happening here at Virginia Tech,” said Duggal, who is also an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Some of us are still meeting each other and it is a good way for us to keep engaging and collaborating with one another.”

Auguste believes that these seminars are important for community education, and that they may help us be better prepared for future pandemics or other public health crises, as well as the misinformation that comes with them.

“Given the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic, any efforts to educate the community, whether it's the university community or the infectious disease community, are going to help improve our public health in the future,” said Auguste. “In light of all of the misinformation that there is out there in regard to infectious disease, it is important that we have these leaders in their fields here so people can ask them questions directly.”

The Distinguished Speaker Seminar series will also be offered as a one-credit course through the Virginia Tech Graduate School, to the Infectious Disease Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program students as well as to any other interested graduate students at Virginia Tech. The class, which is called GRAD-5984: Interdisciplinary Seminar, will require students to attend the seminars in the series.

Aside from one presentation, all of the Distinguished Speaker Seminars will be hosted on Zoom. You can join the seminar each week by clicking this link.

For an up-to-date schedule, visit: https://infectiousdisease.fralinlifesci.vt.edu/Education.html.

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