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EPI's Annual Research Day

Feb. 12, 2019: Hundreds of students, faculty and state employees gathered at U.F.'s Reitz Union to present posters and share ideas and interests on pathogens affecting plants, animals, humans, and food safety. Keynote speakers discussed trends in plant pathogens and challenges to reduce and eliminate neglected tropical diseases.

EPI's Annual Research Day

EPI’s annual Research Day drew hundreds of faculty, students, and employees from local and state health agencies to present and share ideas about emerging and re-emerging pathogens affecting people, animals, plants and food safety. The day started with an energized air as 158 posters were presented in the Reitz Union's Grand Ballroom.

"Our research day provides a unique, interdisciplinary opportunity for students and faculty from multiple UF Colleges, as well as collaborators at other institutions, to come together and talk about their research," said EPI Director Glenn Morris. "Overall, it’s a celebration of the excitement of research, and the ways in which knowledge builds on bringing together ideas from multiple investigators and multiple disciplines." 

If you missed the event and want to peruse the poster abstracts, click here.  If you missed the keynotes, read the summaries below, or watch a recorded video here.

Keynote Speakers: Emergent themes in pathogens research

Shortly after lunch, Dr. Morris (pictured above)  introduced the event’s keynote speakers: Dr. Michael Jeger, emeritus professor and senior research investigator at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College of London in the United Kingdom, and Dr. Maria Bottazi, associate dean and professor of molecular virology and microbiology at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University.

Dr. Jeger (pictured above) spoke about emerging risks in plant pathogens and centered his message on the question, “How predictable are some of these risks?" He offered a heavy focus on how the European Union deals with predicting, tracking, and responding to plant pathogens, and the implications of plant pathogens to human and animal health, and food safety.

In a world of limited funding and personnel resources, Dr. Jeger focused on questions of how researchers and policy-makers should best allocate time and money: to predicting new plant pathogens, or tracking and responding to known threats? While some plant pathogens may move through natural means to new places, he highlighted the outsized role that humans play in moving plant pathogens across long distances via global trade and travel. “It is hard to disentangle the spreading by natural means, and human mediated movement of pathogens,” he acknowledged.

Climate change will also shift the distribution and abundance of plant pathogens, and modeling can help predict some of those changes. But Dr. Jeger emphasized the limits to being able to predict the emergence of novel pathogens. Emergent plant pathogens can be introduced via natural or human-mediated means, but they can also emerge from endemic or previously unindentified, cryptic species -- or from genetic shifts.

Using the example of laurel wilt, which is affecting the Southeast and harming avocado production, Dr. Jeger illustrated how a genetic change can cause a microorganism, in this case a fungus, to jump hosts from the invasise ambrosia beetle to wreak havoc in plants. “How can you predict that a fungal symbiont of the ambrosia beetle will decide to become a plant pathogen?” He asked rhetorically, highlighting the theme of prediction limits.

Turning a focus to emerging pathogens affecting people, Dr. Bottazi -- a UF alumna (1995), pictured above -- spoke about the challenges of meeting global health needs for emerging and re-emerging pathogens with technological developments amidst changing social, political and biological currents planet wide. “Unfortunately, the populations we are trying to address are also poor,” Dr. Bottazi said. Cycles of instability, such as war, climate change and deforestation interfere with well-meaning global and regional targets for disease elimination. The resulting scenario, she said, is akin to “global health whack-a-mole.”

Using the example of a human hookworm, Dr. Bottazi painted a picture of the human suffering and economic loss that results from the long time lags inherent in developing and bringing to market a hookworm vaccine. Although it infects 470 million people per year, ranks first in terms of years lost to disability, causes anemia and malnutrition, reduces future wage earnings, and causes between $7.5 and $138 billion in economic losses annually – hookworm remains a neglected tropical disease. (By comparison, tuberculosis and dengue cause roughly $12 billion in losses annually.) Mass distribution of drugs to deworm patients has had little effect in reducing transmission, pointing to complimentary necessity of deworming campaigns followed by a vaccine campaign – if a vaccine were to exist.

But vast challenges exist for developing a product that ultimately may not make the developers much money because the need in impoverished populations is so vast. Overcoming the funding challenges to move from research and development to licensure remains the sticking point. But Dr. Bottazi imparted a hopeful message that interdisciplinary, multi-pronged solutions between researchers, universities, governments, philanthropists and businesses would find a solution.

Her parting message was to encourage the students and researchers present to “be transformational, not transactional.” She encouraged them to find role models to further their science careers, and to become role models themselves. It was an inspirational dispatch to close a day dedicated to showcasing and sharing interdisciplinary research, and cross-pollinating ideas across scientific boundaries to inspire student- and career-scientists alike.

Poster Presentations: Sharing sparks curiosity and fuels interdisciplinary investigations

Research Day is a chance for students, faculty and local or state health researchers to share ideas and interact with people from different disciplines. If this gets your brain cells firing, consider participating in 2020! Some scenes from February 7th:

The excitement was palpable throughout all 158 displayed posters. 

Every aisle offered a chance for learning and stepping outside of one's traditional area of research.

The three hour poster session took place in the Reitz Union.

Maha Ebadry, department of environmental and gloabl health, UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, and the Emerging Pathogens Institute.

Priscilla Sinclair, department of food science and human nutrition, UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Verlin Joseph, department of epidemiology, UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

The poster presentation session offers an excellent opportunity for students and faculty to share cross-disciplinary ideas.

Adam Grossman, department of microbiology and cell science, UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Scott Cohen, department of emergency medicine, UF College of Medicine.

Erica Schwartz, department of comparative, diagnostic and population medicine, UF College of Veterinary Medicine.

Creator credits

Photos by Fennzia Guerrier, written by DeLene Beeland for the Emerging Pathogens Institute.