With Fellowship, a Dream Career in Infectious Disease Becomes Reality

NC State College of Veterinary Medicine student Amanda Kortum is the recipient of a government fellowship that launches her dream career path fighting the world’s most devastating infectious diseases.

Kortum joins just a handful of students across the country awarded a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Scientist Training Program fellowship from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

NBAF Scientist Training Program fellows receive financial support and mentorships that aids their completion of advanced degrees in fields such as molecular biology and virology. In turn, students commit to working at NBAF’s Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, with the required length of service dependent on the number of years the student received funding while in school.

The fellowship program, which launched in 2018, is designed to foster the next generation of scientists who hopefully commit to a career at the NBAF, now under construction in Manhattan, Kan.

The fellowship support is substantial. Annually for up to five years, there is a $50,000 stipend for Ph.D. or DVM/Ph.D. students ($35,000 for master’s students), $20,000 for materials and supplies, $5,000 for travel and $1,000 for research publication costs, as well as health benefits.

For Kortum, who has had a long-time goal of doing high-level government biosecurity research but wasn’t sure of a clear path to get there, the fellowship is life-changing.

“I immediately knew it was everything I wanted,” said Kortum. “I saw it and just thought, man, this is perfect. This is it.”

Kortum is in the CVM’s combined DVM/Ph.D. program, in which students alternate between veterinary school and a graduate research program over a stretch of time. When Kortum finishes her two doctorates, she will either report for duty at the federal government’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York or begin work at NBAF, projected to be fully operational in December 2022. Plum Island is set to close in 2013, with its entire operations transitioning over to NBAF.

Federal biodefense researchers focus on the pathogens capable of wreaking the most havoc on America’s agriculture industry and human health, including those responsible for foot and mouth disease, as well as virulent swine fevers and poultry diseases. According to the World Health Organization, 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are caused by zoonotic pathogens, which can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Kortum will eventually be a part of a team developing tools to diagnose foreign animal diseases, working on vaccines or responding to outbreaks.

“Whether you’re talking about working with human pathogens or animal pathogens, it has always been important to me to do something impactful, something big,” said Kortum. “I want to be one of the people who can make a real difference in this field.”

Kortum, who grew up in rural Montana where she spent a lot of time on her grandfather’s ranch, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Montana Western before arriving at the CVM in 2012. At the CVM, she has been a member of the Yoder Lab of Comparative Immunology led by Jeffrey Yoder, associate professor of innate immunology.

Though Kortum has not worked with infectious agents at the CVM, her research has long focused on the immune system and the mechanisms the drive immune cells to infection sites, critical knowledge needed to develop vaccines.

Kortum said Yoder, knowing of her drive toward a career in highly infectious disease, has encouraged her to take part in various related training experiences, including an animal disease summer research program and flying to Iowa to serve as an emergency responder in the aftermath an avian influenza outbreak.

“It is a very different path he took and his from the research in his lab. It could have been very easy for him to say, ‘Oh, that’s not what we do,’” said Kortum. “I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive mentor for the path I wanted to take.”

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine