Grayson Walker is the second student in the past two years from the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine to be awarded the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) Scientist Training Program fellowship from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Only a few recipients nationwide are selected for the honor every year.
NBAF Scientist Training Program fellows receive financial support and mentorships that advance completion of advanced degrees in fields such as molecular biology and virology.
In return, students commit to working at NBAF’s Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory after graduation, with the required length of service based on the number of years the student received funding while in school (Grayson is due to pledge six years of work at the NBAF laboratory). Walker says he is on track to complete his Ph.D. in 2022 and his DVM in 2024.
“It’s a great opportunity to get my dream job,” he says.
The fellowship program, which began in 2018, helps develop the next generation of scientists who it is hoped will commit to a career at the NBAF, now under construction and nearing completion in Manhattan, Kan.
The fellowship support is quite generous. Annually for up to five years, it covers tuition and fees, a stipend, health benefits, materials and supplies, travel, and publication costs. In 2019, Amanda Kortum received an NBAF fellowship. Walker has long dreamed of a career involving both infectious disease research and public service, and the fellowship program ticks all the boxes on his wish list.
Meet Grayson Walker
Growing up in small, unincorporated Collettsville, N.C., not far from Lenoir and Hickory, Walker says that growing up he was exposed to the furniture industry much more than agriculture. Nevertheless, he found himself drawn to animal science from an early age. It was natural that as he matured, he focused on NC State as a place where the curriculum would match his interests.
“I was always interested in being a veterinarian, but while I was in CALS I really got interested in research,” Walker says. “I took a course in nutritional physiology from John Brake, who was a professor of poultry science. He really let me branch out and let me study salmonella. I loved it, and I stayed to get a master’s in poultry science.”
Walker finds NC State to be the ideal spot for pursuing his goals. “I’ve always taken being at a land grant university seriously,” he says. “NC State’s ties to the economy and the protection of the food supply come naturally. I think training here is the best preparation for a career in public service.”
While working on the master’s he took a course in agri-security that sparked his interest in defending the public health aspects of the food supply, particularly from zoonotic diseases — illnesses that originate among animals and are transmitted to humans.
“The current pandemic puts the importance of these infectious diseases into perspective,” he says.
From there, Walker’s interest in veterinary medicine and his newfound love of research began to dovetail.
“I wanted to know more about the host-pathogen relationship, and I knew that the vet school had a combined program where you could get both a DVM and a Ph.D. in research,” says Walker. In 2019, he enrolled in the program.
Walker is someone with a knack for finding the perfect fit.
“I’m a little different in being interested in government service,” he says. Among the options he has considered are serving the military’s veterinary service and — you guessed it — working for the USDA.
With the assistance of his mentor, Luke Borst, associate professor of veterinary anatomic pathology, and support from other key members of the CVM faculty, Walker applied for the NBAF fellowship, and now he finds himself on the path to the career in zoonotic infectious disease research of his dreams. He also credits Kortum with being a mentor prior to his application for the USDA fellowship.
Walker says that when he first became aware of the new USDA-NBAF laboratory opening, something clicked for him.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to work there one day,’” he says.
~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine