Toxicology alumna battles against filoviruses for community health Meet Carol Diaz-Diaz

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From science fair to project officer of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s (BARDA) Antiviral and Antitoxin branch, Carol Diaz-Diaz, Ph.D., helps in the fight against COVID-19, Ebola, and smallpox. (Photo Credit: Carlos Coriano)

A healthy sense of curiosity can inspire one to great feats. Always being naturally curious, Carol Diaz-Diaz, Ph.D. in molecular and environmental toxicology, was interested in science as far back as sixth grade. She continued to practice the scientific method throughout several science fairs, and in ninth grade her hard work paid off. Diaz-Diaz, still only in middle school, won first place on a project titled “The study of fecal coliform contamination at the Tortuguero Lagoon,” which allowed her to present her project at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Detroit, Michigan.

After her win there she went full steam ahead. Diaz-Diaz went on to achieve her doctoral degree in 2017 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having always been impressed by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s (BARDA) efforts she joined Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) as a BARDA program participant after graduation, hoping to make a difference in the world of public health by making contributions as a   public servant.

The BARDA Research Participation Program is a fellowship hosted by an interagency agreement between Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Diaz-Diaz researched viral outbreaks with her mentors Dr. Chia-Wei Tsai, Ph.D. in cell biology and molecular genetics and Dr. David Boucher, Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology. She spoke at length about her role on the BARDA team.

“As an ORISE fellow at BARDA-CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Division), I supported two different groups: the Antiviral and Antitoxin Branch (AVAT) and the Nonclinical Division (NCD). Working with AVAT, I applied my biological and biomedical research knowledge to advance the development of medical countermeasures (drugs and biologics) including monoclonal antibodies and small molecules against filoviruses,” Diaz-Diaz explained.

As a fellow Diaz-Diaz also used her expertise to assist with viral outbreaks, specifically those of the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and later the 2019 COVID-19 pandemic. Her research greatly contributed to the U.S. government’s responses to these deadly illnesses, as she supplied data and reports to assist in the deployment of medical countermeasures.

In regards to the COVID-19 project, Diaz-Diaz stated: “In that role, I analyzed and summarized scientific data, coordinated forecasting activities, and developed periodic reports in response to requests for information. This helped improve BARDA’s effort to provide timely responses to stakeholder inquiries in support of the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In addition, Diaz-Diaz supported the development of therapeutics for the treatment of filovirus infections, such as Ebola.

After Diaz-Diaz’s fellowship with BARDA ended in 2020, she decided to continue her work with them. In April 2020, she began her career as a federal employee and moved up to a project officer of the Antiviral and Antitoxin branch, allowing her to pursue the curiosity and passion she had as a child. She continues to work hard towards viral countermeasures, such as therapeutics against smallpox and other filoviruses, all in the name of public health and serving her community.

Looking back at her fellowship, Diaz-Diaz believes she learned a great many skills and was particularly pleased with being able to surround herself with professionals who were passionate about their community.

Diaz-Diaz was recognized with a BARDA Appreciation of Service Certificate for her leadership during the Ebola outbreak. She received several more awards after transitioning from fellow to a federal employee. These included the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the Department of Health and Human Services Superior Contribution Award in 2020, and two Performance Awards between 2021 and 2022.

From science fairs and curious questions to becoming an accomplished scientist, Diaz-Diaz now encourages STEM students to always believe in themselves and their abilities. She would recommend ORISE programs to those searching for an internship to expand their skills and network.

“Networking and professional development are critical in STEM fields and in the overall success of your career. I would recommend ORISE to students; the program offers many opportunities to grow as a STEM professional in the government and to become a leader in the field.”

The BARDA Research Participation Program is funded by DHHS and is administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.