Art and science are often considered opposites, but Beatriz Praena Garcia sees overlap.
“I think in this job you need to be very artistic,” Praena said. “I have a basic methodology to do the essays … then I read a little bit online. You can search in another paper and do some research to see how you can apply it to your work. You can be more creative, so it’s not always the same.”
The postdoctoral researcher studies influenza vaccines in the Henry Wan lab, tackling them from three angles. She works to improve vaccine effectiveness by growing it in different types of cell lines and eggs. She also works to improve mouse model systems for her lab and studies the influenza virus receptors.
Praena worked on antivirals for herpes before coming to Mizzou, and the switch to vaccines was a welcome change for her.
“I always wanted to study vaccines. . . there are a lot of antivirals already in the war against viruses. I want to give something [new] to the community,” Praena said.
Praena started in the lab right out of high school in a two-year technical training program where she worked in a biology lab.
“In high school, I was not a very good student, so when I finished high school I didn’t go to the university directly,” Praena said.
Once exposed to the lab, Praena knew that was where she wanted to be.
“I realized this is good for me. My score was very high in the class, and I said, ‘Oh, I will try to go to the university,’” Praena said.
Growing up in Spain, Garcia attended Autonomous University of Madrid for undergrad where she started research on herpes antivirals and its receptors. She stuck with that research for the next eight years, working in the same lab for her masters and Ph.D. studies.
Praena came to MU at the height of the pandemic in 2020. She had to gain a special visa, which she also worked on in the Wan lab during the pandemic. After accepting the position at MU, Praena remembers consulting a large map on her wall to find the landlocked state of Missouri.
“At the beginning it was complicated because when I accepted the position, I didn’t know where Columbia, Missouri was,” Praena said.
For Praena, finding passion for her work is vital to her success.
“You need to be a hard-worker, and you need to have a lot of resilience, because in academia you will never be rich, and you have to work a lot,” Praena said. “So, the first thing you need is to love your job [and] the science.”
Her hard work translates to outside of the lab where she competes in triathlons and bikes trails in Columbia.
“I like to take my bike to the trails. I like the Katy Trail, the MKT Trail and I went to the Ozarks,” Praena said.
Praena and her husband also camp and explore different states. Over winter break, Praena took advantage of having two weeks off and traveled to Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
Praena enjoys Columbia and traveling in the U.S., but she hopes to one day return to Spain and have her own lab. While in the Wan lab she works to improve her research skills and develops project ideas.
“You always have to ask ‘why’ and ‘how,’” Praena said.
Pigs may have a reputation for being lazy and dirty but to immunologist John Driver, they are the key to understanding influenza in humans.
“Pigs are a great animal to study influenza in because they are susceptible to getting the flu,” Driver said. “They are like a mixing vessel for influenza viruses.”
Swine have their own strains of influenza virus but can also contract strains from other species like birds and humans. When that happens, these different flu viruses can recombine and create new variants in the animal that can occasionally give rise to viruses that cause human pandemics.
Driver arrived at Bond LSC in mid-January as part of an initiative to create an influenza center in Columbia with Bond principal investigator Henry Wan. While Wan works on the molecular aspects of how new influenza viruses emerge, Driver’s work focuses on the host immune system.
“We’re really interested in understanding how to prevent the next pandemic and learn how to control influenza in livestock,” Driver said.
The researchers will study how influenza viruses move between animal species and recombine into new viruses inside different hosts.
Originally from South Africa, Driver received his undergraduate degree in Animal Science from the University of Pretoria. In 2000 he traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to work at Alltech Inc, an animal feed additive company, as an intern. Before coming to Mizzou, Driver was a faculty member in the Animal Science Department at the University of Florida for ten years.
Driver hasn’t always worked with pigs. Earlier in his career, he preferred a smaller test model, the mouse.
Once he left Kentucky, he moved north to work at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. The laboratory’s Mouse Genome Informatics database supplies information on mouse genetics and biology internationally. Here he discovered his love for immunology.
“I was totally immersed in mouse genetics and Type 1 autoimmune diabetes. It was a wonderful place to be for learning about all sorts of genetic models for various diseases,” Driver said.
Driver decided he wanted to dig deeper into his research and go beyond what a mouse model could offer him after six and a half years at the Jackson Laboratory. This landed him at the University of Florida studying pig models.
While studying influenza in mice and other small animals like ferrets is possible, Driver notes there are a lot of drawbacks compared to using pig models.
“A mouse can’t transmit the flu to another mouse and if a mouse does get the flu, it dies very easily,” he said. “Pigs transmit the flu just like we do. They cough, sneeze and get infections like humans. When we study a pig, we get a pretty good idea of what is going to happen in humans.”
Understanding viruses in pigs not only aids the swine industry but sheds light on developing vaccines and how to mitigate flu in humans as well. Mizzou is home to the National Swine Resource Center where researchers can create genetically edited pig models to study many diseases. This center is one factor that attracted Driver to MU.
“I came here to be more productive at what I do,” Driver said. “We have more animals to study [here], and we can make new models to ask more questions.”
Driver is excited to dive into the research and work with his students in the lab. His lab will look at how different cells in the pig immune system react during an influenza infection and build up resistance over time.
“I want to make real progress in understanding the host-pathogen interactions involved in influenza immunity,” he said. “I’m interested in studying rare types of immune cells and how they regulate disease resistance of the host.”
Being hands-on in the lab with his students is something Driver prioritizes. Even though his students are just starting with basic training he has enjoyed working with them.
“I like to be with my students in the trenches and running experiments with them,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to see students grow, mature, and learn things.”
Whether at his previous lab in Florida or his new home at Bond, Driver is looking forward to leading the next generation of scientists and innovators.
“It’s nice to know that they’re going to have very bright futures in science and be future leaders and I had a small contribution to play in getting them there.” Driver said.
Geese will soon fill the skies as they migrate south in V-formation as the weather gets colder and the leaves start changing color. For a month or so, migrating birds take over, crossing roads, sitting in parks and stopping to eat leftover seeds in farm fields or swim in ponds as they travel south for the winter.
What people may not realize is that some of these birds are carrying something harmful, yet invisible to the naked eye. That something is influenza A viruses that can transmit from birds to pigs and then to humans.
Henry Wan, influenza researcher in Bond Life Sciences Center, and his collaborators recently identified which influenza A viruses pose a risk for the pigs and are studying how the viruses transmit from pig to pig.
“We hope to identify risk which is very important,” Wan said. “I feel good about the study because we believe this would be the foundation for people be able to do the risk assessment on how the bird flu can go to pig and go to humans.”
By identifying which influenza A viruses are a risk for pigs, it helps to determine which viruses can ultimately be a risk for the human population, a more typical concern for the researcher’s usual work to improve influenza vaccines.
“It’s difficult to make a universal vaccine,” Wan said. “If I know which viruses are a risk then I can tell which ones to protect against.”
Influenza A can have a massive impact on people — causing outbreaks like the 1918 influenza pandemic — and more rapidly mutating genetically and antigenically, compared to other viruses. Understanding how it spreads is crucial in pandemic preparedness and creating vaccines.
Pigs, typically by direct contact or breathing in droplets in the air, contract an influenza A virus in the environment contaminated by birds migrating through the area. Some viruses go to the lungs, which means it cannot escape the pig and cannot be transmitted. Other viruses however, go to the upper respiratory tract of the pig where it can shed and transmit to other pigs, quickly infecting other pigs. How this happens on a molecular level is more of a mystery.
Wild birds serve as a reservoir for diverse viruses across many bird species. While not all of the viruses are a risk to pigs, Wan’s lab wanted to identify which ones are a risk to pigs and how it is transmitted to other pigs.
“Many viruses in nature are not likely to go to humans, only a small portion can. How you detect them is key,” Wan said.
Through analyzing characteristics, Wan found that cells and tissues that support influenza A viruses affect their transmission from birds to pigs. This phenotype — a set of characteristics resulting from the interaction of being with their environment — was determined by markers across the structures of genomes. For example, those in an RNA complex.
To do this, Wan collaborated with researchers from the National Wildlife Research Center and the National Veterinary Services Laboratory at the United States Department of Agriculture, Mississippi State, The Ohio State University, and The United States Department of Agriculture, among other labs. Wan’s lab initiated this study which led to collaborations across labs.
“Different people have different expertise. I really enjoy collaborations and different ideas,” Wan said.
Wan also found only a small portion of the virus can grow and adapt to different pigs and then transmit to other pigs. He then mapped the distribution of these risky viruses across multiple wild bird species.
Now that Wan and his team know how influenza A virus is transmitted into the pig, they are working on the next step, predicting a pig has a risky virus using artificial intelligence (AI).
“I think we have reached one stone and are ready to move to the next one,” Wan said, “Of course, everybody’s pretty excited.”
He plans on furthering his research of pandemic preparedness by looking at if the virus adapts to the pig and gains a receptor or an additional feature in order for it to easily transmit from pig to pig.
“That’s how this virus goes to endemic or even pandemic.”
With shelter in place orders being extended throughout the country and events being canceled, COVID-19 is a pressing issue, and influenza researchers at MU have been pivoting recently to begin studying the virus.
Henry Wan, an influenza researcher and Bond LSC principal investigator, is planning on expanding his work to start looking at COVID-19 along with a team of epidemiologists, anthropologists, engineers, and more at MU. While influenza and COVID-19 are not the same virus, both are infectious respiratory illnesses transmitted through similar ways.
Wan has spent years investigating the workings of influenza, so as the COVID-19 pandemic has played out he has been keeping an eye on its developments. He explained COVID-19 is “being incorporated into my study, in that human cohort, to study and monitor the disease that is going on here. We have established the diagnostic capacity in the lab for COVID-19 but I haven’t tested any samples yet,” he said as of March 18.
A few weeks ago, there was an online meeting of virus researchers at MU to discuss research efforts to combat COVID-19 and what their labs bring to the table. One idea they came up with is to have a cohort in Columbia, that would provide materials such as blood samples over time to track not only the spread of influenza and COVID-19, but vaccine and medication effectiveness. Jane McElroy, an epidemiologist in the MU school of medicine said, “Right now there’s the flu vaccine, so we want to get serum samples four times a year from community members, around vaccine times, and then a couple of times throughout the year to just see what their antibodies look like.”
“Once we have a COVID-19 vaccine, the participants in a cohort could help us by letting us see how their body’s immune functions are maintained with the vaccination,” she said.
This way, MU researchers would not only be getting information on influenza in Columbia but also COVID-19.
Lisa Sattenspiel, professor and chair of anthropology at MU, is also starting a project that is based on her research on the 1918 influenza epidemic. She is comparing the patterns from 1918 to what is going on with the current pandemic and looking at social, economic, and behavioral data to track the spread. “We’re starting this project now,” she said and a National Science Foundation grant proposal has recently been submitted for funding this idea.
Though a very serious and quick-moving situation, Wan and his collaborators are coming up with ideas to understand COVID-19. Not much is known yet about the virus, but they are doing their best to change that.
Wan cannot complete this research on his own. Along with students in his lab, he has already collaborated with more than 15 people throughout MU.
“I really enjoy collaboration, everyone is very passionate,” he said, “I think it is very important.”
Everyone brings a unique perspective and expertise to the team which leads to more breakthroughs.
McElroy has connections in the medical field that help Wan obtain samples from people who have influenza symptoms and, in the future, potentially people with COVID-19 symptoms as well. Working with her colleague, Dr. Shamita Misra, medical director of Mizzou Quick Care Clinics located in Columbia Hy-Vee stores, health care providers gather these samples from community members. Extending this work, McElroy has begun working with Dr. Christopher Sampson, a University of Missouri Health System emergency room physician, to identify and gather blood samples from patients with COVID-19.
By using samples from the community, Wan is able to track trends throughout Columbia and use that information to find ways to make the community healthier.
Another person Wan has collaborated with is Sattenspiel, who has been conducting influenza research for more than 25 years.
Sattenspiel tracks how influenza spreads throughout communities with computerized models of towns that simulate potential outbreaks. Having this knowledge gives Wan and his team a better idea of the rate influenza spreads and how to stop it.
Sattenspiel explained, “We are working on designing models that can deal with the entire life cycle of a virus and what goes on at the community level, how it gets transmitted within communities, how it gets transmitted within households, and what happens inside the human body. Ultimately, the goal is to look at different strategies for controlling it.”
With this model, she can test preventative strategies and see their effects.
“So things like vaccinations, if the vaccination works in a certain way, what’s its impact going to be, not only for the individual who was vaccinated but for the community in which they live?” Sattenspiel said.
Another preventative strategy they are looking at is social distancing, which has become relevant and especially effective recently with the COVID-19 pandemic. Through these collaborations, Wan is able to get a well-rounded view of influenza in order to create effective vaccines. He also hopes the addition of the new Next Gen Precision Medicine Institute will expand his research even further.
Wan’s Influenza Research
Arriving at Bond LSC last summer, Wan hit the ground running. He already has several grants and collaborators working on projects to improve the flu vaccine and figure out how influenza spreads in addition to his other work.
“We mainly focus on two aspects,” Wan said, “On one side I’ve been mainly focused on the influenza vaccine and the other aspect on influenza risk assessment.”
As a result, Wan’s lab looks at many factors such as, why the flu vaccine does not work, how to get a better flu vaccine, and which flu virus is more dangerous to humans, among others.
To test this, Wan gathers swab samples from people who have influenza much like how COVID-19 samples are collected.
“From the swab, we look at the virus whether it matches any flu vaccines,” he said. Wan and his graduate students and other senior lab members then look at this data and interpret it to come up with a solution.
Wan recently received a $3.65 million research project grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to determine if the number of vaccines a person has affects the number of times they will be infected with influenza. He said getting a flu vaccine results in “A lot of heterogeneity in our immune profile, affecting the vaccine.”
Wan and his team are curious if these vaccines build off each other and what the yearly effect of getting a flu shot is on the body. By understanding this, he will be able to come up with a way to improve the vaccination program, making it stronger.
In addition to this grant, Wan’s two other grants focus on predicting the influenza virus. Using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning technology, and sequencing techniques, he looks at how the virus mutates and escapes the immunity in human populations. With this information, scientists are informed on how to make an effective vaccine, especially with new strands of influenza.
Just because COVID-19 is currently the world’s main focus, does not mean it’s the only virus in town. People still get sick from influenza annually, so Wan and his collaborators plan to continue their research on the spread of influenza and improving vaccines.
“The resources are really focused on coronaviruses because of what’s happening right now, but influenza is not going to go away either,” said McElroy, “Lots of people also die from influenza every year so we know that it is also important.”
Karen Segovia wanted to work with animals the moment her childhood
dog fell sick. With few veterinarians near the rural town in Perú where she
grew up, she felt powerless to help, and that inspired her to eventually go to
But it was her preparation for her dissertation to meet the degree
requirements at San Marcos National University veterinary school that refined
Segovia’s focus on something smaller. Already interested in virology, her
research narrowed in viruses and avian flu. A connection with a colleague led
her to wild bird reservoirs to study samples for various avian viruses.
“I was going to the coast to sample wild bird feces on the beach
and then we isolated several viruses in the south from wild birds,” Segovia
Segovia’s career path has taken a turn since then toward research
with the realization that it has a bigger impact on the health of the animal population.
After becoming a veterinarian, she had the opportunity to continue her
education at the University of Georgia and continue doing research on avian
From there, she began a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Athens, Georgia. Most avian
influenza research is centralized in the United States in Athens, Georgia,
because of the states’ large poultry industry. With influenza research only
being conducted in a select number of places throughout the U.S., Segovia was
on the lookout for her next step.
“I was finishing my postdoc at the USDA and I was looking to
broaden my horizon to increase my knowledge and skills working with influenza
viruses” Segovia said. “Upon researching, I discovered that Dr. Wan was leading
projects that were analyzing several host factors that can help us understand
the mechanisms shaping the ecology of influenza viruses in different
populations by using new innovative techniques”
Now Segovia is a senior research associate and lab manager in
Henry Wan’s lab at Bond LSC. Her research focuses on detecting and
characterizing avian viruses directly from clinical samples by the use of a
For Segovia, she sees her research as not only a benefit to the
economy and public health but to a bigger picture.
“As a vet student, I went to poultry and swine farms often, you
can clearly see how many losses it has when there is a disease present,”
Segovia said. “It’s not just the economy, but people rely on livestock farms
for their jobs and income. Research on influenza has a very big impact.”
Segovia’s work studying influenza has also allowed her to give
back to her country.
“In the past, my country didn’t do much research, but last year I
got contacted by my university to participate in a grant application sponsored
by the World Bank,” Segovia said. “My home university received a grant and they
needed two new graduated Ph.D. researchers and I was one of them. My university
received a significant amount of money for three years and employed more people
to help with research.”
In the future, Segovia plans to continue to help her home country
with research efforts through collaborations and suggestions.
As for now, Segovia is focused on establishing herself here in
Bond LSC, learning new techniques and discovering more about avian influenza.