Research focus: Using Whole Genome Sequencing/ bioinformatics to improve the characterization of pathogenic E. coli strains. In collaboration with a world-wide team, Nieves-Miranda sequenced E. coli strains to identify, annotate, and compare new O-antigen gene clusters (O-AGC) with the current designated O-AGCs. The research resulted in improved detection methods and facilitated epidemiological studies and outbreak investigations.
Why did you want to get involved in food safety?
As a minority and first-generation student, the decision of pursuing a college degree was intimidating. I first decided to pursue a degree in Biomedical Science although I was unaware of the many science branches I could pursue professionally. In Puerto Rico, I had my first microbiology research experience as an undergrad, where I analyzed the antimicrobial and pathogenic profile of fecal E. coli strains isolated from farms with different feeding practices.
Undergraduate research experience gave me a new perspective on the marvelous world of research and the options available to me in the scientific community. I was then introduced to the food science field by a USDA Research Experience for Undergraduates summer internship at Penn State. I had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Edward Dudley as my mentor.
I was introduced to whole genome sequencing, bioinformatics, and foodborne disease surveillance. This internship was the breaking point in my professional career where I decided that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in food science.
How do you like seeing the changes in food safety technology?
I appreciate how FSIS focuses on using science and data to implement advanced and innovative approaches for food safety. It has been proven that regulations based on scientific evidence are the best way to enhance and optimize food safety.
Explain in five words what you did.
Identify new O-AGCs in E.coli.
Could you explain your research a little?
I identify new O-antigen gene clusters in E. coli. A gene cluster is basically a DNA segment that produces the O-antigen. E. coli is serotyped based on O-antigen. We have E. coli 01 through 185-ish. I also analyze the antibiotic resistance that we see in those strains to see how dangerous they can be to both humans and animals.
The main goal is to update the nomenclature of E. coli. We know that there are new O antigens, but there's still no update in that nomenclature.
What stood out to you about having an FSIS mentor?
In the field, I was mentored by legal, regulatory, and research professionals who taught me the importance of regulating the food industry in our country. I learned how academia and government agencies differ in career development opportunities, responsibilities and scientific goals.
Working with FSIS mentors made this fellowship experience a more “personal” approach. Not only were our mentors there to help and guide our research, but they also demonstrated a genuine interest in our wellbeing and professional success. The FSIS mentors went above and beyond to educate us about all the work opportunities at FSIS after graduation and helped us grow our professional network.
For one of the first trips, we went to Georgia to visit a facility. For the first time as a student, I could see myself doing these type of things. For grad students, there isn't a lot of guidance about the outside world. At grad school, this is your research, and then you have to figure it out. It was good to see what else is out there: being at the facility, talking with everyone and seeing what they do.
Dr. Walls took care of all the arrangements for our trips. What impressed me the most was that she also took the time to offer personal advice, especially as a woman. She shared her experience of balancing motherhood, changing your last name and her thoughts on these matters. It was wonderful to have this personal mentorship from someone at FSIS.
Photo: Sharon Nieves-Miranda pictured on the right posed with other Fellows and Dr. Walls.
How did you network professionally inside and outside of FSIS?
Pretty much everyone went to the International Association for Food Protection conference. Dr. Walls made sure that we knew everybody she knew. At first it was intimidating, but by the third day, we were feeling confident and comfortable being around many important people.
We had plenty of opportunities to practice our elevator speeches over and over again. It’s something we often discuss among the fellows - how we can confidently deliver our elevator speeches now.
What was a typical day like for you?
I like starting my workdays by performing my experiments/research first and finishing up with data analysis and writing.
What's something you learned in school that you applied during the fellowship?
Time management has been my biggest asset in graduate school. Performing all your responsibilities as a Ph.D. student is mentally challenging. During this fellowship, not only was I conducting research, but I was also a teacher assistant, mentoring and working on my Ph.D. comprehensive exam.
What was a milestone that you're proud of in this program?
My biggest milestones during this fellowship were the improvement in my confidence, public speaking skills and professional networking. These improvements will continue to aid my professional career to become a better scientist with a growing appreciation of the impact of microbiology in the food safety field.