Sara P. Villazan Perez-Girones joined INHS on Sept. 1, 2023, as a visiting scientific specialist. She completed an associate’s degree in pathology and gynecology in Sevilla, Spain, with internships in hospitals working on cytology, immunology, cancer diagnoses, and autopsies. Sara completed her undergraduate degree in biology with a concentration in molecular genetics at the Universidad de Córdoba, Spain, and a thesis on the genetic diversity of endangered Spanish sheep species. Sara attended a one-year internship at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, working on the genetic identification of ticks from yellow-necked mice. In 2021, Sara came to Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL, for a master's in biological sciences to work on tick-borne diseases in white-footed mice. Sara can be reached at email@example.com or can be found in room 2026 at the Forbes building or at the Pest Management Laboratory (The Kinney Lab) at INHS.
She recently answered a few questions about her work.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
INHS holds impressive multidisciplinary applied research programs with close interactions with multiple universities, reaching national and international priorities in conservation, disease, ecology, and several biological fields. I want to be a part of this experience. Therefore, I look forward to learning and engaging in the ecological and molecular epidemiological research efforts surrounding Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) while expanding work on microbiome and tick-borne diseases. I also look forward to meeting and connecting with scientists at INHS and on campus.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I do not remember a time when I was not interested in science. My parents still remind me of a time when I came back from school saying I wanted to be a zoologist because a friend and I found that word in the dictionary, and I wanted to work with animals. I did not become a zoologist, but I am sure the 11-year-old Sara would be excited to see what I am doing right now.
Who or what drew you to study wildlife diseases?
During my internship in Poland, I met a Fulbright professor studying DNA-based identification of tick species infesting yellow-necked mice and I worked on his projects. Two years later, I followed him and joined his team at Western Illinois University where I started my master's thesis on tick-borne diseases on white-footed mice. During that time, I became interested in diseases caused by pathogens that do not have DNA. These are prion diseases. CWD is the most infectious prion disease known to date, and its potential implications to ecosystem, animal, and human health drew my curiosity.
What questions are you asked most frequently about your career or the subject you study?
"Why don't we simply eradicate ticks?" This question can apply to any living organism but not to prion diseases. I emphasize that while ticks may not provide direct known benefits, they are integral to biodiversity and they may be telling us a story about climate change or ecosystem balance. Eradicating them without impacting other forms of life may be unrealistic; it's more prudent to focus on prevention and control, and such measures also apply to infections and transmissible diseases like CWD.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
During my career, relocating overseas to pursue my scientific journey has been challenging. The departure from home and embracing a second language and a new culture brings “highs and lows,” but each experience offers valuable life lessons and opportunities for growth. My persistence and desire for learning, as well as the support of family and friends, are pivotal during my journey.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
I wish more people understood that science is a collaborative and constantly evolving process. Science is not just about knowing facts, but also about questioning and seeking evidence to expand our current understanding of the world. It is a tool given to humankind to make a positive and significant difference in the world in which we live.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
Do not worry if you are uncertain about your research path. Stay open-minded, seek opportunities, and explore diverse fields. Unexpected experiences often lead to growth and remarkable discoveries that you would not have anticipated with a rigid plan.