Cody Lauritsen’s fascination with pathogens dates to his childhood.

Although back then, that fascination could be better classified as fear.

“When I was little, I was an extreme germaphobe – I would not touch anything in public,” Lauritsen said.

Now a doctoral student in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Konkel at Washington State University in the School of Molecular Biosciences, Lauritsen was recently awarded a prestigious National Bio and Agro-defense Facility Scientist Training Program fellowship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) to prepare him to work with some of the most dangerous infectious diseases at the state-of-the-art, $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-defense Facility currently under construction in Manhattan, Kansas.

Lauritsen is just one of four students nationwide to receive the fellowship this year. Since the program was established four years ago, 25 fellowships have been awarded. Lauritsen is the first WSU student to receive the honor.

“I just wanted to thank my advisor, Dr. Konkel, friends, and family, who helped me along the way to get this award,” Lauritsen said. “I would especially like to thank my mom for sacrificing so much for me to be where I am today.”

The program was created to identify highly qualified candidates to fill key roles at the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, which is being constructed to help protect the nation’s agriculture, farmers, and citizens against the threat and potential impact of serious animal diseases and replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.

Lauritsen and other recipients were selected for their interest and expertise in emerging animal diseases, diseases that infect both animals and people, and foreign animal diseases. He will receive tuition, a stipend, and money for supplies and travel. Once he completes the fellowship program and graduates with his doctorate in 2024, Lauritsen will head to Kansas and be among the first staff at the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility.

The new facility will be the first in the U.S. to provide Biosafety Level-4 laboratories capable of housing cattle and other large livestock. BSL-4 laboratories are used to study infectious agents or toxins that pose a high risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease for which no vaccine or therapy is available.

At WSU, Lauritsen studies infectious disease and the interaction between bacteria and the host cell. His research centers around campylobacter bacteria that causes an estimated 1.5 million illnesses annually in the United States.

“I just find pathogens all really fascinating,” he said. “These microscopic things can have such a massive impact in changing and shifting human society.”

Lauritsen grew up on a farm outside of Forest City, Iowa, and double majored in biology and public health at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, becoming the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

While Lauritsen has always been interested in science, growing up in the Midwest and rural Iowa he saw firsthand the distrust many have toward the field. He is hopeful that once he begins his tenure at the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility that his role will allow him to interact with the public to help change that narrative.

“My background gives me more insight into why some of our general society is scared and why they don’t understand,” he said. “You can have the best scientists in the world working on a vaccine, but if the public doesn’t understand it or is scared of it, you’ve just wasted all that time and money. It is important to have that kind of engagement with the public.”