The highest honor a junior faculty member can receive from UC Santa Barbara’s College of Letters and Science has been awarded to Carolina Arias, a virologist and assistant professor at the university. She offered the skills of her Arias Lab to the campus and county health officials in the early days of the pandemic, a time when medical professionals were hamstrung in dealing with the virus that causes COVID-19, unable to obtain sufficient testing and reagent, and blind to the mutations that were forming locally. This year’s Plous Award recognizes Arias’s transformative work in bringing the tools of her trade to bear on the epidemic at the UC Santa Barbara campus and county-wide.
Her research lab is in part a mentoring lab, Arias said, and holds PhD and master’s candidates, as well as undergraduate trainees in the delicate work involved in dealing with viral agents. She added the need for COVID-19 testing — in a clinical-grade setting — to the lab’s daily research into herpes and Zika viruses. For the latter, she’s interested to understand how they manipulate the host cell, hijacking the cell’s machinery to make proteins, Arias explained. Ultimately, she wants to identify the factors that are critical for the virus but that the host cell could live without. Such a breakthrough could combat diseases like the horrible epidemic of microcephaly that broke out in Latin and Central America a few years ago.
This important work continues amid the coronavirus tasks the lab continues to process — including sequencing variants in conjunction with Cottage Health and County Public Health — while Arias juggles her teaching schedule, mentoring in the lab, and raising her two little girls, home from school this past year because of the pandemic.
Of receiving the Plous Award, Arias said that it was the “recognition from the community which for me is most valuable. It’s nice to know that they appreciate what you’ve done.”
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