Heather Simmons, DVM, is the new director of the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases, IIAD, effective March 1.

Professional portrait of a white woman wearing a blue blazer. Photo is of Heather Simmons, DVM, who now leads the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases.
Heather Simmons, DVM, is the new director of the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo)

Simmons has served as associate director of the institute for the last four years. She has been with IIAD, part of Texas A&M AgriLife Research and a member of The Texas A&M University System, since it was founded in 2004.

She said the most exciting part of the new role will be solving real-world critical needs in animal health. For IIAD, this means both at home and around the world given its diverse partnerships.

“We’re really good about pulling the different networks together to solve multidisciplinary applications that are needed within animal health and have discussions around these topics for next-generation applications,” Simmons said of IIAD.

“I want to strengthen the capacity of bringing in research across the entire system, both in Texas A&M AgriLife Research and in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. And to continue our relationships on the national and international scale,” she said.

IIAD will continue its work in translational research and development. It will focus on emerging zoonotic and transboundary animal diseases in the livestock-human-wildlife interface.

“We will also continue to work with our international and U.S.-based stakeholders and industry leaders to develop operational tools that could be of importance to them related to infectious diseases,” she said.

Partnerships needed to address animal infectious disease challenges

IIAD partnerships span not only AgriLife Research and the Texas A&M System, but throughout the state, country and even globally. International partners include groups such as the European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease, EuFMD; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO; and the World Organisation for Animal Health, OIE.

Simmons, previously the associate department head and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service program leader for the AgriLife Extension Veterinary Medicine program, explained that wide-reaching partnerships are necessary to address the complex challenges of animal infectious diseases. Diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever and avian influenza can easily be transmitted across country borders.

“These diseases are of high-consequence and high-impact that could damage our U.S. industries economically. Some of them are zoonotic so they have public health implications as well,” she said. “Most of them are not here in the U.S., meaning we have naïve populations of animals. If they come into the U.S., they could cause severe economic damage, loss and trade issues, shutdowns of fairs, public health issues; everything that we’ve seen in terms of ripple effects into other sectors beyond agriculture, even with this pandemic.”

Simmons said COVID-19 has moved life into a virtual world. She also noted many of the tools developed for the setting are not widely accessible. “Some of them can cost quite a bit of money. When we are working with developing nations, the return-on-investments related to some of these technologies can be a challenge.”

Despite the challenges, however, Simmons is looking forward to where IIAD is going. This is especially true for building more research capacity and collaborative relationships within Texas A&M AgriLife entities and the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Our work advances both animal and human health when we deal with emerging or zoonotic diseases,” Simmons said.

“We fit within the One Health space from the standpoint of environmental issues, human issues, as well as livestock and wildlife issues. Texas A&M AgriLife has all of those components.”

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