Person of the Week
Elizabeth Rieder Fights Disease by Day, Supports Community at Night
Westbrook’s Elizabeth Rieder is a senior research scientist at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier)
Everybody knows about foot-in mouth-disease. Who hasn’t said something they immediately wish they could take back?
Westbrook resident Elizabeth Rieder is an expert is something that sounds similar but is completely different: Foot-and-mouth disease, a viral disease that infects cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, and even wild animals like deer and antelope. She is a senior research scientist at the United States government’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
Elizabeth is also an active member of Essex Rotary involved in the planning a new version of a popular Essex Rotary event: the annual shad bake. The event has long been a fixture on the local calendar but COVID-19 precautions meant the large gathering with attendees watching the shad cook on cedar planks would not be possible.
So the virtual shad bake was born. It will feature an online program of approximately two hours to be live streamed at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 5 on the site Essex Rotary has created for this year’s event. The recorded video will be available on YouTube after that.
“We are going to bring the spirit of the shad bake with interviews, demonstrations, all the traditions of a shad bake,” Elizabeth says.
The event, a fundraiser for the Essex Rotary Scholarship Fund, is a free to viewers. Money is being raised through offering sponsorship opportunities to local businesses and individuals on the event website essex.rotary7980gives.org.
Major sponsors who sign up before Friday, April 30 will have their names included on the banner advertising the shad bake that will hang over West Avenue at the entry ramp leading to Route 9.
Every year, Essex Rotary awards two applicants a $3,000 yearly scholarship for their four years of college. Last year, Rotary added a scholarship for a student attending a two-year vocational studies program.
This is a landmark year for the scholarship program: With the awarding of the current scholarships, Essex Rotary will have given more than $500,000 in scholarships since the program began in 1966.
“It’s really exciting that we will break $500,000,” says Essex Rotarian Frank Flores, who heads the program.
Elizabeth was a member of Rotary’s Interact club, a Rotary group for teenagers, in her native Argentina. Her father had also been a Rotarian. She earned both her undergraduate degree and her doctorate focused on biochemistry and genetics at the University of Buenos Aires.
She came to this country as a result of a presentation she made on her doctoral research in Buenos Aires. A British scientist, conducting a program review in Argentina at that time but actually working in the United States, heard her and arranged for her to get a post-doctoral fellowship at the Plum Island facility.
After her fellowship was over, Elizabeth worked at Stony Brook University in New York on the genetics of the virus that causes polio for five years before returning to Plum Island as principal investigator. She explains that the polio virus and the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease are related.
Current government plans call for the entire Plum Island operation to move a state-of-the-art laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas in 2023. Elizabeth has no firm plans, but says she may move at least for a few years. Her two daughters are now grown and live on their own.
Foot-and-mouth disease has been eradicated in the United States but remains a worldwide problem. Once the disease is discovered, all animals in a herd must be destroyed, not only the affected ones. That, Elizabeth points out, can impose serious hardship on the economy and the food supply of an entire region.
The disease is very contagious and rapidly transmissible. Moreover, the virus continually mutates, so developing new vaccines is necessary.
“There is always a need for preventive control. It is a problem like flu; we have to keep adjusting the vaccine,” Elizabeth explains.
Researchers are eager to develop strategies that can eliminate the disease worldwide.
“We are almost there but not quite,” she adds.
Elizabeth, who has long been an American citizen, spoke both her native Spanish and English to her daughters growing up. They are fluent in Spanish, but she says they spoke English to each other. The family traveled often to Argentina.
She herself learned English at school in Buenos Aires but says she was taught British English, and mostly to read literature, not to speak. When she came to this country, she took lessons in American English. People often guess she is European, perhaps Spanish or Italian.
“They never guess Argentina,” she says,
In fact, she says she is only Argentinian by a twist of fate. The ship carrying her grandparents from Germany was supposed to land in Brazil, but there was a disturbance in the harbor so they continued on to Argentina.
During the pandemic, when she has been working from home overseeing laboratory research, she has started a new hobby: painting. She is taking watercolor lessons with Katherine Clarkson in Essex.
“I always explore new things. I never had a chance to do this before. I was working all day,” she says.
Elizabeth hopes that both individuals and businesses sign up, choosing one of the support levels, as sponsors to help the Essex Rotary Scholarship Fund.
And she hopes that people enjoy watching the program Essex Rotary is creating to continue the shad bake in a new format. There is, however, one thing to remember: This is a virtual shad bake. For an actual taste of the fish, watchers will have to cook it themselves.
To sign up as a sponsor of the Essex Rotary Shad Bake to benefit the Scholarship Fund, or to watch the live stream of the event on June 5 at 4 p.m., visit essex.rotary7980gives.org.