Alumna trades dance floor for farm fields

Carin Luna is on the frontlines of disease outbreaks but not of the human variety.

Carin in the field

She is part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s primary response team that is prepared to go anywhere at any time in case there is an outbreak on foreign diseases that may threaten the agricultural commodities and the food chain.

Trained to take samples through swabs, blood work and biopsies of these agricultural commodities, Luna is protecting animals such as cattle, horses, chickens, turkeys and goats.

“We get to work with so many species and learn different techniques,” Luna said. “It really makes the job interesting.”

No two days are alike. For weeks, she may be stationed in Iowa controlling an outbreak of a highly pathogenic avian influenza. Another day she may be collecting samples at a local facility.

Super Bowl half time show

It’s a completely different life for Luna, who at one time was a professional dancer for the Miami Marlins and Miami Heat and even had the chance to perform alongside Shakira in this year’s Super Bowl halftime show. The dancer turned scientist is now focused on the health and wellbeing of agricultural animals.

In 2015, she was actually doing both jobs.

“The basis of the two employments being so different really helped,” Luna said. “With USDA I mostly functioned during the day, and with the Heat I functioned mostly at night and on weekends.”

It got tricky, however when she was called for an emergency outbreak in 2016.

Luna dealing with samples

Luna was deployed in October to Big Pine Key, FL for the New World Screwworm outbreak that heavily affected the endemic Key deer. The Miami Heat also started their season in October, causing Luna to miss the season opener game. When she wasn’t controlling the fly larvae on the Key deer, Luna went through dance videos and virtual Heat meetings to stay on track with her routines.

“The results are something I’m proud of,” Luna said. “I jumped back on the court to perform in December and we eradicated the New World Screwworm by spring of 2017, effectively saving the Key deer population.”

In 2018, she was part of the response team for the Exotic Newcastle disease in southern California – a respiratory disease that affects avian species. She finished her deployment there in March of this year – right before COVID-19 hit the U.S.

Now stationed in Miami, Luna is currently teleworking – filing digital records while also providing field support in her area.

“Whether helping animal imports and exports, making sure facilities are supported, and staying updated with conducting surveillance, we have a public service to provide, despite the circumstances,” Luna said.

Luna’s science side emerged during college when she volunteered at Miami Zoo and found interest in agricultural commodities while working at the petting zoo. A liaison introduced her to Agroecology Program at FIU and its professors Mahadev Bhat and Krishnaswamy Jayachandran.

She received the Multicultural Scholarship — a scholarship for students of minority backgrounds pursuing Agricultural Sciences tracks — funded by the USDA and later graduated with a bachelor’s in environmental science, minors in biology, chemistry and nutrition, and a certificate in agroecology and bio diversity management and conservation.

“Knowing that I can protect animals every day and actually eradicate diseases is one of the most rewarding experiences for me,” Luna said.