An Educational Trip Into Mystery

Written By: Emma  Harris

“It was a once in a lifetime experience, as a science researcher as well as an educator, it was just a phenomenal trip,” said Dr. Forsberg about the Hampton Bays High School Science Research trip to Plum Island. In October of 2014, 20 Science Research students, led by Science Research teacher Dr. Forsberg, visited the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to take a trip into the mystery. In the time before the trip, those students were given an excerpt of A World Unto Itself, written by Ruth Ann Bramson, Geoffrey K. Fleming, and Amy Kasuga Folk. The book, which was published in September of 2014, discusses the history and mysteries of Plum Island and how it came to be one of the world’s most important research facilities.

There are many rumors circling about the history of Plum Island, but according to A World Unto Itself, the research center was primarily focused on foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in swine, cattle, and other typical domesticated farm animals when it first opened in 1952. FMD is not hazardous to humans, but can destroy thousands of animals in a small amount of time, as it can spread by contact with infected vehicles, clothing, and farm equipment. Since the time Plum Island has existed, various vaccines have been developed and though the fate of the island was sometimes in sway, the research on FMD and other diseases like it still continues there today.

Only a few miles off the coast of Orient Point, the island is federally secure. The island is jointly run by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Brigham, a science teacher, and one of the chaperones on the trip is longtime friends with an employee on the island, which opened up the first possibility for the visit. He heard about the Science Research class and invited the students and teachers out to the island for a visit. Before the end of last year, the students and the teachers had to submit their social security numbers for background checks to verify that they are safe citizens; clearance was then achieved, and a date was set.

The class, always followed by two armed guards, was taken across Plum Gut to Plum Island on a non-public ferry from Orient Point.

Throughout the trip, science researchers gave presentations on their research topics at the main research lab facility. Their topics included research on FMD, and one scientist the class met with was a microbiologist who told them about all the specifics of the research on FMD. Science teachings and demonstrations were also included, as there was a lesson with liquid nitrogen, since all the viruses and diseases kept on the island are preserved in it.

The science lessons were followed by a historical component, when the class was able to look at some of the old buildings, forts, and infrastructure on Plum Island, some of which have been standing there since the Spanish-American War (1898). Throughout their day, the students and teachers alike were able to view much of the island, only missing out on a hike through the woods due to time constraints. The sightseeing ventures included the Plum Island Lighthouse, a view over the beach featuring some seals and a view of Gull Island to the east.

To explain the scientific and global importance of Plum Island to our world today, Dr. Forsberg stated, “What the students found really interesting, is how foot-and-mouth disease research directly affects food production and distribution in the United States and around the globe. Much of the meat protein in our diets is maintained and kept safe due to cutting edge research done today on Plum Island.”