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Informatics and veterinary science

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    Informatics and veterinary science

    With funding from MnDRIVE, four graduate students set out to improve our food production and environment

Earlier this year, The University of Minnesota Informatics Institutes out of the Office of the Vice President for Research announced 18 graduate fellowship recipients. These fellowships are awarded to PhD graduate students currently pursuing research at the University of Minnesota at the intersection of informatics and any of the four Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE) areas: robotics, sensors, and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions.

Four of the 18 recipients are students in the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine’s graduate programs. They are receiving funding for various projects for the calendar year. Get to know them:

Illustration of Jessica Deere

Jessica Deere

Program: PhD, Veterinary Medicine
Advisors: Tiffany Wolf, DVM, PhD, and Dominic Travis, DVM, MS, in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine (VPM)

Career aspirations: I aspire to use an ecosystem health approach to investigate health dynamics at the human-wildlife interface. Upon completion of my dissertation, I plan to obtain a post-doctoral position in ecosystem health research as the next step in my career in academia. I hope to reduce human and animal morbidity and mortality at the interface of humans, animals, and the environment.

Thesis title: “Fish as indicators of ecosystem health: assessing the impact of contaminants of emerging concern”

Research focus: My research focuses on the effect of contaminants of emerging concern in a region where Tribal communities culturally depend on freshwater ecosystems. We are investigating contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) — chemicals that were previously unknown, unrecognized, or unregulated — in aquatic ecosystems in Minnesota, within the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation and 1854 Ceded Territory, and along Lake Superior. 

We tested for pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and hormones, including antibiotics, antidepressants, illicit drugs, insect repellent, and more. We are assessing whether there are differences in contaminants in fish, water, and sediment across environments exposed to varying levels of human impact.

We also performed health assessments on fish from these lakes to determine the association between fish health and these contaminants. Understanding the potential impact of CECs on fish health will inform the management of aquatic systems, reveal pressing environmental contaminants for remediation, and clarify potential food safety and security threats to Tribal communities in northeastern Minnesota.

This funding provides necessary support to complete my dissertation research and broadly disseminate our findings to key stakeholders. With this funding, I plan to attend the American Ecological Engineering Society conference for the technical session focused on Antimicrobial Resistance and Emerging Contaminants in the Environment.

Illustration of April Estrada

April Estrada

Program: PhD, Comparative and Molecular Biosciences
Advisor: Connie Gebhart, PhD, in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences (VBS)

Career aspirations: My goal is to move back to California, where I attended undergrad, and find a bioinformatics (genomics) position.

Thesis title: “Genotypic and phenotypic approaches to understand Streptococcus suis pathogenesis”

Research focusStreptococcus suis (S. suis) is a significant concern in the swine industry, regularly found in nearly all countries with an extensive pig industry. Certain strains are associated with systemic and central nervous system disease. My research uses whole-genome sequencing to identify associations between specific genotypes and disease. An aim of this research is to identify approaches for differentiating systemic disease-causing isolates from non-clinical isolates in the US. We are also interested in evaluating S. suis’ ability to infect or damage a host in vitro.

Our findings will help lead to new approaches for predicting the disease-producing potential of US S. suis isolates, which may inform new and improved diagnostic tools, or contribute to the development of control strategies for this wide-spread pathogen.

This funding will allow me to continue exploring bioinformatic and genomic tools for analyzing whole-genome sequencing data. Additionally, it will aid me in attending conferences, such as the International Pig Veterinary Society Congress and the American Society for Microbiology workshops.

Illustration of Marie Gilbertson

Marie Gilbertson, DVM

Program: PhD, Veterinary Medicine
Advisor: Meggan Craft, PhD, in the VPM

Career aspirations: I aspire to a career in academia, studying infectious disease transmission at the interface of wildlife, domestic animals, and humans. I also love teaching and mentoring and am inspired to help empower the next generation of scientists and decision-makers. 

In addition, as a veterinarian, I am keenly aware of the effects of climate change on animal — and human — health and strive to use my research and teaching to adapt to and mitigate the threat of climate change.

Thesis title: “Retrovirus transmission dynamics in the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi)”

Research focus: Florida panthers are an endangered subspecies of mountain lion found only in southern Florida. In 2002, panthers experienced a serious outbreak of a deadly infectious disease called feline leukemia virus (FeLV), which "spilled over" to panthers from domestic cats. As human populations continue to grow and expand in Florida, panthers face continual risk of FeLV outbreaks, which threaten their health and conservation.

By studying FeLV and closely related viruses in panthers, I am identifying better ways to protect panthers from this deadly virus and ultimately furthering panther conservation efforts. What is especially exciting with this research is that the novel methods I'm developing for panther viruses may be able help us better prevent or intervene in disease outbreaks in other species like livestock, or even humans.

This funding is helping me translate my methods from panthers to an important viral disease in swine, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). Based on my work with panthers, we are using PRRS viral genomes and network statistics to figure out what factors drive transmission of this important swine virus. The fact that panther work can help us understand swine disease and better protect our food system is really exciting and a great example of how veterinary scientists are uniquely equipped to solve problems across a broad range of species.

This funding is also giving me the chance to attend the International Symposium of Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics in August 2021.

Illustration of Robert Valeris

Robert Valeris, DVM

Program: PhD, Veterinary Medicine
Advisors: Randy Singer, DVM, PhD, in the VBS and Maria Pieters, DVM, PhD, in the VPM

Career aspirations: I am looking to pursue research on foodborne diseases in academia.

Thesis title: “Preharvest control of Campylobacter in broiler chickens using probiotics/prebiotics”

Research focusCampylobacter is one of the leading causes of bacterial diarrhea in people in the United States. Chickens are reservoirs of this bacterium — as they become colonized on farms, they spread the bacterium amongst themselves.

My research aims to establish intervention methods to control Campylobacter colonization in broiler chickens on farms. Such control will result in less Campylobacter entering the processing facility, making in-plant interventions more effective and chicken meat safer for consumers to eat.

This funding is helping me acquire further training in bioinformatics, which I am applying to my current research. For instance, I am learning new techniques to analyze the network of associations between Campylobacter and the bacterial community present in the chicken gut. I will also attend the 2020 American Association of Avian Pathologists conference with this funding.