Keeping Everyone Healthy

by Rebekah Goode
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A young woman inspects a horse's hoof with assistance from an older man

Veterinary public health students learn about the ways humans, animals, and the environment are all interconnected.

Originally from Memphis, Elizabeth Molinet earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at Duke University before deciding to return closer to home for veterinary school.

“I missed my family,” says Molinet, who arrived on campus in fall 2018. “And I knew in Tennessee I was choosing a great program.”

One of only 30 accredited veterinary colleges in the United States, UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine graduates a class of 85 students every year who are trained to work at farms or zoos with large animals, in private practice with household pets, in veterinary hospitals, and in any setting where animals and humans interact.

Molinet quickly became fascinated by her virology and bacteriology classes, which focused on how animal viruses and bacteria can cross over into human populations. It helped her realize her future would go beyond working in a clinical setting.

“I did a lot of soul-searching after my first semester,” Molinet says. “I started looking online, and that’s when I found the veterinary public health program. I was sold. It’s a much better fit for what I want to do with my career.”

Housed in the College for Education, Health, and Human Sciences, the program allows UT veterinary students to earn a Master of Public Health degree with a concentration in veterinary public health together with their Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. It is also open to already-licensed veterinary technicians and veterinarians.

Professor Marcy Souza, an expert in diseases that exotic animals transmit to humans, serves as director of the veterinary public health MPH concentration. Souza also helped develop the curriculum, which is grounded in the interconnection between human and animal health and the environment—a concept known as One Health.

“If there is a silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that people are finally starting to pay attention to the way we interact with animals,” Souza says. “It’s not only other countries capturing and selling wildlife in markets. In our region, we have people raising chickens—which carry Salmonella germs—in their backyards. We have outbreaks of tick-borne diseases from residential neighborhoods and golf courses butting up to wildlife management areas.”

Graduates of the veterinary public health program have gone on to work for the Centers for Disease Control, state and local health departments, wildlife conservation agencies, and the military. They serve in such areas as food safety and inspection, reintroducing species into native environments, and developing practices and policies for both animal and human health.

“I came into the vet school knowing I wanted to be a public health veterinarian,” says Robert Stilz, a Chattanooga native who earned an animal science degree at Berry College before choosing UT. “In my head, I thought I might work for the CDC, US Department of Agriculture, or a state veterinarian’s office.”

Now in his second year of his dual DVM and MPH degrees, Stilz has grown increasingly interested in infectious diseases.

“A lot of veterinary schools make you choose a track,” Stilz says. “At UT, you learn everything. You see perspectives and work with stakeholders from all walks of a life—from a dog owner in a pet clinic to a government official trying to get new health policies passed.”

As part of the MPH program, students are required to complete a capstone internship. Stilz will do his at the state health department in Nashville this summer.

Molinet completed her internship last summer with the East Tennessee Regional Health Office, where she worked as a COVID-19 case and contact tracer. Before the pandemic, she had studied coronaviruses in her virology class, which looked at the 2003 SARs outbreak.

“For my internship, I really wanted to do something related to COVID-19, since my interests are so strongly in emerging zoonotic diseases,” says Molinet, who plans to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service after graduating.

Her internship consisted of calling people who had tested positive for the virus and informing them of quarantine and isolation protocols while helping them to figure out whom they’d been in contact with.

While much of her time was spent in the office, Molinet also had the opportunity to work with epidemiologists at UT to co-author a policy brief, “Understanding COVID-19 Death Reporting and Statistics,” for UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

“This program opens a lot of doors that a DVM alone cannot,” Molinet says. “You learn to apply information in a more holistic way. With COVID happening, I feel tremendously grateful for both my public health and veterinary medicine education.”

For high school students interested in pursuing veterinary school, the College of Veterinary Medicine provides an online roadmap of steps to take. The college’s admission guide may also be helpful for current college students interested in the profession.

Originally published on “Volunteer Stories” on April 2, 2021

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