Career Exploration: Epidemiologist
I hope you’re enjoying this wonderful spring weather! I certainly am. It makes for lovely naps in the sun and young, green grass to snack on. It also means the staff at the Equine Science Center has called the veterinarian to schedule an appointment for my yearly vaccinations. The quickly approaching mosquito and fly season heralds the onset of disease season also. I know vaccinations are important, but I wanted to know just how important they are. For help, I reached out to Dr. Leslie Seraphin, a District Epidemiology Officer with the USDA-AHPIS Veterinary Services.
While I had her on the line, I decided this would be a great opportunity to explore another career in the equine industry. I mean, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an Epidemiology Officer until I met Dr. Seraphin. Did you know this was a possible career path? Before we take a look at what I learned from Dr. Seraphin, I think we should learn a little bit about her background. She earned her DVM from Purdue University, but she also has a Master of Public Health (MPH) from UMDNJ. Since UMDNJ is now a part of Rutgers University, I think we can claim her as one of our own!
Keep reading to discover what a career as an epidemiologist is like and why vaccination is important for your horse’s health.
Lord Nelson (LN): What does your typical day at work look like?
Dr. Seraphin (Dr. S): There are no typical days! Just kidding (sort of). The ongoing part of my job is to evaluate livestock and poultry disease surveillance in NJ, NY and PA to be sure we are looking in the right places and at the right animals for program diseases. Program diseases are those which the various livestock industries have asked USDA to control or eliminate from the U.S., such as cattle tuberculosis, brucellosis in livestock, and low pathogenicity avian influenza. I have to adjust national program guidelines to ensure surveillance is representative of the livestock in my states.
Another part of my job is keeping diseases we don’t have in the US out – things like foot and mouth disease. My part in that is making sure suspect cases are investigated and tracking such cases to completion (e.g. when the investigation finds it is not foot and mouth disease). If we get a disease of concern in the US, VS Veterinary Medical Officers, Animal Health Technicians, and Epidemiology Officers (and others) are deployed to the disease site to eliminate the disease from the US. For example, VS personnel are currently in southern California to control and eliminate Virulent Newcastle Disease from backyard poultry.
The third component of my job is to watch for emerging diseases of livestock and poultry. I was very involved with the initial finding of the Asian Longhorned Tick in the US as the first findings were in NJ. I helped write educational materials for the public, livestock producers, and veterinarians and also designed, implemented and analyzed surveillance and epidemiologic questionnaires. Part of my duties were to find out how the tick may have come into the US and where it may have spread.
LN: What is your favorite part of the job?
Dr. S: Every day is a bit different. I may be working on low pathogenicity avian influenza H2N2 in the Live Bird Marketing System today and investigating Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease tomorrow. I especially like analytical epidemiology – identifying risk factors for disease and methods to mitigate risk. I also like writing – if an epidemiologist can’t clearly explain the risk they found and how to lessen that risk, the usefulness of their work is hampered. My undergraduate background is Animal Science and Agricultural Education and I took electives in Public Health Education in my MPH program.
LN: What is your least favorite part of the job?
Dr. S: It is very difficult to tell a producer or owner we have to euthanize their animal to prevent further spread of disease. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often. It is also difficult to administer an epidemiologic questionnaire to owners of animals which died from the disease because they are usually still grieving and stressed. Most understand by answering my questions they are helping prevent others from being in the same situation and are very helpful.
LN: If someone were considering a similar career path, what advice would you offer to them?
Dr. S: Some MPH programs have various “tracks”, for example Public Health Education, Epidemiology, Public Health Administration. For my particular job, having an MPH in Epidemiology is important. I also benefited greatly from taking courses in Public Health Communication. For me, I was a field Veterinary Medical Officer for USDA before I became an Epidemiology Officer. This is beneficial when I ask “the field” to start or change a surveillance method as I better understand what difficulties and possibilities there are for a particular change.
LN: What is your most memorable or favorite memory related to your career?
Dr. S: For several years, I worked on a national control and certification program for Johne’s disease in cattle, sheep, and goats. Working with University subject matter experts, Livestock groups, State Veterinarians, and others was a rewarding experience which allowed for professional growth. As part of these duties, I was invited to speak at an International Meeting on Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis in Melbourne Australia. Learning that all these “world experts” were much like me is a favorite memory.
LN: What is the largest or most interesting case you have been involved with?
Dr. S: There are too many to recount! Largest was probably working to eliminate highly pathogenic avian influenza from Minnesota and Iowa several years ago. When you are deployed to a large outbreak, you meet new people and always learn something new.
A recently rewarding event for me was the finding by USDA APHIS Wildlife Services researchers that wild rabbits can become infected with and transmit some types of avian influenza to poultry. In the early 2000s, I did a risk analysis of the persistence of low pathogenicity avian influenza in the live bird markets and the highest risk factor was the presence of domestic rabbits in the markets. At that time, we thought rabbits were a proxy – a stand-in – for something else such as the source of the chickens. Having my work “validated” years later was exciting.
A third case was the occurrence and multistate spread of brucellosis in swine several years ago. The outbreak was able to spread due to multiple factors, including that national surveillance methods were not testing niche market swine such as heritage breeds and pasture raised pigs. In addition to tracing the possible exposed animals, I worked with other epidemiologists to design an alternative swine brucellosis surveillance program for the US to help prevent similar disease occurrences.
LN: What made you decide on a career as a veterinarian and how did you establish yourself within this field?
Dr. S: I was an animal lover practically from birth and my mother, a nurse, instilled a love of medicine in me from an early age. I also like working with animals and with people who love animals. I worked very hard to gain the variety of animal experience needed to be accepted to veterinary school, working at an animal shelter, pet store, dairy farm, veterinarian’s office, and with the veterinarians at the Philadelphia zoo. After graduation, I worked in a small animal practice in NJ until a life-threatening allergy to cats forced me to change my career path. Due to the broad education in veterinary medicine I had at Purdue University, I was able to switch to working with livestock and horses with USDA.
How did I establish myself in the field of epidemiology? First, it fit many of my natural skills – the ability to notice when a pattern is “off”, to see when something isn’t working right, and to figure out how to fix it. Many epidemiologists are also stubborn (me included!) I continued with lifelong learning (through work, my personal life, and the MPH program), identified issues and problems and worked on them. My parents taught me you can learn something from everyone you meet, and I have found that is especially true in epidemiology. I always ask the owner of the affected animal or herd “How do you think this disease came to your animals?” They may not know the medical reason, but usually their gut feeling is on the right track for the medical reason.
LN: Why is keeping your horse’s vaccinations up to date important?
Dr. S: We are fortunate that so many deadly diseases of horses are preventable with vaccination. For vaccines to work optimally, they must be administered according to the label (licensed use of the vaccine) including vaccination intervals. For example, not keeping up to date on West Nile vaccinations may result in your horse dying from West Nile. Some vaccines – like rabies – also protect people. Keeping your horse generally healthy – proper nutrition, housing, parasite control, and vaccination – also helps your horse’s immune system to fight off disease. My rule of thumb for my horse always was “If I don’t vaccinate for disease X, and she dies from it, could I live with myself?”
LN: What role does an epidemiologist play in monitoring disease outbreaks and new diseases?
Dr. S: Our job as epidemiologists is to recognize new and emerging diseases and outbreaks. We do this through a variety of surveillance methods – actively sampling at risk populations, passive surveillance of veterinarians and owners reporting illnesses to us, syndromic surveillance by watching for increased reports of an illness (e.g. pneumonia), and “talking” to each other (through reports and venues such as ProMed). We try to figure out the most likely risk factors for a disease, design questionnaires to look at those risk factors, and analyze the answers to rule in or out risk factors (is it statistically significant?). We then build models – mathematical equations that combine the significant risk factors – to help predict disease and determine how much reducing specific risks will protect the individual animal or herd.
LN: Is there anything I’ve missed that you would like to share?
Dr. S: My career path illustrates that you can plan, but you never know where you will end up. I was going to own my own small animal practice. In veterinary school, I thought epidemiology was boring (how does anyone make epidemiology boring?). One of my vet school friends literally fell off her chair laughing the first time I told her I took a blood sample from a pig. Yet here I am, several decades later, loving my job as an epidemiologist with Veterinary Services.
LN: Thanks for taking the time to visit with me and share your insights!
Dr. S: You’re welcome Lord Nelson. I’m always happy to chat with you!
I hope you guys enjoyed this look into the life of an epidemiologist as much as I did. I certainly learned new things about disease monitoring and outbreaks. I am also fully convinced of the importance of vaccinations. I wouldn’t want to contract a preventable disease.
Take this advice to heart and go ahead and schedule your horse’s spring vaccinations for May or June! I’m off to take a little snooze in the sun. All this planning and interviewing for the blog is hard work.
Until next time!