Nicole Perry processes a tick specimen (Photo courtesy of Nicole Perry)

Source: UF News 
By Sarah Carey

Like many second-year veterinary students at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Danae Witte and Nicole Perry don’t know exactly where they’ll end up career-wise when they graduate.

But their study abroad experience over the summer, conducting field research in Africa on Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF), brought them one step closer to their goals. Since participating in the Boehringer Ingelheim Veterinary Scholars Program internationally, Witte and Perry are now approaching the future with a shared experience, anchored in curiosity and a love of research.

“Even though it was stressful at times, I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else this summer,” Perry said. “I made a lot of connections and a lot of friends, and learned a lot.”

UF is known for its focus on experiential learning opportunities, encouraging students to pursue study abroad programs across the globe. More than 500 veterinary students from around the country participate annually in research programs through their academic institutions and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This year is only the second year at UF that veterinary student scholars have been able to work directly with scientists in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, which investigates diseases that could affect livestock and public health. The agency also advances sustainable approaches to agriculture and food production.

Researching the CCHF virus is a critical part of this process. Endemic to Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Asian countries south of the 50th parallel, the virus causes severe hemorrhagic fever outbreaks with fatality rates approaching 40 percent. A wide range of wild and domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats are hosts to the virus, which is transmitted to humans through contact with infected animal blood or tissues during and immediately after slaughter.

The study that Witte and Perry supported is a collaboration between the USDA; the Institut National de la Recherche Biomédicale in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) One Health Institute; and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The goal of the study is to establish protocols and sites for monitoring the spread of the CCHF virus across Central, East, and West Africa.

And while both Witte and Perry worked with the same primary mentor — Lisa Hensley, Ph.D., director for the Zoonotic and Emerging Disease Research Unit for the USDA’s National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas — the students each spent time in different African countries and delved into separate aspects of CCHF research.

Witte spent the entire two months of her project in Congo under the supervision of Nicole Hoff, Ph.D., the country director and an adjunct professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. Working alongside members of the UCLA’s Kinshasa-based lab, veterinary professionals from the Laboratoire Vétérinaire de Kinshasa, and medical professionals from the Institut National de la Recherche Biomédicale, Witte collected samples from local farms, markets, and slaughterhouses.

Perry focused on doing more in-lab work at UC Davis, where she spent about six weeks under the supervision of Brian Bird, D.V.M., Ph.D., a professor of emerging and zoonotic diseases at UC Davis One Health Institute. Perry then traveled to Tanzania to work with collaborators from the Sokoine University of Agriculture on the final phase of her project.

“When I initially arrived in Congo, we were in the final phases of finishing up logistics planning for doing field research,” Witte said. “A lot of what I spent my first two weeks doing was preparing tools to take out to the field.”

Witte helped code and translate surveys from English to French to be used in data collection, and taught members of the local veterinary lab team how to use REDCap (an electronic data collection software program) on mobile tablets.

“I really enjoyed working with our local research partners in Congo; they’re wonderful. But I realized they have several infrastructural challenges that prevent them from achieving some of the global standards that we strive for in research,” Witte said. “I focused mostly on teaching them how to use the software on the tablets. Basically, it was a way not to have paper sheets that might get damaged or lost. I was worried about preserving the quality of our data and saw an area where we could try something new, so I talked to Dr. Hoff, who agreed to let me pilot the use of REDCap for our data collection system.”

During the latter period of her project, Witte was able to implement the tools she helped the local lab workers learn.

“I was mostly there for quality control and answering questions about things like workflow and logistics,” Witte said. “I collected samples from cows when it was needed, but the veterinary team was experienced at sample collection, so I was there more for support. They are well-versed in conducting research, so my goal was to assist with the different aspect that we were introducing to the study.”

Witte also visited a variety of locations in Congo while doing fieldwork, including two slaughterhouses in Kinshasa, where she established relationships with the onsite veterinarians. She visited farms and took a flight to Kisangani, a city located within a forest in the interior of the country.

Perry’s day-to-day work in California involved going to the lab, optimizing and fine-tuning procedures, and “making sure we had everything down” in advance of the Tanzania phase of her project, she said.

“What they had done the previous year for our project was sample cows and collect ticks from cows, but these ticks were kept in the freezer until they were ready for sampling,” Perry said. “We had a spreadsheet of all of the ticks and we were trying to sort through that, selecting the ticks that we wanted to study.”

Perry’s group was primarily interested in ticks from the genus Hyalomma – a main transmitter of the disease to livestock, animals, and humans.

“We had to have everything down, because when we got to Tanzania, we only had two weeks to get everything done,” Perry said.

Once her team arrived in Tanzania, they got right to business.

“When we were there, we’d go to the lab, we’d process the ticks, extract RNA, perform PCR testing, and compile our data,” Perry said. “That was mostly every day, except the weekends; one weekend I got to go on a safari and that was a lot of fun.”

Both Witte and Perry praised the local teams they worked with overseas, as well as their mentors, for providing support and making them feel welcome. The study abroad opportunities that Witte and Perry experienced will greatly impact their veterinary careers. Perry’s interest in research and global health inspired her to enroll in UF’s dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) and Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) program, while Witte is pursuing a D.V.M. degree and potential doctorate.

Hensley, the students’ overall project mentor, said in a press release from Boehringer Ingelheim that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her own work has been the chance to do fieldwork.

“Facilitating this opportunity for Danae and Nicole to travel to Africa to experience fieldwork at its most impactful is so rewarding,” Hensley said.

Witte and Perry were among about 24 first-year UF students who took part in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Linda F. Hayward Florida Veterinary Scholars Program last summer. The participants presented the findings of their research during the National Veterinary Scholars Symposium in Puerto Rico in early August.

For more information, Click here.