When she graduates with her doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree in May, Caitlin Cossaboom will cap the 11 years she spent pursuing her education goals at Virginia Tech and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to begin a new journey — starting her dream job as an officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Epidemic Intelligence Service.
Cossaboom, who hails from Salisbury, Maryland, has a long history as a Hokie. As a member of the Honors College, she earned bachelor’s degrees in both dairy science and animal and poultry sciences from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech in 2010. She then completed both a master of public health degree in 2014 and a doctorate in biomedical and veterinary sciences in 2015 through the college’s DVM/Ph.D. dual degree program.
Cossaboom’s doctoral work was under the direction of X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.
“I worked with hepatitis E virus, looking into zoonotic potential of a new strain of rabbit virus that we found,” Cossaboom said.
Her research, which identified the first strains of hepatitis E virus from farmed rabbits in the United States, was published in a 2011 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, by the CDC. Overall, Cossaboom has authored and co-authored a total of eight peer-reviewed publications in prestigious journals during her Ph.D. work, and thus far her publications have been cited more than 228 times.
“Caitlin is a bright rising star in the field of public health and infectious diseases,” said Meng, Cossaboom’s Ph.D. major professor in the DVM/Ph.D. dual degree program. “Her discovery of the hepatitis E virus from rabbits in the United States and her subsequent demonstration of cross-species infection by the virus raised important public health issues about the zoonotic potential of hepatitis E virus. I am certain that this prestigious Epidemic Intelligence Service officer position that Caitlin will start in July at CDC will serve as a launching pad for her to embark a long and very successful career in public health and infectious diseases.”
Her research sparked an interest in the public health aspects of veterinary medicine.
“Since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to be a veterinarian, but then I was given the opportunity to do the dual degree program and there became interested in emerging zoonotic diseases,” said Cossaboom, who won the Virginia Tech Graduate Student Assembly’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in 2016. “What the MPH does is tie everything together. It gives me the applied public health background and knowledge, and the programmatic and policy experiences and skills that I’ve developed have been really helpful. … I think it’s a really cool application of my background and something that I just became really passionate about.”
So naturally, when it came to choose a track for the DVM portion of her studies, Cossaboom chose the public and corporate veterinary program. “The public/corporate track is a really valuable opportunity for students who are interested in alternative career paths,” she said.
As part of her fourth-year curriculum, Cossaboom has spent the past year completing various national and international externships to further her knowledge of veterinary medicine applications, including working with a wildlife pathology program at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in a lab animal program at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and at the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in addition to clinical work at mixed animal private practices.
Most recently, Cossaboom returned from Cambodia, where she spent nine weeks working on a project to develop a rabies control strategy for the country as part of the Hubert Global Health Fellowship, a competitive program through the CDC that accepted only three veterinary students and four medical students from across the country. She learned about the program from former veterinary student Betsy Schroeder (DVM ‘16), who participated in the program the previous year.
“The first part of my time was spent meeting important stakeholders and organizations because I was working through the U.S. government, in conjunction with the Cambodian government,” Cossaboom said. “I was really lucky because I also got to do a good amount of field work. I was able to work with some dog vaccination campaigns and human rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) centers, and also got to participate in an outbreak investigation, which was not related to rabies, but was really important to see how their current system works for responding to disease outbreaks.”
Working cross-culturally allowed Cossaboom to experience challenges similar to those she will be facing when she becomes a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, or “disease detective,” later this year. “Here, we’re really lucky because we have the public health and medical infrastructure in place, but there, the public health infrastructure is really lacking and so figuring out with limited resources how to implement a project like this was really interesting,” she said.
Cossaboom is especially thankful that the veterinary college’s public/corporate track afforded her these valuable experiences that confirmed her chosen career path. “I had really important experiences during my time spent on external rotations. They affirmed that I am heading in the right direction,” she said. “I was able to go to Cambodia and see a glimpse of what I will be doing as my future career, and it would not have been possible had I not been given the opportunity to spend a good amount of time away during my fourth year to get these experiences.”
Her appointment at the CDC lasts two years, after which Cossaboom hopes to continue government work with emerging infectious diseases. “The stars have really aligned, and I’ve just had an incredible experience. I am just really thankful for all of the opportunities I have been given here,” she said.
Written by Kelsey Foster, a master’s degree student in the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences