Imagine a world where doctors could prescribe targeted probiotics to pregnant women as a way to prevent autism.

Sierrah Travis, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a second-year student in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, spent her summer researching how to do just that.

Travis and 11 other first- and second-year veterinary students from colleges across the country participated in the Summer Veterinary Student Research Program (SVSRP), an 11-week annual curriculum designed to expose veterinary students to research best practices and the diverse career opportunities available in the field. 

During the program’s second week, participants visited the nation’s capital, which was Travis’ favorite week of the summer. “The best experience had to have been when we visited the federal buildings during our trip to Washington, D.C.,” she said. “It was really interesting to see what types of roles are available to veterinarians.”

While there, they met with various doctors of veterinary medicine in research and policy positions at the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and Walter Reed.

She also enjoyed working in the lab of Paul Morton, assistant professor of neurodevelopment and neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. In the lab, Travis researched the gut microbiota brain axis and how it ties in with autism disorder. In diseased states, she found, the gut can negatively affect the brain.

Nine weeks of the SVSRP were devoted to mentor-guided laboratory training in animal models of diseases. Francesa Frere, of Ellicott City, Maryland, also a second-year student at the veterinary college, explained that she has always wanted to “do research that can relate back to human medicine. Since this research can go into people as well and affect animals, it is a way for me to look at a virus and how it relates to the environment.” Frere hopes to pursue a career in epidemiology.

Frere spent her summer working in the lab of Nisha Duggal, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. There she studied the susceptibility of common birds and mosquitoes to African Usutu virus strains, which is a mosquito-borne zoonotic virus that, while rare in humans, can cause encephalitis. Over time, this transdisciplinary research could lead to a vaccine against the virus for human and animal populations.

Mexico native and Purdue University second-year student Roel Becerra has appreciated his ability to work toward a One Health goal with his peers. “Everyone has different projects — some people were working only with cells; others were working with animals. What’s interesting is that while we were all working on different things, at the end it was to target the advancement of One Health.”  

Working in the lab of Lijuan Yuan, associate professor of virology and immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Becerra researched the persistence of norovirus, which affects 21 million people across the United States each year. He studied the norovirus tissue distribution and fecal virus shedding in different types of mice that have specific immune proteins removed to determine how much of the virus was present in the tissue samples. This type of research could potentially uncover a way to mitigate the spread of norovirus.

At the end of the 11 weeks, the students each gave a presentation on their research projects. This allowed all participants to interact and see one another’s progress and outcomes. In addition, the students got an opportunity to present their work at the 2018 National Veterinary Scholars Symposium, which was held at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. 

“This national meeting had over 750 participants from across all veterinary colleges in the USA and Canada and select schools from Europe and Mexico,” said Ansar Ahmed, associate dean for research and graduate studies and SVSRP director. “This is an exclusive meeting of D.V.M. research scholars — a one-of-a-kind, which allows D.V.M. students to listen to talks from top D.V.M. scientists around the country, meet other summer scholars, and build a network.”

The SVSRP not only allows veterinary students to experience in-depth research at a level they likely have not been exposed to before, but it also enlightens them on other types of biomedical research opportunities. Former program participants have used this summer research as a launching pad for their careers.

Now in its 12th year, the SVSRP is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Boehringer Ingelheim, and the veterinary college.

-Written by Sarah Orren and Leslie Jernegan