A 1986 graduate of the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Susan VandeWoude learned the news at Dulles Airport while returning from Washington, D.C.: She had been elected to join the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors for scientists in recognition of distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

VandeWoude, associate dean for research in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, had attended an event in the nation’s capital where NAS members welcomed last year’s inductees. She was traveling with Academy member and CSU University Distinguished Professor Ed Hoover, who is her husband. VandeWoude’s father, George, who was elected into the Academy in 1993, had also attended the NAS festivities.

“All day, I felt like I was hit by a great big wave,” VandeWoude said. “It was such an overwhelmingly strange feeling of shock and disbelief. I wasn’t giddy or excited. I was speechless, which isn’t typical for me.”

This year, NAS announced that an historic number of women were elected among its 100 new members and 25 foreign associates in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

A veterinarian, teacher, and researcher, VandeWoude has specialized in studying conditions affecting cats, both big and small, including feline immunodeficiency virus, which can leave  animals vulnerable to other infections.

Her discoveries are linked to both animal and ecological concerns, and the findings shed light on the emergence and spread of viruses in the human population. VandeWoude’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Morris Animal Foundation.

While a student at Virginia Tech's veterinary college, she spent her summers in the lab, working on projects at the NIH and Georgetown University. During her senior year, she landed a clinical rotation at the NIH and explored laboratory animal medicine. VandeWoude said that she was drawn to the concept of animal welfare and guiding the use of animals in research in a thoughtful way.

After graduating from veterinary school, she took a position at Waldorf Animal Hospital in Maryland, focusing on small animals. And while she enjoyed the problem-solving involved in running a clinic, VandeWoude had a strong desire to contribute to biomedical research.

After completing post-doctoral training in comparative medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine—where she participated in research that identified the agent responsible for Borna disease, which causes encephalitis in ruminants and horses—she joined CSU in 1990. She has worked in a variety of roles, including clinical, administrative, teaching, and research activities and served as director of Laboratory Animal Resources from 2007-11.

Shortly after arriving at CSU, VandeWoude started exploring how the viruses of non-domestic or wild cats relate to the ones in domestic cats. She studied how one viral infection impacts subsequent exposures to other viruses. “If a domestic cat is exposed to a virus originating in a puma, it’s more resistant to domestic cat immunodeficiency viruses,” she explained. How these viruses interact informs vaccine development or other therapies that may protect the animal from clinical disease.

Over the past 15 years, VandeWoude and her interdisciplinary team of scientists at both CSU and other institutions have been exploring the ecology of viruses in natural hosts.

“We’ve been looking at how viruses in domestic cats, bobcats, and pumas are transmitted between animals,” she explained. “Our research has found that pumas—also known as mountain lions or cougars—because they’re the top predator, prey on bobcats and domestic cats. They are then exposed to viruses, including feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus, which may have significant disease impacts.”

As a teacher for students in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program at CSU, VandeWoude also enjoys educating students about what they can contribute to the research enterprise.

“Because I run my own lab, I have a great window into what is helpful in facilitating research,” she explained. “My role as associate dean for research, the way I’ve interpreted it, is to help people get their work done and persuade the powers that be to help with processes and funding opportunities.”

VandeWoude has supported programs that help with D.V.M. student research training and supports the Colorado State's world-class D.V.M./Ph.D. program. She interacts frequently with the Office of the Vice President for Research, and works with associate deans in other colleges to develop integrated programs.

“What drives me to do so many things is that they’re very fulfilling to me,” she said. “I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

— Written by Mary Guiden, Colorado State University