Animal science major Kortnie Wheaton was always interested in the way diseases spread between animals and humans. She even wrote her UVM admissions essay on mad cow disease, but until arriving at UVM, never envisioned herself working with livestock or in the field of biosecurity. After getting involved in CREAM (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management), UVM’s student-run dairy herd, she discovered her true passion for cows, and the important role that they – and their health – play in the U.S. food system.
“I think it’s really interesting how public health is so directly linked to what farmers are doing,” said Wheaton. “We depend on animals for so much of our food. How we take care of them impacts our own health, especially in regards to the food supply."
Through her animal science coursework and experience working on multiple dairy farms in Vermont and North Carolina, Wheaton has been fascinated by the complex farm operations and protocols designed to prevent disease and keep animals safe, as well as the need for farmer education and teamwork in order for them to be successful. A summer internship with animal science professor Julie Smith enabled her to dive deeper into agricultural biosecurity writing blog articles about livestock diseases and the catastrophic impacts an outbreak could have on the U.S. livestock industry.
The internship was part of a multi-million-dollar integrated research and outreach effort Smith has spearheaded over the past five years to increase the adoption of practices and policies to reduce the impact of pests and diseases in livestock animals. The project involves collaborators across the U.S., including many at UVM, who have been studying how people make decisions about animal disease biosecurity using video games and computational models.
Their work has culminated in a comprehensive website, Healthy Farms Healthy Agriculture, which is filled with educational resources and training modules to help farmers and ranchers, veterinarians, industry professionals and service providers adopt safe biosecurity practices. The newest modules are designed specifically for students ranging from grades 6-12 to college with the goal of creating a new culture of biosecurity advocates amongst the nation’s youth.
“As the world grapples with emerging diseases, many of which can affect animals and humans, we are seeing just how dangerous they can be and how quickly they can spread,” said Smith. “Training the next generation to be willing and able to respond to these threats is key to creating more resilient societies.”
Smith says focusing on youth and college-aged students, particularly those studying animal science or other agriculturally-related fields, can stimulate a “trickle-up” effect that will help influence the adoption of good habits by adult farmers. Students in Smith’s new animal science course, ASCI 007: ABCs of Biosecurity, are recognizing the parallels between the devastating nature of a large-scale animal disease outbreak and the global Covid-19 pandemic.
But biosecurity is not just about preventing the spread of animal diseases. New and emerging pests, bioterror and cybersecurity threats can also have a devastating impact on public health, food systems and agriculture.
New Biosecurity Minor Launched
A new biosecurity minor at UVM enables students to get a crash course in systems designed to protect the U.S. food system from the spread of zoonotic diseases, as well as other global threats. The program taps into a wealth of interdisciplinary faculty expertise in animal health, food systems, agriculture, plant and soil science, microbiology, behavioral science, cybersecurity and global health.
“We realized that many of courses being offered in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences covered different aspects of biosecurity. Linking them together as a minor creates a unique opportunity for students to gain expertise in a subject that can give them a competitive edge in the job market,” said Jane Kolodinsky, chair of the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics where the minor is housed. “We hope to create a culture of biosecurity advocates who are needed in many different fields and are increasingly in-demand in our global society.”
The minor has also led to the development of new courses like Smith’s and PSS 195: Agroterrorism and Biopiracy, which will be offered for the first time this spring. The course, taught by plant and soil science professor Eric Bishop von Wettberg, will examine how people have used infectious diseases and agricultural pests to attack an opponent’s livestock or crops throughout history. It will also cover examples of biopiracy, the act of stealing biological resources.
For Wheaton, an aspiring veterinarian, the opportunities to learn about biosecurity at UVM has opened her eyes to broader career opportunities on a state, national and even global level.
“I would love to be on the front lines working to maintain national biosecurity or working on large-scale outbreaks of disease,” said Wheaton. “Like we’ve seen with Covid-19, an outbreak that starts across the world can spread rapidly and have a huge impact on our systems locally.”