How Vet’s One Health Strategy Keeps Animals and People Healthy
Heather Fowler, who became a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2010 and went on to get a master’s degree in public health from Yale in 2011, grew up with dogs, reptiles, hedgehogs, and a guinea pig named Mr. Guinea. She worked with exotic birds in Hawaii during college and trained to treat small pets in vet school. After meeting an officer from the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fowler, then a veterinary student, started to think seriously about how public health and animal health converge.
Immediately after veterinary school, Fowler pursued a Master of Public Health in Applied Epidemiology and Biostatistics as part of the one-year advanced professional program at the Yale School of Public Health. Fowler then went on to continue her studies by graduating in 2017 with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.
Fowler continued her studies by graduating in 2017 with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington (UW) School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. She also served as Associate Director of Animal Health for the department’s Center for One Health Research, led by her mentor, Peter Rabinowitz. During this time, she was the first student employee, helped give rise to many One Health projects that continue today.
At the UW, Fowler became a Bullitt Environmental Fellow, assessing modern dairy practices in Washington state and investigating issues affecting human, animal, and environmental health. For her dissertation, she also applied the One Health approach to study the occupational health and safety of animal workers. She worked with veterinary clinics in the Seattle area to understand how and why physical injuries occurred on the job.
In her free time at UW, Fowler volunteered at the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic, now the Doney Coe Pet Clinic, which offers free veterinary care to homeless individuals in the community. She also mentored indigenous youth as part of the United Native American Educational Alliance’s Clear Sky Program. “As an underrepresented minority, both as a veterinarian and as a public health researcher, I know how hard it can be when no one else looks like you,” she said. “I wanted to show my mentees and others like them that they don’t have to look like everyone else. They have options for their future.”
Fowler, a New Jersey native, now works as the Director for Producer and Public Health at the National Pork Board in Des Moines, Iowa. She oversees research programming on the health and safety of people involved in pork production while focusing on public health and zoonotic diseases – diseases that can spread between animals like pigs and humans.
Arizona Agriculture: Obviously growing up with a menagerie of animals inspired you to pursue the education and career you did. Tell us about these growing up years including at what point you knew you wanted your future to involve animals and even livestock animals and why?
Dr. Fowler: I was the kid that always knew they wanted to be a veterinarian. I always loved animals, all different species. I was never afraid of dogs and actually ran towards them, unfortunately for my mother.
I have always known I wanted to work with animals and that passion continued through high school and undergrad. It was really in undergrad and beyond where I started to gain exposure to different species that I did not have access to being born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey.
Arizona Agriculture: Your bio mentions after meeting an officer from the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while still a veterinary student you began to think seriously about how public health and animal health converge. Explain the encounter in a bit more depth and why you walked away with it being such a defining moment for your career track?
Dr. Fowler: During Vet school is I started to explore opportunities in veterinary medicine. I knew even before entering Vet School that I had this interest in public health but was not entirely sure what kind of career I could build from it. When many people think of veterinarians, they often think of people treating cats and dogs. For me, seeing a veterinarian work in public health at the CDC for the first time it hit me, “Oh that's what I can do!” It was truly a pivotal movement for me because it gave me an example of a career trajectory that I could follow.
Arizona Agriculture: Discuss the public health and animal health convergence? I like your comment, “One Health is a research approach that recognizes that the health of people, animals and the environment are inextricably linked and thus must be studied in a holistic manner.”
Dr. Fowler: I should start with the definition of One Health. One Health recognizes that the health of people, animals, and the environment are inextricably linked and thus we must take a holistic approach to issues where all three of these factors are present.
For me, as a One Health champion, I take a One Health approach to anything and everything I do. And it is easy to do so. Take my work in the swine industry for example. We recognize that in the industry that to produce a product that is safe, nutritious, and delicious for the consumer, we need to raise pigs in a way that optimizes their health and welfare while also protecting the safety and health of the workers that care for them in a shared (workplace) environment. Or as I like to say as an industry we are focused on doing what is right for people, pigs, and the planet.
Arizona Agriculture: Explain the One Health master’s program, something I understand you supported and helped to shape and that is still growing strong today.
Dr. Fowler: Sure. During my time at the University of Washington, I wore multiple hats. I was a Ph.D. student in my research laboratory but also took on a leadership role in this lab as the Associate Director of Animal Health. As a result, I helped to shape and refine some of the activities there. The One Health master’s program was launched after I left the university, but I was involved in the early efforts of training our environmental health students in the basics of the One Health approach and even taught during the One Health course we created. Thus, I’d like to think my efforts in some way helped to shape this program.
Arizona Agriculture: Not sure if you are familiar with the University of Arizona’s new Veterinary program that just recently launched. It is unique in that students can move through the program faster and more economically. In the end, one of many objectives is to ensure Arizona provides opportunities to encourage more large-animal vets in agriculture. What other objectives would help us develop and retain more large animal vets?
Dr. Fowler: For me, I think the answer lies in the way we present veterinary medicine to the public and future veterinarians. For me, coming from the concrete jungle of Trenton, New Jersey, I didn't necessarily know what all the options were in the profession. I only knew what was around me. Thus, I think there is an opportunity to recruit people from all different backgrounds into animal agriculture if we can expose them early. Help them gain experience working with different animal species and teach them about the career options available to them if they choose a career in veterinary medicine.
To share a personal story from my career journey, my old vet school professor once referred to me as the ‘Wild Card’ because neither he nor I, expected that one day I would end up working in the swine industry or for the National Pork Board ( https://www.linkedin.com/in/heather-fowler-4406a648/). During vet school, I honestly did not know such a career opportunity existed. But I am really happy I landed here and am getting to work on One Health issues within the swine industry. For me, it was through my exposures in undergrad and veterinary school that I was even open to exploring career opportunities in the animal protein space. To reinforce a comment I made earlier, I think there are ways to expose people at various points in their career development to help them to explore opportunities in veterinary medicine including those in large animal medicine.
Arizona Agriculture: At the National Pork Board, you oversee research programming on the health and safety of people involved in pork production, while focusing on public health and zoonotic diseases – diseases that can spread from animals like pigs to humans. Talk about this? What are some hoped-for outcomes based on your research and work for the Pork Board?
Dr. Fowler: The goal of our research program is to fund research that answers key questions in the public health space. We aim to fund work that not only contributes to the scientific literature via publication but also can be translated into action on the farm. You see, we recognize that research can produce meaningful results, but it is only truly meaningful if we're translating those findings into actions that our producers can execute upon. Thus, we will continue to fund cutting-edge work in this space to help us better understand the zoonotic disease risk of working with pigs and the ways to protect our workforce and the larger public from these potential hazards.
Arizona Agriculture: The agriculture world has made so many advances in animal husbandry, best handling practices, improved genetics and premium feeding protocols, safety practices and more. Where will our next big breakthroughs in animal agriculture take place? Or at least continued advances?
Dr. Fowler: I think how we use technology will continue to change and advance in the future. How we collect data, how we share the data, etc. With that said, I’m hopeful that technology is going to continue to streamline the processes around data collection and analysis.
And we are already starting to see some of those changes.
Right now, when using a given application, you can look on your phone and despite being in a completely different state, determine when the best time is to apply manure to your fields. I’m hoping we will see the same thing in the swine industry with technology not only improving data use and analysis processes but also just making life a little easier on the farm. The challenge at times, however, will be in fitting it into the farm but I think we will get there, and it'll be interesting to see what that ends up looking like.
Arizona Agriculture: What’s your counsel for current students that might be inspired by your education track, certainly to be a vet?
Dr. Fowler: I would encourage them to explore so they can narrow down their focus as they work to find their dream job or career. I tell students to look for paid and/or volunteer experiences to explore their options and interests in a given career. It can be a one-day ride along with a veterinarian or a paid summer internship. They need to make the most of their time to explore and use these experiences to better understand their career options.
Arizona Agriculture: What have I not asked you that is important to share with our Arizona farmers and ranchers?
Dr. Fowler: We have a new website for pork producers: porkcheckoff.org. Pork.org now is our exclusive consumer-facing website, while porkcheckoff.org contains information pertinent to producers and researchers.
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