Fourth-year student bloggers Lynsee Melchi and Matt Holland interviewed alumna Heather Venkat, DVM ’13, MPH ’14, Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They met her during the CDC’s annual Epidemic Intelligence Service Conference in Atlanta in April. (Pictured above is Lynsee at left with Dr. Venkat.)
- Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and grew up on the north side of the city of Chicago, and completed my undergraduate studies in animal science with a minor in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2009. I loved Illinois so much that I stayed there for vet school, and graduated with my DVM from the UIUC College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. I had also enrolled in the DVM-MPH dual-degree program, and completed my Masters of Public Health (MPH) in epidemiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. I also am planning to take the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine (ACVPM) specialty board examination this June.
- Where has your veterinary career taken you through the years and where are you now?
After graduating vet school, I practiced small animal medicine for two years in Chicago. I especially was interested in infectious disease, surgery, and client education. Although I enjoyed clinical practice, I had the passion to create an impact on populations and on a much larger scale in the health realm. I then joined the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program in 2015 and have spent the last two years working as an EIS officer assigned to a field position in Arizona. After EIS, I plan to stay in Arizona and will continue working to combat disease threats and increase capacity for effective public health surveillance, epidemiology, and response efforts at the state and local level.
- Can you tell us more about the EIS program?
EIS is a two-year applied epidemiology training program through the CDC. There are opportunities to work at headquarters in Atlanta, at state or local health departments, and globally. EIS is open to physicians, veterinarians, doctoral-level scientists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Most veterinarians require an MPH or equivalent degree, or at least one year of full-time public health experience. EIS officers are trained to apply crucial skills in public health and epidemiology towards disease surveillance, outbreak preparedness and response, data analysis, development of public health recommendations, and more. We are often called “disease detectives”!
- What do you find most rewarding about EIS?
Rather than making an impact on health, one animal or person at a time, as an EIS officer I can contribute towards animal and human health on a larger scale to make the most impact. I have investigated cases and outbreaks of St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile virus, Salmonella, measles, influenza, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and Elizabethkingia infections, worked with Native American tribes and other partners on Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever surveillance and tick prevention efforts on the reservations, and assisted with education and outreach as well as emergency and response planning for imported and local transmission of Zika virus. I analyzed health professionals’ knowledge about rabies epidemiology and post-exposure prophylaxis, and am also looking at knowledge, attitudes, and practices of veterinarians in Arizona regarding zoonotic disease reporting and infection control practices. The best part about my job as an EIS officer is that every day is different. I never know what a new day will bring, and even though I work hard, it doesn’t feel like a job at all because I love what I do! I could not have asked for a better two years spent than my time in the Epidemic Intelligence Service with the CDC.
- What do you find the most challenging about EIS?
There are so many possibilities and opportunities that sometimes I want to do it all! But I definitely have to rely on my other public health partners and stakeholders because I am only one person. Collaboration and communication are key when it comes to addressing public health issues. When I respond to an outbreak, I can see the immediate impact of my efforts when I can prevent additional illnesses. But one challenge is that sometimes in public health, our recommendations take a long time to become integrated, so the impact of our work might not be immediately recognized.
- How did the DVM/MPH prepare you for where you are now?
The DVM/MPH program prepared me for my work in public health through not only teaching the basics of epidemiology and biostatistics, but the science behind infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, and other public health problems. I received quality mentorship during the completion of my MPH capstone project, as well as throughout the course of my studies.
As an EIS officer, most recently I investigated an outbreak of leptospirosis infections among dogs and assessed zoonotic transmission to people, including risk factors for leptospirosis infection. Veterinarians play a vital role in the health of animals, humans, and the environment. I use that One Health concept on a daily basis, no matter what project I’m tackling. The DVM/MPH program helped me to embrace One Health and set me up for success in the public health world.
- How did Illinois prepare you?
My class (2013) was the “guinea pig” class for the new integrated curriculum. I think that being exposed to the clinics early on, and being able to hone my clinical skills throughout vet school and not just during fourth year, really helped prepare me for my time in clinical practice. Looking back, I can say that I am grateful not only for the quality teaching and mentorship that I received in vet school, but also in my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois, for shaping who I am today and building not only professional skills, but improving my confidence and personal skills as well.
- What is your favorite Illinois memory?
I remember looking forward to Vetscapades every year, and although I cannot speak to one particular skit, I can say that it speaks a lot when you can let go and feel comfortable around your colleagues and professors and just poke fun at veterinary medicine and your school experience.
- Favorite vet phrase or word and why?
I love the Veterinarian’s Oath, and it specifically mentions our responsibility in public health:
“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of livestock resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge. I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics. I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.”
For favorite words, back when I was in school I loved “zona pellucida” from repro. I don’t know why, but it just was a lot of fun to say.
- Favorite animal to work with and why?
I did a study tour in Brazil years ago, and I got to work with tapirs, maned wolves, anteaters, oncilla, crab-eating foxes, peccaries, and more. I don’t think I can choose a favorite, but I will say that I enjoyed working with them because I was able to apply what I had learned in school to these more exotic species. I volunteered for several establishments, including the Sorocaba Zoo, Mata Ciliar Wild Feline Rescue, Japi Ecological Reserve, Zooflora Rescue, and Tropical Sustainability Institute. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I will forever cherish the opportunity to help learn more about and protect these beautiful animals.
- Favorite zoonotic disease and why?
This is also a hard question for me to answer because I love so many! ☺ If I had to pick one, I would say bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease, only because it was one of the first zoonotic diseases that I learned about that sparked my realization that veterinarians are important in public health. BSE is caused by a prion, and can be transmitted to humans by eating food contaminated with them. When it has been transmitted to humans, it is known as new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. During my last year of high school, I ended up writing my senior paper about Mad Cow Disease. Ebola is a close second, because it was another early influencer of my love of public health, and was sparked after reading The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston.