Standing in the laboratory where she has learned how to extract DNA from a virus, Elizabeth Bukowski, Class of 2008, describes how veterinary medicine addresses public health as well as animal disease. "I've wanted to become a vet to help animals and people."
She explains, "Rift Valley fever is a zoonotic disease, which means it can make animals and people sick" The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) describes Rift Valley fever, found in many African countries, as a sometimes deadly viral disease of cattle, sheep, goats, wildlife—and humans.
Bukowski's original goal in becoming a veterinarian involves the rewards of working one-on-one with animals as a private practitioner, but her DNA project has helped her see a broader role in veterinary medicine. She says, "Doing research to develop a vaccine or a better diagnostic test may allow me to help more animals and people."
Bukowski is one of more than 40 students who spent Summer 2005 performing a research as part of the Students Training in Advanced Research, or STAR program. Her proposal, "An ELISA Kit for Rapid Diagnostics of Rift Valley Fever Virus," was developed with the mentoring of Tilahun Yilma, head of the International Laboratory of Molecular Biology for Tropical Diseases.
Bukowski found that Yilma's laboratory offered an opportunity to combine animal health research with international impact. She learned also that Yilma provides mentoring and exposure to new colleagues and laboratory training. "Yilma is passionate about getting veterinary students into research," Bukowski notes.
Her project builds on the prior success of Yilma's lab in developing a rapid diagnostic test for rinderpest, a highly infectious cattle disease that can devastate entire herds and severely reduce incomes in poorer countries.
Bukowski's project incorporates the isolation of genes from DNA, "harvesting" DNA material, and growing cells that express a particular protein. These preliminary steps are needed to develop a rapid diagnostic test to identify Rift Valley fever. The ability to detect Rift Valley fever quickly would aid public health experts in responding to an outbreak and preventing an epidemic. While she "RVF is exciting to work on because it's on the list of potential agents of bioterrorism," says Bukowski. "I could be playing a small part in defense of the country."
Bukowski is new to the science arena. Before veterinary school she worked as a newspaper reporter. She says that she was initially surprised at the slow pace of investigation. "Problems can be frustrating," she admits, "but they always provide new knowledge. If everything goes as planned, it's more like following a recipe. You have to be patient and think of the reasons that you're doing this step in the process. I like the solving-the-mystery- part [of research] so, luckily, I get to repeat a lot of experiments."
Whether or not Bukowski decides to pursue PhD-level training beyond her veterinary degree, she says that she benefits from her growing appreciation of the research field. The problem-solving nature of research, Bukowski concludes, "will also help me be a better diagnostician."