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Urban Birds and Avian Influenza: A Research Project

September 15, 2011 

Why do vet students conduct research?

“I have some background in wildlife research,” says Alicia Bruce, DVM class of 2013. “I wanted some experience with a research project from start to finish.”

Bruce found such a project in the summer of 2011 as a participant in in the Students Training in Advanced Research, or STAR, program. Through summer projects with faculty mentors, the STAR program fosters student interest in research and research-oriented veterinary careers.  

Dr. [Walter] Boyce was an obvious choice,” says Bruce of her mentor, professor of parasitology and co-director of the Wildlife Health Center. Bruce knew of the center’s work and Boyce’s expertise after having taken a course from him.

Bruce approached Boyce and developed with him a project linked to research and surveillance that the Wildlife Health Center conducts on behalf of the National Institutes for Health. “He spent so much time with me. As a mentor, he was very involved.”

Since 2007, center faculty in Northern and Southern California (and working with collaborators elsewhere) have sampled birds and collected data to learn more about the transmission of avian influenza.

Avian flu viruses frequently mutate into different strains, some more pathogenic than others. Bruce’s goal was to look at relationships between viral sequences in birds from urban areas and populations in the wild. She also wanted to see if avian influenza was being transmitted within the UCD Arboretum mallard population.

As a researcher, Bruce collected samples in the UC Davis Arboretum of resident mallards and other birds. Fecal, blood and DNA samples have been gathered and processed. Each method represented a different kind of contribution to scientific knowledge – and a new laboratory method for Bruce to master. “I did some virology, inoculating chicken embryos with virus isolates. I did some egret sampling. At the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, I learned how to perform ELISA testing on blood samples to detect antibodies to the avian influenza virus.”

She also analyzed some gene sequences from virus samples returned from a specialized laboratory and that had been submitted to a database called Gen Bank. With access to the database sequences from many sources, she discovered an apparent connection between samples that she had  analyzed and bird samples taken from other locations. “We found related [gene] sequences with birds from Minnesota, British Columbia, Oregon and Southern California.”

In blood samples, antibodies can persist for up to a year, Bruce says. She found evidence of exposure in certain birds going back to 2010 when samples were taken, and in some cases, learned that several birds that had initially shown no antibodies tested positive when later samples were performed.   

As the NIH project leader continues surveillance and research, Bruce begins her next year of veterinary school still enthused about wildlife medicine and rehabilitation. “The information from this project,” she says, “helps us develop new hypotheses about how the influenza virus may be introduced into one habitat or spread by resident birds to migrating species.”

The STAR program coordinates and offers funding opportunities on a competitive basis so that veterinary students may experience veterinary and biomedical research during the summer months. Faculty mentors guide students as they design projects and develop skills in:    
•        Scientific dialogue and communication
•        Library and literature research
•        Laboratory methods and professionalism
•        Research ethics
•        Grant writing
•        Self-education and motivation
•        Critical review and assessment

The 10-week research project is supported by the School of Veterinary Medicine Office of Research and Graduate Education. Each research project is developed independently. All of the approximately 40 students who participate each year present their results at a scientific poster session in the fall. This year's session takes place at 5 p.m. Friday, September 16 in Gladys Valley Hall on the UC Davis campus.