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Auburn animal sciences/pre-vet alum finds her place in public health

Auburn animal sciences/pre-vet alum finds her place in public health

Sarah Keller White chose Auburn University over numerous other institutions of higher education because it met her top two college-search criteria: One, it offered undergraduates a strong pre-vet/pre-professional option in animal sciences, and, two, it was a long way from Ohio.

The first criterion? Because she is now and ever has been a horse person and made up her mind early on that spending her life as a veterinarian dedicated to keeping horses and other large animals healthy would be the ultimate. That Auburn also had a vet school was just icing on the cake.
And the latter requirement?

“I was determined to go out of state to college,” she says. “I wanted to be far enough away from home that my parents couldn’t just drop in without warning, where they couldn’t say they ‘just happened’ to be down this way.”

“Home” was Broadview Heights, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, but after arriving at Auburn as a freshman in the fall of 2007, “home” became the College of Agriculture as a whole and the Department of Animal Sciences in particular.

“That’s one of the things I loved when I first came to Auburn for a visit,” she says. “It was easy to pick up on. Everybody was family in the College of Ag.”

Throughout her freshman year as an animal sciences major, White remained 100 percent committed to her dream of a career as a large-animal veterinarian. But then she discovered research, and for the first time in her almost two decades of life, she started second-guessing a future that once seemed certain.

It happened her sophomore year at Auburn, when she started working in the research lab of animal sciences adjunct professor Frank “Skip” Bartol. Bartol, now associate dean for research and graduate studies in Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is recognized internationally for his pioneering research related to the development and function of female reproductive tracts in hoofed mammals.

“It was an incredible experience,” she says. “I’d never given much thought to doing research, but I really got into it, and I started thinking that when I got my D.V.M., instead of going into practice, I’d do research.’”

That plan, though, proved to be short-lived. White explains why.

“We did a lot of research in the field, out working with pigs, cows, horses, and that was fine,” she says. “But one day, I realized that if I wanted a research career; I didn’t necessarily need to look at live animals all day—or spend the next 10 years of my life in school earning a vet med degree.”

And just like that, she was over the whole veterinarian thing and heading down a different path—one rarely traveled by pre-vet/pre-professional majors in the College of Ag. The destination: public health.

In May 2011, she graduated with her animal sciences degree from Auburn and three months later was in Savannah, Georgia, in the Master of Public Health program at Armstrong State University. And she was ready.

“The thing about the Department of Animal Sciences’ pre-vet program is that the science courses you take prepare you for a lot more than just vet school,” she said. “I’m proof of that.”

While at Armstrong State, White served a year as graduate coordinator of the institution’s undergraduate research program—a fitting role, given the major impact research had on her life.

“That was exciting, because I had the chance to get students, whether they were in liberal arts or in life sciences, thinking about the possibility of research,” she says.

She completed her master’s in 2013 and was actively applying for public- and private-sector research positions when One Health captured her attention.

One Health is a global initiative that recognizes the relationship between human health and the health of animals and the environment. For White, the concept of investigating issues linking public health with animal health struck a chord.

Once again, a major change of plans. This one took her to the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions where, as a doctoral student, she focused on public health risks associated with diseases spread between people and animals, viruses that include influenza D, Zika, chikungunya and dengue.

The first of those viruses, influenza D, was first discovered, in cattle, in 2014 and was believed to affect bovines only. But in a pilot research project she launched to challenge that theory, White found that 94 percent of cattle workers in north central Florida who worked with infected animals had influenza D antibodies in their blood. She published that study in 2016.

In May, she was awarded her Ph.D. in public health and is now a postdoctoral associate at the Emerging Pathogens Institute in UF’s Department of Environmental and Global Health, where she continues her work on arboviruses, which are viruses transmitted by arthropods—in this case, mosquitoes. Specifically, she’s focusing on the detection and isolation of viruses in human and arthropod samples for surveillance efforts in Haiti.

And she loves her job.

“If you’d asked me when I was a freshman at Auburn what I’d be doing in 10 years, something like this wouldn’t have entered my mind,” she says. “In retrospect, though, this is where I was meant to be. I can’t imagine anything that would make me any happier and more satisfied than I am now.”

Not even being a vet.

Laura Cauthen