Pursue your passion for the ecosystem

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Courtesy of Dr. Karen Hirsch/Dr. Steve Osofsky

Veterinarians and students who harbor a passion for ecosystem health were offered inspiring examples of colleagues who are making a difference and were provided with useful suggestions on embarking on a career or volunteering.

In her AVMA convention session on carving a niche as an ecosystem health practitioner, Dr. Gwen Griffith began by sharing her definition: "An ecosystem health practitioner is a person engaged in the practice of creating or promoting healthy ecosystems with functional processes that are viable, balanced, and free of alien disease."

Working in ecosystem health requires a multidisciplinary team approach at the landscape level, and having a veterinary voice is important in such endeavors, she said. Because veterinarians are good at systems-oriented approaches, they can apply those skills to ecologic systems, with some additional experience, education, or other training in ecology.

"Our skill set is very applicable," Dr. Griffith said, "and I think there's a growing awareness of the applicability of those skills."

Veterinarians working in ecosystem health are found in many venues, including conservation organizations, federal and state agencies, nongovernmental agencies, private ranch practice, nonprofits, and foundations. They are involved in watershed protection, clean air advocacy, public health, wildlife and zoo medicine, public policy, education, research, writing, and other areas.

There are numerous training efforts to help veterinarians move into this field, Dr. Griffith said. For veterinary students, there are a few colleges with good programs, and students at other colleges can take advantage of internships and preceptorships and craft their own experiences, she said. The American College of Zoological Medicine developed a model curriculum that outlines a training program for veterinary colleges.

The International Society for Ecosystem Health is organizing a working group to look at the integration of science, policy, ethics, and economics. Veterinarians are heavily represented. A series on that effort is scheduled for publication in EcoHealth Journal.

Dr. Griffith talked about a few veterinarians who have carved interesting niches for themselves in ecosystem health.

As executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Dr. Stephen A. Smith is an advocate for clean air, water quality, and energy policy. Under his direction, the alliance helped win commitments for more than $4 billion in pollution equipment upgrades from the coal-fired plants of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"Another shining example of an ecosystem health practitioner is Dr. Leslie Dierauf," Dr. Griffith noted. Her extensive resume includes serving as an AVMA Congressional Science Fellow, a staff member for the U.S. House of Representatives, and conservation biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Today, she directs the National Wildlife Health Center and interfaces with Congress, researchers, and agencies in a myriad of ways.

Dr. Anne Fairbrother, chief of the Ecosystems Characterization Branch for the Environmental Protection Agency, is a veterinary toxicologist whose work in ecologic risk assessment takes her around the world.

Dr. Dave Hunter oversees media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner's bison herds at 13 ranches stretching from New Mexico to Montana to Georgia. There, many conservation projects, such as one involving the black-footed ferret and prairie dog, have shown that such endeavors are also economically sustainable.

Dr. Steve Osofsky serves as senior policy adviser for wildlife health at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the only U.S.-based "big, international, nongovernmental organization" with a conservation mission that actually has a veterinary program. Dr. Osofsky's brainchild is Animal Health for the Environment And Development—AHEAD—focused on a "One World/One Health" ecosystem approach.

"The impact of diseases on areas essential for wildlife is now being formally recognized as an important component of landscape-level conservation planning," Dr. Osofsky was quoted as saying. "This is an important message for us to take out there with us—animal health matters in conservation, and we are the voice of expertise in this arena," Dr. Griffith noted.

In her own case, Dr. Griffith said, "The big change for me came several years into my career when I served the AVMA Congressional Science Fellowship and worked for the Senate Environment Committee. This crash course in environmental policy at the federal level made me want to work at the landscape level instead of one animal at a time." Many varied positions later, she serves as an independent program consultant to the Cumberland River Compact, the Tennessee Environmental Council, and the Alliance of Veterinarians for the Environment.

Drs. Griffith and Dierauf co-founded AVE in 1995. "We work to promote conservation and environmental health through the veterinary profession," she noted. One AVE project under development is Veterinary Voices for Healthy Waters, which will focus on connections between good water protection practices and animal health.

Veterinarians in clinical practice can also contribute in many ways to ecosystem health. Dr. Griffith suggested leading by example. Participate in a leadership role with a local environmental organization. Get involved with a local watershed group and help them form a water quality advisory committee that's science-based. Support conservation groups financially. And get involved in organized veterinary medicine, such as creating an environmental committee with your local VMA.

To carve a niche, tap into your creativity. Know the job market, and realize that "veterinarian" will not be in the job title. Find a mentor, read relevant literature, participate in local initiatives, and take classes. Stay in touch with your passion.

For the Career Changing Tool Kit developed by Dr. Dierauf, visit the Alliance of Veterinarians for the Environment's Web site, www.AVEweb.org.