Research in motion

Tropical location provides unique opportunities
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

The bat, illuminated by the student's headlamp, yielded to her light yet firm grip. It had already been weighed, had had its forearm and tibia measured, and had been checked for parasites and unusual markings. Dr. Amanda D. Loftis observed from a few feet away.

She and 13 students at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts, West Indies, are working toward their goal of collecting 100 bats.

Dr. Loftis said they are the only remaining native animal population on the island of St. Kitts. She hopes to learn more about their migration patterns, any pathogens potentially harmful to them, their livelihood, and their genetics.

Rosina "Tammi" Krecek, PhD, says the Ross veterinary school campus now has a small diagnostics laboratory but will soon need a bigger laboratory to accommodate the research department's growing needs.

"We don't know a lot about them," said Dr. Loftis, assistant professor of infectious disease at Ross.

Through studies such as Dr. Loftis', the school has contributed greatly to the tropical island in terms of public health, epidemiology, and wildlife conservation, and has the potential to do more in coming years.

Starting from scratch

Rosina "Tammi" Krecek, PhD, associate dean for research and professor of parasitology, came on staff seven years ago to teach parasitology one semester a year, because she was based out of South Africa at the time.

In 2005, she shifted to full time after veterinary school Dean David J. DeYoung told her he needed to grow the research program and she was the one who could make that happen.

Dr. Krecek started practically from ground zero. At the time, four veterinary school faculty were involved in research programs. They had no facilities to house their work. Veterinary students were not involved in research, and research assistant positions and electives did not exist.

Today, 27 veterinary faculty members are conducting research, and the number of collaborative projects has increased from five to 63 in those five years. Extramural funding has come from a variety of sources, including the World Health Organization, World Bank, Pan American Health Organization, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some of the school's earliest studies looked at identifying the cause behind the death of reef fish, determining the prevalence of esophageal worms in feral dogs, and developing a community-based database on marine ecosystem health for St. Kitts and Nevis. The hard work of Dr. Krecek and the other veterinary research faculty has paid off. To date they have published more than 120 peer-reviewed papers detailing research findings from projects dealing with mosquito surveillance, dengue fever, and infectious and parasitic organisms identified in a wide range of host species, from dogs to donkeys to monkeys.

Ross, in turn, is emerging as a major player in the eastern Caribbean in the area of public health, Dr. Krecek said.

All creatures great and small

Three overall goals guide the research program. One goal is to foster research in infectious and parasitic diseases, public health and epidemiology, and conservation medicine and environmental health, in collaboration with island and regional Caribbean health professionals and scientists.

Two very active research areas involve mosquito and tick surveillance and aquatic animals such as turtles and, more recently, fish. The school is currently funding 26 intramural projects, and just as many are in the write-up stage.

One current study by Hamish Mohammed, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology and public health, is a mosquito surveillance project. He is working to determine which vector species are present in Caribbean islands. It is the first survey of this kind to be carried out in 30 years in St. Kitts and Nevis. Dr. Mohammed's objective is to build in-country capacity to collect and identify mosquitoes present in St. Kitts and Nevis, and to develop appropriate monitoring and control measures.

Dr. Esteban Soto, assistant professor of bacteriology, will be reviewing bacterial infections in tilapia and trying to understand what prohibits and inhibits the infectious capacity of new bacteria in the fish host. He has set up a small aquatic animal laboratory on campus with about 30 aquariums.

"Tilapia is an excellent source of high quality protein and can be farmed in fresh and marine waters in the Caribbean and South America regions," explained Dr. Soto in a Feb. 11 press release. "If we can understand the ideal conditions for cultivation of the fish, which means understanding bacteria growth, fish immunity and the interaction between both of them, then we can help in the prevention of diseases. In addition, if aquaculture can rise as a lucrative agricultural activity in the island, we may also be able to potentially decrease overfishing in the region."

Bat and monkey research comprise the other two research focus areas.

Working hand in hand

The other overall research goals at Ross veterinary school are to encourage student interest in, and appreciation for, research and to establish collaborative relationships with external stakeholders, including affiliate schools.

Ross University bat research
Ross veterinary students work with Dr. Amanda D. Loftis to set up a net meant to collect bats for her research.

Ross already has several extramural grants, including some with its affiliate schools, particularly the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

As part of their partnership, the two institutions are about to start a swine influenza project with a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Tropical-Subtropical Agriculture Research program.

This study will investigate swine influenza virus in pigs from developing swine production farming systems. St. Kitts has much more small-scale farming of pigs, compared for example with the U.S. and its commercial swine operations. The study will provide much-needed, basic information to allow true evidence-based prediction and outbreak modeling of emergent influenzas of combined animal/avian/human origin. This project will build regional expertise in the detection and characterization of SIV in the subtropical United States and the Caribbean.

"All of these areas of research are driven by how we can make the most meaningful contribution in this location, and by the passion from our team and faculty," Dr. Krecek said. "The passion and enthusiasm has led to our expansion of the research program and to attracting an amazing research team."