University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

A New Breed of Vet

Alumni from the U of M Center for Animal Health and Food Safety address far-ranging problems that arise where animals and humans meet.

Auguste “Gus” Brihn (B.A. ’10, M.P.H. ’20) is a second-year CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Acute Communicable Disease Control.
Photo credit: Tara Pixley

Animal and human health have long been deeply intertwined. For instance, with the ongoing Covid pandemic, the importance of studying zoonotic diseases—those that “spill” from animals to humans—has moved to center stage.

But as populations across the globe soar, helping ensure the world can continue to safely raise animals while still protecting both animal and human health has become increasingly complicated.

The Center for Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) in the U of M’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) dedicates itself to these issues. CAHFS graduates go on to collaborate with partners across the globe to ensure food safety and sustainability, as well as economic stability.

Over the past 20 years, the Center has trained 350 graduate students, and its two-year residency has graduated 50 specialized Veterinary Public Health and Preventive Medicine (VPHPM) Residency alumni who manage, anticipate, and mitigate complex problems where human, animal, and ecosystem health meet.

Certified by the American College of Preventive Veterinary Medicine Practitioners, the residency offers training in food protection and defense, infectious disease management, epidemiology and biostatistics, public administration and education, and environmental health and toxicology. The CAHFS residency is one of only two of its kind in the nation. It also turned 20 in 2021, making it the oldest center of its kind in the country.

Nestled within the St. Paul campus, CAHFS is currently working on 16 major projects in 13 countries across five continents. Twenty-five partner countries collaborate with the center on projects, as well as other research and training.

And when residents finish their two-year stint, they take their wide-ranging skills across the world, to industry, academia, government, think tanks, and more. One currently leads the CDC One Health unit in Thailand. Another is embedded in U.S. Homeland Security. (Rene Russo’s character in the 1995 pandemic film Outbreak is also said to be based on a graduate of the U of M program.)

On the front lines

CAHFS accepts veterinary professionals who want to transition from a clinical career to more of a system-based, preventive medicine, public health-focused career. Residents may unsnarl health hazards like E. coli in leafy greens, tuberculosis, antibiotic resistance, diseases like Covid-19, and more.

Auguste “Gus” Brihn (B.A. ’10, M.P.H. ’20) is a second-year CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Acute Communicable Disease Control. He’s been working on the Covid-19 response in Los Angeles since graduating from the CAHFS residency. 

“My role shifts depending on the need of the department,” he says. So far, it has included investigating how the pandemic has impacted novel multidrug-resistant organisms in long-term care facilities; comparing SARS-CoV-2 Laboratory PCR tests and point-of-care antigen tests; assisting with the Covid vaccine roll-out; and working with the Corrections and Detention Facility and Law Enforcement Covid-19 unit. Brihn has also worked on both a giardia and canine influenza outbreak.

“[This EIS] program provided unparalleled training in applied epidemiology, which I was looking for,” he says, adding that CAHFS gave him foundational training in veterinary preventive medicine and public health.

Brihn says his wide-ranging studies taught him to ask, “Who are the players (pathogens, government agencies, regulations, surveillance databases, etc.)? What roles do they have? And how do they interact?” His basic understanding of these helped create a jumping-off point for almost every scenario Brihn has encountered so far in his role.  

A far-flung network 

“What drew me to public health were some of the cases I handled when I was a clinical veterinarian,” says Michael Mahero (M.P.H. ’14). He’s another of the board-certified public health and preventive medicine veterinarians who graduated from CAHFS. He’s also dedicated most of his career to understanding the dynamics of disease transmission among humans, animals, and the environment. Today, he’s the VPHPM residency director.

“We are training emerging leaders who can step into increasingly complex problems [and] can lead us in generating solutions,” Mahero says. “It’s not just training people to be technically proficient. It’s also developing leadership potential. You need people with different perspectives, and that is one of the unique things about the residency. It brings together a cohort of professionals … from environmental health, public health, and human health.”

“We interpret veterinary public health in a broader sense—not just zoonotic diseases,” says Andres Perez, endowed chair of Global Animal Health and Food Safety at CVM and the director of CAHFS. This includes diseases or situations that don’t necessarily impact human health directly but may negatively impact the food productivity of animals. 

Diseases like African Swine Fever (ASF)—a contagious and deadly virus that infects swine, but not humans—is one. ASF affects trade and food production and also batters ag economies in countries like Vietnam, China, and the Dominican Republic.

“ASF is a huge concern for [swine] producers,” Perez says. CAHFS researchers have spent years learning more about the disease and collaborating with countries like Vietnam to bolster the global capacity to control ASF’s spread. The U.S. swine industry needs those ties to Vietnam for trade as well as ASF tracking.

“We’re setting expectations, bridging cultures, and navigating different agendas,” says Perez. “The residents and graduate students we train are part of the workforce that helps us implement those projects.” 

A focus on equity

Lauren Bernstein (M.P.H. ’19, left) finished her CAHFS residency in July 2020. Now an assistant professor in community medicine at the CVM, Bernstein has a background in companion animal practice and community-engaged public health research. After vet school, Bernstein worked in private practice for five years. “But the residency was still top of mind,” she says. “What really drove my interest in public health was health disparities among humans and I wanted to see how that came across in animals.” 

Bernstein is particularly interested in understanding how structural social, economic, political, or cultural barriers affect access to information and care in a veterinary setting.  She also wants to address equity challenges people face in accessing pet care. Transportation, language barriers, differences in cultural opinions of pet ownership, transparency, trust—the list goes on.

As a result, Bernstein helped establish a partnership with the Animal Humane Society and co-created a new fourth-year clinical rotation for student vets there. The AHS is a shelter system but also has two nonprofit vet clinics, including one in the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul, an area historically excluded from vet resources, what Bernstein calls “a vet desert.” 

The clinic is strategically placed on a key public transit line near other community health resources. It’s also a nonprofit and operates on a three-tiered pricing structure, and costs are subsidized by external funding. “People qualify for services based on income and social services,” Bernstein says. “So, quality of care and customer service are not sacrificed.”

Meanwhile, students in the rotation learn about equitable vet care, how to practice within a budget, and how to serve clients with diverse needs, abilities, access to information, and care interests.

Bernstein’s role at the CVM has all her favorite things, she says; epidemiology, understanding disease trends in communities, examining how active care impacts disease trends and treatment outcomes, and research and teaching. She started her CAHFS studies working on a community project led by Tiffany Wolf (Ph.D. ’15), a wildlife epidemiologist and CVM assistant professor. Wolf collaborates with four tribal nations in Minnesota, and one project included investigating a parasite that could spill over from wildlife to domestic dogs. 

Bernstein also serves as the adviser for the Student Initiative for Reservation Veterinary Services (SIRVS), and co-adviser for the Veterinary Treatment Outreach for Urban Community Health (VeTouch). In these student-led organizations, students run free clinics providing veterinary care to communities. SIRVS focuses on partnerships with tribal communities across the state while VeTouch works with local partners in the Twin Cities area.

“I feel so grateful to be in this work,” Bernstein says. “I love getting us all to think about not just an individual animal or population of animals, but about people, communities, and societies that are a part of that relationship. People are such a huge part of what we do, so not talking about socio-political elements of that limits the vet profession.”

Carolyn Bernhardt is a freelance medical and science writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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