How many people decide on their career path at the age of three? Heather Broughton did.
As a toddler, Broughton took a keen interest in wildlife and by high school she knew she wanted to work in wildlife conservation. A trip to South Africa while an undergraduate at University of Wyoming gave her a specific area on which to focus her lifelong passion. Through a program called “Vets in the Wild”, she worked with researchers and veterinarians studying disease transmission. “It helped me focus on what I intend to go into in my Ph.D. which is disease ecology, epidemiology, and immunology.”
Now in her fourth year at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, Broughton has continued to work on this research while completing her DVM. It hasn’t been easy. “We don’t’ have a joint DVM/PhD so I’ve been working on it unofficially,” she says. With the guidance of her mentor, CVM Professor Anna Jolles, she has spent two summers in South Africa studying feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) in lions. “Our primary focus is FIV association with TB,” she says. Bovine TB is very prevalent in the Cape buffalo, the primary prey of lions. “We are seeing large die outs in the south but they are virtually unaffected in the north. We’re wondering if some sort of co-infection is driving that pattern,” she says.
Broughton’s first summer of study in South Africa was funded by the CVM Department of Biomedical Sciences. In 2010, she applied for and got a scholarship from the Morris Animal Foundation which allowed her to develop a disease study that would ultimately become her PhD topic. In 2011, Biomedical Sciences came through again and this summer she will be returning to South Africa on a two-year Morris Animal Foundation fellowship to officially begin her PhD. Broughton was one of the few undergraduates to receive this fellowship; it is typically awarded to those already working on their PhD. “When I got the letter offering me the Morris fellowship, it was the happiest day of my life,” she says. Broughton credits Jolles with helping her win the award. “They know her work and know she is an excellent mentor,” says Broughton.
For the next two years, Broughton will be doing several health studies in lions with FIV to see how they are doing physically. “One of the things I am particularly interested in is to see if animals with FIV are more predisposed to inflamation of the kidneys,” she says. “They get all these little proteins that deposit in their kidneys and their immune system attacks their kidneys and sends them into renal failure. At the same time, bovine TB has a protein called amaloid that deposits in the kidneys and ruins their function, clogs everything up. So the two synergistically could have an extreme effect. Chronic renal failure is one of the top causes of death in older felines, large or small.”
In the past couple of decades, large cats in African parks have faced increasing exposure to new pathogens. “A lot of the pathogens coming in from outside, from exposure on the edges of the park, are from domesticated animals,” says Broughton. “They carry a whole host of other pathogens that the lions have not been exposed to before. Things like canine distemper and rabies. Bovine TB had never been seen before it got into the park in the 1960s. So we are worried that an immunosuppressed population is being exposed to these new infections that they have no defense against.”
The ultimate goal of all this research is to help managers of wildlife parks in Africa develop solutions to critical medical issues. “We are working really closely with SansPark, the governing body in South Africa that regulates the parks,” says Broughton. “The data that we get will influence their management strategies. For example, Kruger [National Park] is a huge expanse of land and straddles three countries. They can use our data to influence how they translocate animals.” Specifically, it will help them answer questions like: As they open up new sections of the park, how important is it to screen for FIV? Should they keep FIV positive animals out? What should they be doing about TB?
Broughton envisions a career in disease ecology and epidemiology, most likely at an academic institution or environmental agency but in the meantime she is focusing her lifelong commitment to wildlife on South Africa. “We are obligated to help these animals because we have fenced them into this island population where they can’t move naturally,” she says.