New fellowship brings public health to the zoo

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The USF College of Public Health and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo have teamed up to create the new Veterinary Public Health Postdoctoral Fellowship, an innovative teaching, research and training opportunity dedicated to the health of the animal and human populations, with an initial focus on the endangered Florida manatee.

Lowry Park Zoo

(Photo courtesy of the Lowry Park Zoo).

“We’re reaching out to a community that we’ve never really reached out to before. Traditionally when we think about public health and epidemiology we think specifically about people, but I would like for the COPH to be a part of advancing the science of moving evidence-based medicine and public health principles to animal populations as well,” said Dr. Kathleen O’Rourke, chair and professor of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

Dr. O'rourke

Dr. Kathleen O’Rourke (Photo by Natalie Preston).

The fellowship will utilize the research methods and skills traditionally associated with health assessments of human populations and apply them to those of animal populations during the two-year program.

The inaugural fellow of the program Dr. Melissa Nau, veterinarian, began in August 2016. She divides her full-time work schedule between clinical support of the zoo’s collection and manatee critical care hospital and fulfillment of academic requirements at the COPH.

Manatee Calf Venipuncture - Agua - Nov 8 2016

Dr. Melissa Nau (center) performing venipuncture on a manatee calf. (Photo courtesy of Nau)

Nau’s clinical support includes the opportunity to learn new health care skills and techniques, conduct research and produce published works. The position combines clinical methodologies, rescue and rehabilitation techniques, and population health assessment of manatees in both the wild and managed care.

Along with classes in epidemiology and biostatistics, Nau is receiving training and mentorship from experts in indoor air quality, nutrition and other subspecialties within public health research.

Completion of two graduate-level certificate programs, such as concepts and tools of epidemiology and applied biostatistics, is expected by the end of the program.

Throughout the program, Nau will also have the opportunity to provide service to and gain experience at several of the zoo’s conservation partners, including the Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Homosassa Spring State Wildlife Park.

Melissa Nau administering anesthesia to a Florida panther at the Lowry Park Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Nau)

Dr. Melissa Nau (right) administering anesthesia to a Florida panther at the Lowry Park Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Nau)

O’Rourke and Dr. Ray Ball, director of medical services at the Lowry Park Zoo, worked together to create and define this program through funds from the Joy McCann Foundation, a private family foundation aimed at strengthening the community and fostering science and sustainability.

“This joint collaboration all stems from our program with the Joy McCann Foundation. We had a program similar to this one earlier with the University of Florida but Tampa Bay is rich in academic and cultural resources and we all wanted to utilize those assets in this program,” Ball said. “We thought that combining the clinical training that the fellow will experience with the zoo would pair really nicely with the opportunities that the COPH has to offer.”

Dr. Ray Ball (left) assessing the health of a manatee (Photo courtesy of Lowry Park Zoo).

Dr. Ray Ball (left) assessing the health of a manatee (Photo courtesy of Lowry Park Zoo).

Looking toward the future, O’Rourke hopes that the program will grow and that the fellows and working professionals who go through the program will come back to the COPH after earning their graduate certificates and obtain an MPH degree through online courses.

“We want the program to lead to a bigger picture of providing more people with training in this type of area. The veterinarians won’t have to drop their work or leave their practice; they can take classes online,” she said.

O’Rourke said she hopes when researchers in epidemiology and biostatistics hear what they are studying in human populations is similar to what is happening in zoo populations that both populations will be able to benefit.

Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health

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