A passion for wildlife conservation
In countries where animals and humans live in close contact, the spread of microorganisms can occur and with it, antibiotic resistance becomes an increasing health threat. Katy Battle of Richmond, Va., a junior majoring in wildlife science in the department of fish and wildlife conservationin the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is learning how to apply molecular techniques to important questions regarding the transmission of antibiotic resistant bacteria from humans to animals through work with her mentor Kathleen Alexander, associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Alexander, who is an affiliated researcher with the Fralin Life Science Institute, spends much of her time in Botswana conducting research on the Chobe River, a common water source shared by people and animals.
“In many countries, regulation of antibiotics may be limited, with people freely using them but not necessarily understanding how to take them,” said Battle. The result is the production of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria or pathogens. Once this resistant bacterium spreads and is re-introduced into human population, the antibiotics originally available will no longer treat the diseases the bacterium caused. Through Alexander and Sarah Jobbins, a Post Doctoral Associate in Alexander’s lab, she has had the opportunity to learn about real world challenges facing human and animal health in Africa and develop skills in complex microbiological research techniques.
Alexander visits Botswana throughout the year where she conducts fieldwork in her long-term study site. There, Alexander collects water samples from the river and fecal samples from, humans, and wild and domestic animals living in these wetlands ecosystems. She brings these samples back for detailed analyses to her lab in Fralin Hall. As a Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow, Battle spent her 2012 summer semester, and then subsequently, the 2012 fall semester, in the Alexander Wildlife Health and Disease Ecology Lab gaining valuable experience from the Post doctoral and graduate students working in the lab. Her work was focused on assisting Jobbins in examining Escherichia coli from fecal samples collected from wildlife. E. coli can be found in most mammalian guts and is used as a model for understanding how microorganisms might move between humans and animals. Detection of antibiotic resistant E.coli in wildlife can be an important signal that human microorganisms are indeed moving across the landscape.
This is not the only research that Battle has experienced. For her Human Dimensions of Fisheries & Wildlife course, she conducted a survey to assess Virginia Tech student and faculty opinions of skunks and how the skunk population should be managed. Although the study was not published, her team found some interesting results.
“Most people on campus do not believe skunks have much of an influence but they have strong opinions of how the skunk population should be managed,” said Battle. Participants of her survey largely prefer utilizing excluder devices and garbage management systems over euthanasia or scent gland removal.
“Nothing is isolated in habitats. When problems arise, if we do not manage or understand them, it has the potential to not only affect wildlife but us as well,” said Battle.
Battle has a growing interest in research and wishes to continue her efforts in Alexander’s lab this spring. Her experience with research includes the 2012 Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, and participation inBill Hopkins’ and Ignacio Moore’stropical biology and conservation course. This course involves a four week trip to Ecuador where Battle’s research involved recording a master list of all species detected at four different elevations. Her passion for research embodies Virginia Tech’s motto of ut prosim (that I may serve) because her work assists the Alexander lab group in their efforts to address an escalating problem affecting both human and animal health in Africa.
Alexander notes, “Our work provides an exciting environment for young scientists to become involved in international health research and service. The SURF program has contributed importantly to the generation of unique research training opportunities for undergraduates, a critical step in the creation of young scientists able to engage the increasingly complex problems facing our global community! “