Ray Kaplan (DVM ‘88) awarded AAVP Distinguished Veterinary Parasitologist Award
“The parasites are really keeping me in business.”
Ray Kaplan—a two-time Virginia Tech alum, and professor of veterinary parasitology at University of Georgia specializing in drug resistance in nematode parasites—says his career focus hasn’t always been on worms. His message for his students, in fact, is demonstrative of his career-path as an undergraduate student, veterinary student, PhD student, researcher, postdoc, chief of parasite biology in the Army Veterinary Corps, and now professor, mentor, researcher, lab director, diplomate of both the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists and the European Veterinary Parasitology College, consultant, and decorated award-winner (to summarize): “Try to get as much of the diverse set of experiences as you can. You never know what path you’ll wind up taking. No career goes in a straight line. It zigs and zags and you never know how that zag is going to appear.”
While pursuing his DVM at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Kaplan didn’t expect his trajectory to lead him astray from life as a clinician and instead toward becoming an international expert in parasitology, particularly known for his expertise in anthelmintic resistance in equine, ruminant, camelid and canine parasites. Just this past July, Kaplan was awarded the internationally recognized American Association of Veterinary Parasitologists (AAVP) Boehringer Ingelheim Distinguished Veterinary Parasitologist Award—the highest award conferred by AAVP, which is given annually to honor contributions to veterinary parasitology that are widely recognized internationally as significant and important to understanding and controlling parasitic diseases of animals.
Growing up in a suburb of New York City, Kaplan may not have had the traditional background you’d expect for a student interested in farm animals. Nonetheless, his summer work on dairy farms led him to study dairy science in his undergrad at Virginia Tech. There, he participated in a five-year cooperative education program, where he also worked for three years in the Milk Secretion and Mastitis Laboratory at the USDA Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. It was during this time that he discovered parasitology, having the unexpected opportunity to work at the USDA Parasitology Research Institute.
Part of the fifth graduating class at VMCVM, Kaplan spent a total of ten years in Blacksburg. “I bleed orange and maroon,” he said when revisiting campus for the DVM class of 1988’s—an “extended family,” Kaplan calls them—thirty-year reunion. “This place is very special to me. Just walking around campus, it was a warm feeling. I walked past Pritchard Hall where I spent my freshman year, and that was forty years ago. That was a pretty crazy thought.”
While at VMCVM, Kaplan rediscovered parasitology, taking a class on the subject that re-piqued his interest; this fascination led to summer research and part-time lab-work. After then, while working as a clinical veterinarian for several years in a mixed-species private practice, he realized he “missed worm research,” and needed to change his path and head back to graduate school.
“I kind of just chose well when I thought of what I wanted to do,” Kaplan said of his decision to focus his research at University of Georgia on drug resistance in parasites. “I decided to do something because very little was being done and I made a whole career out of it.”
Kaplan’s Laboratory at University of Georgia focuses on the biology, genetics and epidemiology of resistance to anthelmintic (dewormer) drugs, and holds expertise using in vitro and animal models for anti-parasitic drug discovery—knowledge that extends into clinical parasitology and parasite control. He is most proud of his leading role in helping to change the paradigm of parasite control in the U.S. toward evidence-based targeted anthelmintic use that is integrated into a sustainable parasite management plan. Kaplan has done a great deal to change the mindset of veterinarians, livestock producers, and horse owners with regard to how parasite control should be viewed and practiced.
The reason this change is needed is clear. The drugs for controlling parasites that have played a big role for the past fifty years, Kaplan says, are no longer working in many areas of the world, which causes decreased productivity of animal-product food, and decreased health and welfare of animals, both large and small. In addition, he says human and animal parasites are “basically cousins” to each other, “so everything we know about animal parasites is directly applicable to the human side.” Much of the problems with controlling human parasites and human health in the underdeveloped world, Kaplan says, are issues with which veterinary medicine has a great deal of experience.
“We’ve learned so much in veterinary medicine. Our knowledge can help prevent those same problems from exploding on the human side. Recent scale-up of mass drug treatment programs to reduce the impact of worm infections in humans in the under-developed world has enormous parallels with the way anthelmintic drugs have been used in animals for decades. And though those treatment programs do amazing good for the health of people in those areas, the scale-up has been occurring without any regard to the likelihood of drug resistance, which would have horrible long-term consequences because there no real alternative drugs available. So, if resistance develops in human parasites then the long-term outcome could be complete failure of these programs—short-term benefit, long-term failure.” Kaplan believes there is still a window of opportunity to prevent the same problems of drug resistance from occurring in human parasites. “I’ve been sounding the alarm for the last ten years that we need to think about this and consider what we’ve learned in veterinary medicine so we can apply these lessons to prevent the same thing from happening in humans.”
Kaplan’s mission to spread his message has led him to conduct collaborative work, guest-lecture and speak throughout the world—opportunities for which he’s particularly grateful. At home, though, Kaplan’s great joy is mentoring his students and helping his colleagues solve problems.
“This profession has given me a great life,” Kaplan said. “Going back and doing it all over again, I can’t think of anything I would do differently—getting clinical experience and eventually taking the path I took, doing research. I’m really busy as a professor, so right now giving back mostly involves what I do—doing the research, educating and mentoring undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students, translating research findings to the farm and clinic to improve animal health, and providing service to the veterinary profession. Giving back to the college is also very important to me. I’ve been making annual contributions to the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and to the vet school for years. And when things finally slow down for me, finding ways to give back to the profession both through volunteer work and financial support of students and programs will be a big part of my retirement.”
-Written by Leslie Jernegan