Aspiring disease detective Betsy Schroeder gains research, international experience in dual-degree program, earns CDC fellowship

Betsy Schroeder with Magellanic penguin in Chile
Fourth-year student Betsy Schroeder observed Magellanic penguins at Isla Magdalena in Chilean Patagonia during an externship with the CDC.

Betsy Schroeder of Johnstown, Pennsylvania accidentally applied to the DVM/Ph.D. dual degree program when she checked a box thinking she was simply requesting more information while filling out her application paperwork for the veterinary college. When she unexpectedly received an interview for the dual degree program, however, her bosses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) immediately told her that “you need to do the dual degree. It will give you more options career-wise,” Schroeder explained.

Schroeder, who already held a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Notre Dame and a master of public health degree from the University of Minnesota, had been working at the CDC in Atlanta for a few years after graduation. “My bosses there were veterinarians, and I loved what they did,” Schroeder said. “And I knew I always wanted to go back to school for something, and I looked at them and said I really like what you guys do ... and so I decided to apply to vet school.”

Schroeder was accepted into the dual degree program for the fall of 2009 with a focus in the public/corporate track. “I came to vet school with the purpose of doing public health better and that makes me different from most of my classmates who knew they wanted to be veterinarians from the time they were like five,” said Schroeder, who is now a fourth-year student at the veterinary college. “I love the fact that I would have the opportunity to take classes on public policy.”

Her own research interests include salmonella and herd health. “I’m trying to find a way to detect latent carriers of salmonella, so animals or people that are shedding the disease but don’t show overt clinical signs,” she said. “It’s a big problem in horses, it’s a big problem in cattle, it’s a big problem in people, so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to find a way to identify those animals within a herd.”

She continued, “I love that herd health is a real thing in veterinary medicine … That’s what I’ve always been interested in, these infectious diseases that are on the interface between people and the environment — this One Health concept.”

A global perspective

This public health focus has created numerous opportunities for Schroeder. This past year, she was one of 11 students who received the CDC’s Hubert Global Health Fellowship which partners third- and fourth-year veterinary and medical students with a CDC staff member mentor on a public health project in a developing country.

Through the fellowship, Schroeder spent six weeks in Ethiopia to help set up a rabies control and surveillance program. “Their national animal is the Ethiopian wolf which is actually one of the most endangered species on the planet, and so they’ve got these tiny pockets of these wolves that they’re trying really hard to protect,” she said “But there are dogs around too and the dogs will often give the wolves rabies or distemper. And so it’s already a very small population to begin with and so it’s hugely concerning.”

Betsy Schroeder outside Simien National Park in Ethiopia
Schroder spent six weeks in Ethiopia to assist with a rabies control and surveillance program to protect the Ethiopian wolf, one of only three wolf species living in Africa and the rarest and most endangered canid in the world. She is pictured outside Simien National Park in Ethiopia, one of the few places that has a population of Ethiopian wolves.

Through their research, Schroeder and others realized that they would have to modify their response program as they observed that “when [the local people] get bit by a dog, they don’t necessarily go to the hospital. They go to a local traditional healer. And so, what that meant for us, from the CDC’s perspective, is whatever program we designed needs to include those [healers] because otherwise we’re just going to miss everybody.”

Schroeder described her Ethiopia experience as offering a “rewarding public health project.” She added, “We were able to figure out where are the gaps that we’re missing [and] how is the information not necessarily getting through.”

Schroeder also recently returned from Chile, where she worked with Minister of Health officials on several projects. “Their whole agricultural system is very different than what we see here,” said Schroeder. “They have an endemic circulating disease that we don’t see a whole lot in the United States called hantavirus.”

The hantavirus prevention work in Chile reminded Schroder of prior messaging in Yellowstone and Yosemite. “It was really cool to see how while the message may have been different, the way of communicating it was very similar,” she said.

From student leader to epidemiologist

Veterinary students at the CDC in January 2014
Schroder was among the college's student representatives at the 5th biennial "Day at CDC for Veterinary Students," in 2014 who met with alumna and CDC epidemiologist Jennifer McQuiston (DVM ’97, MS ’98). Pictured are (front, l-r) Kaitlyn Childs, Jennifer McQuiston, Orr Rozov, Lucy Lee, (middle, l-r) Keren Rozensher, Larisa Niehaus, Betsy Schroeder, Debora Weiss, (back, l-r) Kevin Pelzer, Sarah Krones, Charlie Alex, and Robert Fathke.

After graduating this spring, Schroeder will once again be working with the CDC, this time as one of 80 veterinarians, epidemiologists, dentists, nurses, and pharmacists chosen for the 2016 Epidemic Intelligence Service Fellowship.

As part of the two-year program, Schroeder has been assigned to work with the Indiana State Health Department in Indianapolis. “One of the things that I’m most excited about is I will be reporting directly to the state public health veterinarian there,” said Schroeder, who looks forward to combining her interest in public health and veterinary education in the new job.

Schroeder has already had a few conversations with her new boss in preparation. “I’m very very excited. I can’t wait. I came back to school to try to put myself in a position to get this job and so I feel very fortunate that it’s worked out that way,” she explained.

While at the veterinary school, Schroeder also served as the 2014-15 president of the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association and was a founding member of the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative Student Chapter. “Leadership has always been something that’s been very important to me and having the opportunity to serve the people I’m working with,” said Schroeder.

Schroeder also found time to be a contestant on the game show “Jeopardy” in 2011 while pursuing her Ph.D. studies and later participated on and won “Sports Jeopardy” as a third-year veterinary student. She has also run a few marathons and takes care of a dog named Luna and cat named Max.

She credits the public/corporate track and her experiences at the veterinary college for her success in reaching her goals. “The public/corporate track was the primary reason why I came here, and one of the things I like most about it is that it does highlight all of the different things veterinarians can do,” she said. “The degree opens up a lot of doors that you may not even know exist and that you have access to as your career evolves too.”

Betsy Schroeder on the Sports Jeopardy set
Schroeder, the first female contestant and first female champion on Sports Jeopardy, appeared in October 2014 on Sports Jeopardy’s Season 1, Episode 4. She was among 30,000 contestants to register online for auditions to compete on the show’s first season.