U OF G AT FOREFRONT OF NEW GLOBAL APPROACH
STORY BY ANDREW VOWLES
“I was eight years old, and I wanted to be a monkey.” When that plan fell through, Travis Steffens decided to do the next best thing. He studied primates for his B.Sc., followed by grad studies in anthropology. During his first trip to Madagascar, he wanted to learn more about the impacts of habitat loss on endangered lemurs, those ring-tailed creatures perhaps best known to many viewers through the animated film series named after the African island nation. Steffens quickly realized that focusing on the animals and their environs left out a key third element: people. Today his research at the University of Guelph—and a nonprofit he founded in 2015 called Planet Madagascar—aims to understand the wider health interactions among humans, animals and environment to help conserve all three components.
That trifecta is a classic One Health problem – although Steffens wasn’t calling it that initially: “I saw myself as a primate conservation ecologist.” No, no, said a colleague, you’re a One Health researcher. It was the colleague who pointed him to a pertinent faculty opening in social sciences at U of G. Now a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Steffens finds himself among numerous experts from across campus who bring a holistic One Health approach to teaching, research and outreach in a variety of fields. As pathobiology professor Dr. Scott Weese, chief of infection control in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) Health Sciences Centre, says, “One Health is the intersection between human and animal and environmental health. The approach shows how we are all interrelated.”
And it’s vital for addressing what OVC dean Dr. Jeff Wichtel calls “complex, wicked problems” that defy straightforward solutions involving human or animal medicine alone. Think of the COVID-19 pandemic, believed to have been sparked after a coronavirus long harboured in wild animals leapt to people. Think of antimicrobial resistance that develops after “super-bugs” eluding livestock antibiotics enter farm fields and streams.
Think of the potential in an increasingly crowded world— one marked by urban expansion, increased travel and mobility, habitat destruction, encroachment of farming on natural spaces—for various diseases from Ebola to avian influenza to jump to humans.
“These are problems that can only be solved if we bring people from many disciplines together,” says Wichtel.
We still need doctors and veterinarians and ecologists, he allows. But we also need “natural scientists, social scientists, people from all backgrounds including animal and human health who can think across systems. It’s a systems-thinking approach.”
Tackling those complex problems and equipping grads with pertinent skills are the goals of a campus-wide initiative that now links all seven U of G colleges in One Health research and teaching in what is arguably the most comprehensive such undertaking for a Canadian institution. The University has put together undergraduate and graduate programs—including a first-in-Canada bachelor’s program being launched this year—as well as diverse research projects, a cross-campus institute
New Bachelor of One Health program first ever for Canada
comprising some 150 researchers and scholars, and dedicated One Health faculty positions in several colleges. “The University of Guelph, I believe, is the only institution in Canada that has taken One Health as a strategic direction for the entire campus,” says Wichtel, adding that a similar interdisciplinary impetus drives U of G’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, established in 2006 and now directed by Weese.
Adds Dr. Charlotte Yates, U of G president and vice-chancellor, “Our One Health Institute and One Health degree are the first of their kind in North America. By leveraging the very best parts of what may appear to be very different fields, we’ve been able to think across boundaries and develop more creative and innovative ideas. Today One Health is successfully developing graduates with the unique skills needed to address complex health issues affecting the world.”
This fall, U of G will launch its new Bachelor of One Health (BOH) program intended to train students in topics ranging from transmission of zoonotic disease (infections that jump between animals and humans), antimicrobial resistance and rural community health to agricultural sustainability, food security and species at risk.
“This is the first four-year undergraduate degree devoted to One Health in Canada,” says Dr. Brian Husband, associate dean, academic, in the College of Biological Science (CBS). Available with or without co-op options or as a minor, the new collaboration involves some 125 faculty members in 23 departments across CBS, OVC, the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences (CSAHS). Earlier this year, U of G received about 300 applications for nearly 40 spots in the inaugural class; ultimately, about 75 students will be admitted each year.
That interest partly reflects events of the past two years, Husband says. “The pandemic and COVID-19 have been like a poster child for the value of One Health. The public is learning that to manage something as global as this takes more than understanding diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Wider societal factors affect the spread and impact of infections, he says. He points to Lyme disease as another example, one that involves researchers in his college within the G. Magnotta Lyme Disease Research Lab. Climate change has enabled ticks to move northward into Canada, where they infect humans as well as wild
animal vectors with the disease-causing bacteria. One Health also touches his own research studies of apple production that involves not just orchard management but also wider ecosystem impacts involving pollinators, native biodiversity and landowners.
Husband says there’s growing demand among employers ranging from medicine and public health to agriculture and ecosystem management for broad-minded grads who “speak the language of human, animal and environmental health and understand the connections and applications in various areas. We know there’s a need for these kinds of thinkers.” Similar sentiments underlie existing U of G graduate programs based in the veterinary college, where researchers have long focused on ecosystem health and zoonotic diseases. “We’re already predisposed to look at every problem through a systems approach,” says Wichtel. “This is in our DNA.”
In 2021, OVC introduced a combined degree program accepting up to five students a year to earn both a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) and a master of public health. In each year of the program, students complete One Health modules that stress not just health and disease but also such topics as complexity, systems thinking and equity (the modules are also part of the curriculum for conventional DVM studies).
Beyond graduation, veterinarians are increasingly tapped for leadership in wider health and well-being, says Dr. Jane Parmley, combined DVM/ MPH graduate program coordinator, whose own career path illustrates the trend. Following DVM studies at the University of Saskatchewan and a PhD from U of G, she spent 12 years working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative on topics including antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and surveillance for West Nile virus and avian influenza. Today, a large animal veterinarian might equally need to understand not just traditional livestock medicine but also AMR and climate change impacts of agriculture. “We’re training veterinarians not just to treat disease but also to improve the health and well-being of wild and domestic animals and learn how the health and well-being of animals fits into broader issues of today,” says Parmley.
Teaching in that program also involves Dr. Katie Clow, a professor in population medicine who studies ticks and Lyme disease as part of the Canadian Lyme Disease Research Network (other U of G members of that national body are Weese and pathobiology professor Dr. Claire Jardine). “A lot of my work is in tick-borne or vector-borne disease,” says Clow. Noting the human-animal-environment intersection inherent in that research, she adds, “It’s a fascinating, messy ecological problem associated with climate change and land use change and impacts on the ecosystem, wildlife populations, habitat.”
Clow is also the graduate program coordinator for U of G’s Collaborative Specialization in One Health, which she describes as a minor in the discipline available to grad students in other programs from across campus. Launched in 2020, the specialization took in 14 students this year; Clow hopes for a steady-state intake of up to 25 students a year. Currently students are looking at everything from wastewater surveillance for food-borne diseases, to AMR, to lemur conservation, to disease surveillance data governance.
Those students include Grace Nichol, a PhD candidate in population medicine and co-president of the One Health Student Committee on campus. Along with Clow, she studies ticks that carry various pathogens affecting humans animals. “The problems we face are not confined to one discipline,” says Nichol, who studied biomedical science and mathematical science for her undergrad at U of G. “If we look at only one pillar, we don’t get a full picture. By taking a One Health approach, we get a better understanding.”
By the time he completed his undergrad in international development (ID) in 2016, David Borish had already done documentary film work ranging from tiger conservation in Malaysia to food security in Kenya. When Inuit in the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador shared an opportunity to document the community impacts of a 2013 caribou hunting ban, he made the film project the basis of his doctorate in public health and ID. Factors contributing to caribou population declines are complex and not well understood, and the hunting ban has yet to be lifted.
Being released later this year, his film, called HERD, looks at the interconnections between caribou and Inuit health and well-being. “It’s important to recognize that there are health connections that might not be obvious when it comes to conservation issues,” says Borish, who finished his PhD in 2021 and is now investigating polar bears as a post-doc with the Torngat Secretariat and other co-management groups in the eastern Arctic. Recalling his U of G studies, he says, “The University of Guelph is a great place for One Health because it brings together so many disciplines and experts. There’s the veterinary college and animal health, but also the social sciences are helpful in understanding the social and health dimensions of environmental change. One Health is a natural thing for Guelph to navigate to.”
Indeed, some 150 faculty members belong to U of G’s One Health Institute (OHI), launched in 2019 as a collective of researchers whose work involves some aspect of the One Health approach. All seven colleges are represented in the institute, whose research, teaching and outreach activities are intended to cement U of G’s leading global position in One Health scholarship. Besides serving as an information hub for numerous One Health projects, the group runs a seminar series and an annual symposium (partnered with the Guelph Institute of Development Studies) and provides funding awards for student research projects.
One project this summer run by Dr. Andreas Heyland, Department of Integrative Biology, will employ a student to model algal blooms in lakes and use U of G-developed DNA barcoding to learn about the diversity of pertinent microbes. Wastewater discharge and farm runoff can promote these blooms, which threaten animal and human health, says Heyland, who has also worked with researchers in OAC’s School of Environmental Sciences: “The One Health Institute is a vehicle to bring these kinds of expertise together.”
One Health training offers solid career prospects for grads.
Experiential learning is critical for students who will ultimately become One Health practitioners beyond graduation, says Dr. Cate Dewey, the University’s associate vice-president (academic) and director of the institute. Her One Health credentials include years’ worth of research and outreach with smallholder pig farmers in Kenya that, among other things, improved livelihoods for women, provided schooling for orphaned children, and enlisted farmers, butchers and nutritionists to improve food safety from farms to markets. Among her benchmarks for One Health teaching, research and outreach at U of G: solid career prospects for grads. “A key measure of success will be that anyone who wants One Health graduates to build capacity in government organizations, private industry or non-governmental organizations will know that Guelph is the place to get those people,” says Dewey.
That’s already happening. Among external groups that have approached U of G to discuss One Health is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Dr. Andrea Ellis, DVM ’89, M.Sc. ’93, is the senior veterinary science adviser in the CFIA’s Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer who has worked on health issues including food-borne diseases, SARS, H1N1, avian influenza and sheep Q fever.
As a student, Ellis learned about ecosystem health—considered the forerunner of today’s One Health—from U of G emeritus professor and epidemiologist Dr. David WaltnerToews. This year, she contacted Dewey to talk about joint One Health interests ranging from possible micro-credential programs to co-op placements for students. Referring to U of G strengths including cultural studies, animal health and environmental sciences, she says, “There’s always been a very strong research and teaching background in these areas that all come together when we think about One Health.” Among many other U of G grads working in One Health is Dr. Dominique Charron, DVM ’90, PhD ’01, who serves as vice-president, programs and partnerships, with the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. In 2021, she was appointed as rapporteur to a new international One Health expert panel providing advice on emerging health crises and on reducing the risk of zoonotic pandemics. On campus, three colleges—OVC, CSAHS and CBS—have recently designated One Health faculty positions. Dr. Heather Murphy, a 2010 PhD graduate in environmental engineering, joined OVC’s Department of Pathobiology in 2020 as a Canada Research Chair (CRC) in One Health. Earlier she worked with UNICEF as a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist abroad, and studied water-borne diseases with the PHAC.
U of G colleges have designated One Health faculty positions.
At U of G, Murphy continues to investigate water-borne diseases, including running a project on use of UV light devices for treating private wells to prevent gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases in children. The team includes epidemiologists, pediatricians, microbiologists and statisticians. Describing the One Health connections among them, she says, “The pathogens are zoonotic, which means they come from a human or animal host, move through the environment into water and reinfect humans or animals.” In another project, she’s looking at impacts of rotational grazing of beef cattle on environmental, animal and human health. Moving from engineering studies into the veterinary college may have been an unlikely career arc, Murphy allows. “OVC picked me for my track record in international development research and looking at broad problems. I like to look at problems in a holistic manner.” Eyeing ecosystem health issues through an Indigenous lens is the goal of Dr. Diana Lewis, who early this year took up a dedicated One Health faculty position in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences. A member of the Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaw First Nation in Nova Scotia, she worked earlier on health impacts of pulp mill emissions and effluent on an Indigenous community in that province. That work revealed gaps in research methodology that provided a less than complete picture of environmental health risks and effects on Indigenous people.
Now in U of G’s Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, she plans to replicate that community health study with four other Indigenous communities. Lewis also belongs to a collaborative project (A Shared Future) funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners across Canada to consider how renewable energy can contribute to healing and reconciliation. “One Health is focused on how to address really complex environmental health issues,” she says. “That’s very much aligned with how the Indigenous peoples and their world views think about human health and the health of all our relations, both animate and inanimate. It is all connected.” A third One Health expert will be installed this year in the College of Biological Science, following a recruitment process this past spring. Based in the Department of Integrative Biology, the candidate will teach in the new BOH undergraduate program and contribute to University-wide graduate and research programs in One Health.
“One thing this pandemic has shown us is that how we interact with animals and the environment can impact our health.”
As well, U of G plans to recruit three Canada Research Chairs as a “cluster” hire in One Health. Approved this past spring, the chairs will be Tier 2 CRCs based in three colleges: epidemiology and spatial disease modelling in OVC; antimicrobial resistance in CBS; and mathematics and statistics for One Health in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. “This investment from the CRC program further strengthens U of G’s status as a One Health leader,” says Dr. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research). “University of Guelph researchers and scholars are involved in cutting-edge initiatives at the intersection of human, animal and environmental health. This new CRC support will enable us to continue putting research into action and improving life.” From faculty positions to research projects to teaching programs, U of G’s One Health impetus reflects a growing understanding of the importance of this interdisciplinary approach in addressing complex health problems. That understanding is also growing in circles beyond campus, says OVC’s Scott Weese, who brings a One Health perspective to his membership on both the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance and Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table. Speaking of the latter, he says, “I’m there as the One Health guy. My being on the science table is an indication that there’s more understanding of One Health than there might have been 10 years ago.”
That idea resonates for U of G grad Andrea Ellis at the CFIA, especially as the world emerges from COVID-19. “One thing this pandemic has shown us is that how we interact with animals and the environment can impact our health,” she says. Referring to animal reservoirs for infectious diseases, she says, “A problem in one part of the world is a problem in all parts of the world. The solution doesn’t lie just in vaccinating the public. We have to look at the root causes, how did we get here, what happened to enable this pathogen to infect us?”
Answering such questions now occupies Travis Steffens in his studies of lemurs in Madagascar, home to about 25 million people. Over the past 70 years, about half of the island’s forest has been lost to encroaching agriculture, squeezing lemurs into smaller and smaller habitat. On top of that, the primates are further endangered by various zoonotic diseases that jump from people. Through Planet Madagascar, launched in 2015, he now works with local communities to both improve people’s lives and conserve the animals and their habitat. “To conserve lemurs, we need to focus on how people live in communities,” says Steffens, who has enlisted experts in various fields from public health and epidemiology to restoration ecology and economics. “The anthropologist in me recognizes that there’s a massive amount of cultural issues. It’s not a simple problem.”
U of G research and scholarship in One Health span all seven colleges across campus. Here’s a sampling:
Security for vulnerable pets, people
Bridging social sciences and veterinary practice is an example of how the One Health approach straddles varied disciplines. That’s Dr. Lauren Van Patter’s goal as the recently appointed Kim and Stu Lang Professor in Community and Shelter Medicine within the Ontario Veterinary College’s (OVC) Department of Clinical Studies.
Trained as a geographer, she studies ways to ensure health and well-being of pets and their owners living in economically vulnerable situations, including low income and insecure housing. “A One Health frame helps explain how human well-being is intimately interconnected with animal health,” says Van Patter. She’s working along with other members of OVC’s Kim and Stu Lang Community Healthcare Partnership Program, a first-of-its-kind initiative to ensure veterinary care for underserved populations.
A 2018 study in the United States found that one out of four households with pets faced a barrier to veterinary services, mainly financial. “Any avenue that brings people to the table from different experiences and expertise will help in tackling these large, complex problems,” says Van Patter. “That may be the most valuable element of One Health.”
The social side of vaccine hesitancy
“If science is supposed to be a positive force for human, animal and environmental betterment, it is imperative that the public sees science this way, too.” That’s how philosophy professor Dr. Maya Goldenberg concluded a talk this year about vaccine hesitancy as part of the One Health Institute’s seminar series involving researchers from across campus. A member of the OHI, Goldenberg studies vaccine hesitancy, a topic that has made her a frequent expert media commentator during the COVID-19 pandemic. In her 2021 book, Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise and the War on Science, she argued that reluctance about vaccination reflects public mistrust rather than public misunderstanding of science. “It’s not a science problem, or a knowledge deficit problem, but more of a social problem,” says Goldenberg, who aims to promote more productive health care outreach and communication efforts.
COVID-19 wastewater testing connects cross-campus researchers
Testing wastewater for the COVID-19-causing virus has occupied food science professor Dr. Lawrence Goodridge and U of G collaborators in engineering, pathobiology and environmental sciences for much of the pandemic. This past spring, the team learned that the province planned to extend funding to enable 13 Ontario universities to continue wastewater surveillance until March 2023. At U of G, that testing continues both on campus and in Guelph and other communities. What’s the One Health link?
Follow the connections, says Goodridge, who is the Leung Family Professor in Food Safety and director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety. “We know for sure that COVID can infect domestic and wild animals, and we know that humans who are infected can transfer the virus to animals and vice versa. That’s two of the three links.”
Add in likely environmental reservoirs like wastewater, and you’ve got the One Health trifecta. Along with pathobiology professor Dr. Scott Weese and a microbiologist at Western University, Goodridge received OHI funding for a studentship this year to look at the potential for COVID-19 to spread from humans to animals.
Big data for healthier livestock, consumers
Healthier livestock means healthier food. It also means a healthier environment if veterinarians are prescribing fewer antibiotics, thus lessening the risk of antimicrobial resistance. That’s an example of the One Health connection to a “big data” project being led by U of G informatics experts as part of the Global Burden of Animal Diseases program. This international program based at the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris and led by the University of Liverpool aims to gauge the impact of animal disease and health problems in livestock and aquaculture. It’s a “big data” problem involving data collection and analysis as well as sharing of that information to enable researchers and policy makers to make better decisions, says Dr. Deborah Stacey, School of Computer Science (above). She and Dr. Theresa Bernardo, an informatics expert in the Department of Population Medicine (below), co-lead the program’s informatics theme.
They’re heading efforts to provide an analytics platform to share disease cost estimates with animal and human health decision-makers. As well, their group is developing guidelines, standard practices and procedures for data governance for GBADs, which may serve as a model for the OIE as well as its One Health partners: the United Nations Environment Program, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization.
Partnership aims to help grain farmers
Fusarium head blight is a fungus that causes millions of dollars’ worth of losses every year for grain farmers in Ontario. Farmers apply fungicides to control the problem, but that strategy risks promoting the development of fungicide- resistant pathogens that can then threaten human health. In the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Dr. Jennifer Geddes-McAlister is seeking new biocontrol agents to better combat fungal disease in the field. For that, she works with researchers in her department as well as crop science experts. Intriguingly, the team also includes Dr. Ryan Prosser, a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences looking at soft-shelled mollusks that produce a chemical that may inhibit the fungal pathogen. The group met through joint membership in U of G’s One Health Institute. “The One Health Institute is a perfect bridge between our distinct research programs,” says Geddes-McAlister.
Healthy seafood— and healthy seas
Shellfish food safety and health starts with harvesting practices in the ocean and runs through processing and retail to the consumer. Dr. Simon Somogyi is a professor in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, where he holds the Arrell Chair in the Business of Food. He has looked at health and safety aspects of Canadian exports of crab, lobster and scallops to the lucrative Chinese market. Ensuring food safety involves human health, of course, as well as the health of marine creatures. Addressing the environmental leg of the One Health tripod, he says the industry may consider the benefits of farmed scallops. “Farmed scallops could be more environmentally sustainable than sea dredged,” he says, pointing to the potential for reducing seafloor degradation associated with dredging practices.
Improving family well-being, including four-footed members
“Relations with dogs can enhance human well-being,” says Dr. Andrea Breen. Exploring the benefits and challenges of the human-dog relationship—for both people and dogs—is her goal as co-director of the FIDO (Families Interacting with Dogs) research group. A faculty member in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, Breen is interested in expanding notions of the family to include non-human animals. Part of her inspiration comes from her experiences learning about the roles of animals within Indigenous knowledge systems. A self-described “white settler,” she is a co-editor of the 2019 book Research and Reconciliation: Unsettling Ways of Knowing Through Indigenous Relationships. “Indigenous peoples have been doing what we think of as One Health since time immemorial,” says Breen.