This Cummings Grad Researches Vector-Borne Diseases for the CDC

Tess van Kan, VG16, credits the school’s M.S. in Infectious Disease & Global Health program for giving her a leg up
A Tufts veterinary student looks into a microscope. Tess van Kan, VG16, credits the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s M.S. in Infectious Disease & Global Health program as part of her success.
“My end goal is to be a public health veterinarian,” said Tess van Kan, VG16, pictured here looking into a microscope on a research trip in Thailand’s Nan Province. Photo: Courtesy of Tess van Kan
November 14, 2019

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One look at Tess van Kan’s Instagram and it’s clear she is on a very cool journey. The Tufts University alumna is in her third year of veterinary school at University of Missouri-Columbia. She spent part of the summer in the lush rainforests of Thailand on a research trip. And in a few weeks, she’ll head to Colorado to research vector-borne diseases, which are carried by insects and ticks, for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Her path to this point required hard work and perseverance, and it’s far from over. She was prepared for it, said van Kan, VG16, thanks to the M.S. in Infectious Disease and Global Health (MSIDGH) program at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

After graduating from the University of Findlay, the Cleveland, Ohio, native was part of the first group of students to enroll in the program in 2015.

“It’s a very lab-based program,” van Kan said. “I loved the hands-on experience and modeling different disease pathologies ourselves so we could see them first-hand.”

When she graduated from Cummings School, she wasn’t sure what diseases she wanted to study. Then she enrolled in a veterinary research scholars program through the University of Missouri, which connects D.V.M. students with research groups. She got into tick research and designed her own project to sample local tick populations for different diseases.

“We were specifically looking for Bourbon virus and Heartland virus—two newly emerging viruses in the Midwest—and actually ended up finding some, which was pretty exciting,” she said.

Ticks proved to be her ticket. A faculty member from the tick research community in Missouri put her in touch with a colleague in Thailand after she expressed an interest in traveling. This past summer, she spent a month there, riding around the rugged terrain in the back of a pickup truck with an international team of researchers from different scientific backgrounds.

“We all came together to help each other with different facets of the research trip. Some people were looking at soil nematodes, some people were looking at fish and frog parasites. I was helping to collect different arthropods,” she said. “I also learned how to identify a lot of them to the species level, which was a little tedious at times, but it was fun.”

While in Thailand, she also spent time shadowing staff at a mixed animal veterinary practice affiliated with Kasetsart University in Bangkok. She tended to elephants, tigers, tropical birds, and other exotic species.

“There was a young elephant that had been rescued from a trap in the wild who had to have her foot amputated,” van Kan said. “While I was there, we checked on her and made sure the plate on the bottom of her leg was sitting correctly.”

Now back in the U.S., she’s gearing up for even more travel. In January, she’ll head to Colorado to start an externship with the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, a branch of the CDC. It’s an Epidemiology Elective Program, through which she’ll continue to study vector-borne diseases alongside veterinary and medical students.

“I’ll be shadowing their researchers and public health veterinarians, and hopefully learning a lot about the integration of veterinary medicine into public health, because that’s what I’m most interested in,” she said. “My end goal is to be a public health veterinarian.”

Van Kan’s interest in the concept of One Health grew during her time in the master’s program at Cummings School, where the curriculum was challenging and the experience was invaluable, she said.

“It’s definitely a program for someone who wants to delve into the nuance of infectious disease, who wants to know more and is willing to put in the work,” van Kan said. “I came into my doctorate program at the top of my class because I was already prepared for the course load.”

Van Kan said that when she applied to D.V.M. programs, she was asked at “every single interview” about the MSIDGH program at Cummings School. “Everybody was really interested in it—I don’t think I can overstate the value of it.” 

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.