Alumni in ENVS

The PhD Track: ENVS Alumna, Jessica Deere (C’13, RSPH’16)

In the fall of 2009, Jessica Deere (C’13, RSPH’16), embarked on an academic journey that has taken her all over the United States and all around the world.  She found her starting point right away in the fall of 2009 when she was paired with an academic advisor in the Department of Environmental Sciences (ENVS) as part of freshman orientation. As a child passionate about chimpanzee conservation, she wasn’t certain how her academic path might unfold at Emory – would she take the business route and work for the Jane Goodall Institute? Would her path take her to the field interacting with chimpanzee populations in Africa? Luckily with her early introduction to ENVS, she discovered the coursework that would become the foundation of a body of academic work that continues to grow as a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

As new students arrive for their first fall semester in Emory College, they are often worried about what kind of “career” they might find as a student in ENVS. We reassure them that career paths are broad and as Jessica’s story demonstrates, the spark of passion for a particular subject can take you places that you might not expect, but when you embrace the journey, the path has a way of revealing itself.

As a sophomore, Jessica enrolled in Professor Tom Gillespie’s course focused on infectious disease in primates and as she describes it, it was a “light bulb moment when I realized the impact infectious diseases had on chimpanzees. Still, the bigger picture of disease ecology remained an abstract idea.” She goes on to talk about how her ENVS coursework evolved and led to her post-undergraduate research experience:

Soon after, I took an environmental statistics course where Professor Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec guest lectured. This led me to Michael Page’s GIS course, which was a prerequisite for Dr. Vazquez-Prokopec’s spatial analysis in disease ecology course (ENVS 483). A once abstract direction quickly became a clearer picture. Needless to say, the crucial relationship between spatial analysis and disease ecology forged my ENVS path and continues to impact the work I do today. Fast forward to my senior year when I was working with Dr. Vazquez-Prokopec on an independent study combining these two passions. This study not only enabled me to do research I loved but also led me to the graduate school path.

While applying for grad school the year after college, I did a research internship at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. I spent a year collecting data for the behavioral-monitoring database on the social spacing of chimpanzees and gorillas living at the Regenstein Center for African Apes.

It became clear that the common thread throughout all of my experiences up until this point was the One Health concept – a combination of the interfaces of human, animal, and environmental health. My undergraduate degree of a BS in Environmental Studies afforded me the knowledge of the ecological aspects and I knew the MPH would provide me the opportunity to focus on the human and environmental health components.

When Jessica returned to Emory as an MPH student in the Rollins School of Public Health in the fall of 2014, she conducted research as part of Professor Gillespie’s lab in the Gombe National Park, Tanzania system. This research would become the foundation of her master’s thesis focused on identifying an enteric parasite (Entamoeba histolytica) in humans, chimpanzees, and baboons. The work within Professor Gillespie’s lab forged the field, lab and quantitative components of the One Health approach. During her time at Rollins and in Dr. Gillespie’s lab, Jessica spent ten weeks at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. This work, funded through the Global Health Institute, focused on identifying parasites in gorilla fecal samples and subsequently training Rwandan students in these collection and processing techniques. Jessica’s research was recently published in the journal Parasitology, “Entamoeba histolytica infection in humans, chimpanzees and baboons in the Greater Gombe Ecosystem, Tanzania”.

Having spent the year at the Lincoln Park Zoo between her undergraduate and MPH, Jessica was ready to begin her PhD program immediately following graduation from the Rollins School of Public Health. At the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, she describes her work as “using an ecosystem health approach to investigate health dynamics at the human-wildlife interface. I am evaluating fish health and contaminants of emerging concern at sites with different types of anthropogenic impact across Northeastern Minnesota. I’m also interested in integrating parasitological, endocrinological, behavioral, and spatial long-term datasets from chimpanzees living in Gombe National Park, Tanzania to better understand the ecology of infectious diseases in this system.” Under the advisement of Professors Dominic Travis and Tiffany Wolf, Jessica’s PhD work will continue to explore the questions surrounding ecosystem health and the human-wildlife interface.

Having had so many rich experiences at Emory, Jessica is hard-pressed to find a favorite memory. A summer field course in Namibia and Botswana with Professor Larry Wilson (ENVS 446) is definitely a top contender. But perhaps her best memories surround that cryptic skeleton mascot we so proudly claim here at Emory. Celebrating Dooley and trying to explain Dooley to non-Emory people are amongst her fondest memories.