Vet school offers new infectious disease degree

The Wildlife Clinic treats their non-human patients at Tufts' Grafton campus, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has announced a new degree program in Infectious Disease and Global Health.

The program, led by Saul Tzipori, Chair of the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health, and Abhineet Sheoran, the program’s new director, was created due to a need to better prepare those who are interested in the field.

“The idea is to train people in that area where there is going to be a huge demand for the ability of individuals to control the emergence of infectious disease, whether they are in animals or humans,” Tzipori said.

The program was inspired by an increasing demand for highly skilled individuals in a field that is more relevant today than ever, Tzipori explained.

“As the human population continues to increase in numbers … there is the encroachment on wildlife habitats,” Tzipori said.

According to Tzipori, the need for people in this field will only increase moving forward.

“That means the interaction between humans and animals and domestic wildlife will be more intense,” he said. “Which means more and more pandemics are going to emerge in the future, rather than less.”

Sheoran and Tzipori bring a combined 38 years of experience at the university to the development of the new program.

“About 75 percent of emerging new diseases in humans came from animals,” Tzipori said. “Wildlife animals and domestic animals are the major source of pandemics — diseases that stretch across the globe such as SARS and HIV/AIDS. Ebola and HIV are both primate diseases. So this is why it was appropriate to offer this new degree at the veterinary school.”

The masters program will last one year, with the inaugural class beginning in the 2015-2016 academic year. The programs at the Cummings School are intentionally kept small, and the Infectious Disease and Global Health degree program will only have 15 students in order to ensure that they gain the necessary skills to be leaders in the field.

“We keep our programs small for a reason; it’s a small cohort every year because there is a lot of one-on-one work and they get a lot of individual faculty time,” said Rebecca Russo, director of admissions at the Cummings School.

Russo added that while the program is geared toward science majors, the admissions committee is flexible with applicants.

“We’re fairly open,” she said. “We imagine that those who are interested will have a biology or some other sort of science background. But there may be people who may be coming to this choice late in their college career, so they may have some other unrelated undergraduate degree, or deciding now that this is something they would like to pursue.”

Tzipori maintained that the program is looking for people to apply what they have done with a science background in order to acquire a valuable new set of skills.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to be accepted into the medical school and veterinary school with a limited number of places available, and some students don’t make it,” he said.

With the medical school application process becoming increasingly competitive, Tzipori hopes that students will take more than just vital skills away from the program.

“The idea is if you don’t make it and you take this course, it will make you more attractive to those schools by giving you more training, which makes you more relevant and appealing as a student,” he said.

Those who graduate after one year will be trained to handle infectious agents and animal models and will be prepared to teach in relation to those infectious agents.

While the program’s inception coincides with the outbreak of Ebola, Sheoran and Tzipori said that the degree was not started because of Ebola.

“We often find it very hard to hire individuals with expertise in this area, especially the technical staff,” Sheoran said. “It’s been a big challenge.”

Sheoran added that he hasn’t seen any bachelor’s program that adequately prepares students for the field, and that only four or five other schools even have a masters program of this type.

“It was that vacuum that we wanted to fill,” he said.