Linnea Tracy, V’19, believes birds are veterinary medicine’s next frontier, and she wants to help chart the way. Driven by a profound love of animals and interest in the intersections among human and animal health, agriculture and public health, Tracy has begun the journey at Penn Vet.
From Pets to Population and Global Health
“My family had dogs, cats, and a hamster,” said the third-year student. “As a kid, I developed a great respect for the diversity and integrity of animals around me—my pets, the birds that would come to my front yard, all of them.”
Tracy decided on a career in veterinary medicine while volunteering in her teens with a local animal shelter. Over college summer breaks—the Omaha, Nebraska native studied biology at Stanford University—she worked as a vet assistant at the same shelter. “I really admired the medical staff’s commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of their patients,” she said. “They are skilled at doing so in such a way that they also protect the health of hundreds of animals under the same roof every day.”
This shelter experience and an introduction to epidemiology in undergraduate school sparked Tracy’s plan to focus on population and global health. While deciding on a veterinary school, “Penn Vet stood out for its focus on interspecies medicine, and I was attracted to the School’s emphasis on veterinary medicine’s global importance—global as in the world, but also global as in all species on the planet, including humans.”
When she started at Penn Vet in 2015, Tracy simultaneously enrolled in a joint Master of Public Health program through the University of Minnesota—Penn Vet launched a VMD-MPH program in 2017. She also contacted Dr. Sherrill Davison, Associate Professor, Avian Medicine and Pathology, at New Bolton Center, about working in Davison’s avian lab. “I was looking for a way to incorporate population health and veterinary medicine in a public health domain,” said Tracy.
An international expert in avian medicine, Davison directs the Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology at New Bolton Center. Part of the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS), the New Bolton Center lab plays a critical role in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s efforts to detect the spread of disease.
Hooked on Birds
Over the summer of 2016, Tracy worked with poultry and helped Davison on a retrospective study of Bald Eagle mortality. “I had only ever interacted with parakeets,” said Tracy, who, after working in Davison’s lab, was “hooked on birds.”
“Dr. Davison is an amazing mentor,” she said. “She encourages a passion for birds and the impact these little dinosaurs can have on human lives. She is also concerned about them as individual animals that need medicine and compassion.”
For Tracy, avian medicine presents the perfect confluence of research, clinical care, and public health, and it’s a largely unexplored science. Relative to mammals, little is known about birds. “Most research is in mammalian species, but birds are very important to us economically, culturally, and personally,” Tracy explained. “Caring for and studying birds is like working in Jurassic Park, but with little fluffy creatures. We are able to have a huge impact on them and the people around them.”
She points, as an example, to animal welfare research she’s involved with to improve the lives of egg-laying chickens. As the egg industry’s approach to egg production transitions from caged to cage-free, the number of hens with keel bone damage is increasing. Tracy is contributing to studies out of UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences that are exploring how to better, more accurately assess and prevent keel damage, which affects the prominent ridge on the sternum where the bird’s wing muscles attach, in ways that are less invasive for the animal and more sustainable for the farmer.
On the clinical side, Tracy values the insight into production agriculture offered through PADLS. The diagnostic lab unites Penn Vet, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and Penn State University in efforts to protect birds, other animals, and humans from health threats. It provides rapid and accurate diagnostic assistance to veterinarians involved with food-fiber animals, equine, aquaculture, and wildlife.
“Working with PADLS has exposed me to a diverse scale of production settings, from industry to hobby farms to backyard animals,” Tracy explained. “The lab is an incredible resource for Pennsylvania. And it gives students an amazing opportunity to see many different cases and get experience in toxicology, microbiology, pathology, and other tests and services.”
The Road Ahead
With a little more than a year to go at Penn Vet, Tracy is planning for education and training after graduation.
“My plan is to pursue a residency in avian medicine. I'd like to eventually work for a state department of agriculture or even the US Department of Agriculture to shape policy and have an impact on a level beyond what I could do as a private practitioner,” she said. “Avian health touches many lives. We can impact thousands of birds a day with good medicine. At the same time, we can help owners maintain an income, support a state’s agricultural industry, and promote food and economic security. This is a huge field, and it’s only going to get more important as global food demands grow.”