I received my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts in Microbiology with Jeffrey Blanchard, and was fortunate to do a post-Doc at the University of Illinois with Dr. Roderick Mackie who is one of the pre-eminent gut microbiologists.
What is the focus of your research?
My focus is on the gut microbiome of horses and horse gut health. The reason that gut health is so important to horses is because they are very sensitive to changes in their diet and their environment, as well as stress in traveling and competition. After old age, colic is the leading cause of death in horses.
How did you get interested in horses?
I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to be around horses, so I was your classic horse crazy girl growing up.
When I was about 10, I was very fortunate to find a barn with wonderful adult mentorship where there were opportunities to work in exchange for riding. There were probably fifteen kids and twenty or more horses. We competed in all sorts of events, went on trail rides, gave lessons, and trained young horses. Our instructors would go to a sale and bring home a trailer load of horses for us to work with. It was a fantastic way to grow up.
What did you study as an undergraduate?
I studied biological sciences at the University of New Hampshire and then taught high school science.
What was teaching high school like?
Besides the job I have now—there are few jobs that are that much fun. Students are so full of life and curiosity at every level, but particularly in high school. I love teaching and had developed a successful program, but found myself wanting to learn more and do research that would make a difference, specifically to help horses with gut health. After losing horses to colic and having friends lose horses to colic, I was really motivated to go back to graduate school to study the microbiology of the equine gut.
What will be your role at UD?
My focus will be to grow the Equine Science program here at UD through research and teaching. While my research will focus on the gut microbiome, Dr. Renzetti and I are planning new and expanded course offerings to take advantage of the resources we have nearby to give students wider and deeper experiences in equine science, and attract students from across the University to the equine science minor.
In terms of research, my lab is gearing up to launch a crowd-funding project called the Equine Microbiome Project. The general public can join this project and send a sample of their horse’s fecal material along with health history data. We will return a survey of the bacteria that are in each sample that can be shared with a veterinarian and compared with the rest of the database or subsequent samples. Hopefully we will get hundreds of samples to build a comprehensive database of bacteria and metadata for analysis.
I am excited about this project because it requires a minimum of equipment, so we can hit the ground running right away. I am fortunate to have a team of bright, enthusiastic undergraduates that want to be involved in this research, and they have been key to getting the project rolling, from designing the kits, extracting DNA and producing the promotional video. This project is a wonderful way to introduce students to working in the lab, get them excited about equine gut microbiology, and learn techniques that they can carry into a wide range of health or environmental applications.
Other upcoming projects will focus on testing specific strains of bacteria for potential probiotic use in horses, and identifying differences in the distribution of small strongyle species and their relative resistance to dewormers.
Could you give your overall impressions of the College and UD?
Everyone at UD has been welcoming and patient with all of my questions as I get started. There is a family-like atmosphere, especially in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences. I’ve been developing a network of colleagues in biology and engineering and people seem eager to collaborate and share resources across colleges. At UD I am finding that the academic culture is very student-centered, with many opportunities for students to participate in research and gain experience in the “real world”. While the research is an important focus, the primary objective seems to be the quality of students’ experiences, and how we can better meet their needs as they move forward into the work place, graduate school, or veterinary training.
Article by Adam Thomas