From BSE to WEEVs -- A&S Co-op Students Work to Make Us Safer from Diseases

Two University of Lethbridge students have been able to contribute to cutting edge research on diseases as part of a major local laboratory through the Faculty of Arts and Science Co-op Program. Anthony Erickson and Kendra Sullivan, both Biochemistry majors, began co-op work terms at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) Lethbridge Laboratory in May 2011.

Erickson continues to be handed more responsibility as his team works towards developing a safer way of testing a dangerous virus—Western Equine Encephalitis Virus (WEEV), among other projects.

Sullivan is all smiles when she talks about her experience. “The project I was mostly involved with, the ultimate goal is to make a live test for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), so I may have contributed to the future of that development in some small way.”

According to its mission statement, the CFIA is “Dedicated to safeguarding food, animals and plants, which enhances the health and well-being of Canada's people, environment and economy.” The Lethbridge laboratory handles about 35 per cent of the testing for the national BSE surveillance program according to Dr. Catherine Graham, the veterinary pathologist who supervised Sullivan during her Co-op Work Term.

Sullivan said she enjoyed her role in the research. She improved her cutting and staining skills and gained experience with Western blots—a technique used to detect specific proteins in a sample—over the course of the summer. “I like that there is so much potential to learn more about BSE, and even in my short time in the lab I have seen how the research is expanding.”

While Sullivan used microscopes in her work, Erickson’s work involves in a number of even smaller scale virology projects. The results of work like DNA analysis are not directly observable. A major project at CFIA’s lab that he is proud to be working on is “an H-typing experiment, differentiating the 16 H-types of influenza, with H1N1 being the bad one.”

He is also working on developing a new diagnostic test to detect bacteria and viruses in pigs. Feedlot owners “want to know there’s nothing wrong with them when it comes time to send them to market.”

Both students reflected on how their experience affected them. Erickson career plans have changed through his experience with CFIA. He no longer wants to be a pharmacist, but would rather continue doing work like he is doing today, as a research technician.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian,” Sullivan said. “It seems like every veterinarian related job that I do, I love, so it’s really encouraged me that this is the career path for me.” Sullivan has applied to vet school, but hopes to be able to do another work term at CFIA “because I had such a great experience. It was incredibly educational - I learned so much! It was the best job I’ve ever had.”

There was one day in particular when she had an epiphany. “The one experience that made me realize that I like working with cattle was the day I went to help take blood samples from the cattle herd. After 7 hours, I came back, and I was just covered in muck. And I was happy!” Because she enjoyed the job so much, her career possibilities are now broader. “I love everything to do with veterinary medicine. Instead of going into small animal medicine, it’s opened up the opportunity to go into research or large animal medicine.”

Both students have good advice for other students. “Start early,” Erickson suggests. “I probably waited too long to do my co-ops. They’ve been such an invaluable experience that I wish I’d had them earlier.”

Sullivan has consistently worked towards her goal, volunteering in a large animal clinic, and working for the previous two summers in vet clinics, as well as all the Biochem courses she has taken. “That heavy science background, I have definitely been able apply it to my job. This has let me see a practical application for my Biochemistry degree.”

Sullivan has wise words for her fellow students: “Take every opportunity that they can. If they approach all their tasks with enthusiasm and hard work, the rewards are great!"