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The Pandemic Sparked an Interest in Zoonotic Diseases
Mika O’Shea, VG22 MS-IDGH, transitions her wildlife experience into infectious disease studies
April 13, 2022
Mika O’Shea, VG22, will research the unique immune system of bats this summer.

“Growing up in Hawai’i, I originally wanted to do marine biology. I liked the ocean critters,” Mika O’Shea, VG22, admits.

Coming to the mainland for undergrad, Mika earned a BA in cell and molecular biology at Occidental College. She made her mark in the pool playing for Occidental’s water polo team, and her career interests shifted to wildlife medicine.

Mika spent a summer rehabilitating native Hawaiian birds and bats as an intern for the Hawai’i Wildlife Center and the Honolulu Zoo. During the fall of her junior year, she studied abroad in Tanzania, learning about wildlife ecology, conservation and socioeconomic policy, conducting field studies in Tanzania’s national parks, and researching wildlife population dynamics to guide land use conservation in the area.

COVID-19 hit soon after she returned to the United States, sending Mika and her classmates home halfway through the spring semester. The pandemic also canceled her behavioral research internship with the Los Angeles Zoo the following summer.

“I became more interested in infectious disease and epidemiology once the pandemic began,” she shares. “I read Spillover by David Quammen and everything clicked—I had always enjoyed learning about other areas of biology, but I finally found my passion.”

Mika began her studies independently, but her decision to pursue a career in infectious disease was solidified during her senior year in a special topics course exploring the biology and epidemiology of COVID-19.

“We learned from a diverse group of experts from many different fields and backgrounds,” she explains. “It really opened my eyes to the interdisciplinary approach needed to study infectious disease.”

Mika researched graduate programs with plans to pursue a career in either veterinary epidemiology or infectious disease research and was accepted into the Master of Science in Infectious Disease and Global Health (MS-IDGH) program at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

“I was surprised at how perfectly this program fit my interests—being at a vet school, there’s a large focus on animals and the One Health framework. Human, animal, and environmental health are all deeply connected. This program ties it all together,” she states.

Mika graduated from Occidental last spring and began the 12-month, accelerated MS-IDGH program in the fall.

One semester in, she reflected, “I learned more in that semester than I have in my entire life. I’m learning how to learn, rather than memorize and regurgitate information, to be curious and question the science in front of us.”

Mika likes the small class sizes, the supportive professors, and interacting with a cohort of students who share her passion for infectious disease.

“It’s helped clarify my path,” she confesses. “I knew I wanted to do something with zoonotic diseases from a veterinary perspective. Now I want to dive head first into research—it’s such an exciting field with so many unanswered questions.”

She’s also enjoying the outdoors of New England, especially the snow and nearby trails.

Mika will work through the summer on a research proposal about the unique immune system of bats. After graduation, she would like to continue working in a research setting before pursuing a PhD in immunology.

“The past year and a half has shed a lot of light on the importance of monitoring and preparedness for future pandemics, especially with climate change increasing that risk of spillover to humans,” Mika reasons. “We’re studying it as it happens around us.”

Posted in: MS-IDGH, Research
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