Alumna Spotlight: Laura Pulscher ’16 Travels the World for One Health

October 30, 2017

While most global health students study some aspect of human health, DGHI alumna Laura Pulscher focuses her work on animals, since they too play a significant role in public health. After graduating from the Master of Science in Global Health (MSc-GH) program last December, Pulscher is beginning a PhD program investigating the Christmas Island flying fox, an endangered bat species in Australia, from a One Health perspective.

From Wildlife Biology to One Health

Pulscher, from Fort Collins, Colorado, began her career in a public health role, studying Leishmaniasis in India after completing an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology. While conducting a literature search for this project, she discovered the One Health approach. “I found One Health, and I realized that it encapsulated all my interests: human, animal and environmental health,” said Pulscher. As she looked for graduate programs where she could delve deeper into zoonotic disease and One Health in an international setting, she saw the Duke Global Health Institute’s (DGHI’s) MSc-GH program as a natural fit. 

Understanding Hotspots of Disease Transfer in Mongolia

Working closely with DGHI professor and One Health expert Gregory Gray, Pulscher completed her master’s thesis on tick-borne pathogens in small mammal reservoirs in northern Mongolia. Her work contributed to a wider effort led by post-doctoral students to understand hotspots for transport of diseases like rickettsia, anaplasmosis and lyme disease. Her thesis is currently under review for publication.

“For three months, I was out in the Mongolian steppe, capturing small mammals, taking blood samples and looking for these different pathogens,” she shared. While Pulscher focused on animal reservoirs, another MSc-GH student, Tom Moore studied the ticks themselves. “It was really nice to look at both of those together and see what we found,” said Pulscher.

Watch a video that highlights Laura's and Tom's work in Mongolia:


Fieldwork and Collaboration Made for Fond DGHI Memories

Pulscher emphasized fieldwork and collaboration as two highlights of her time at DGHI. “The fieldwork experience was fantastic,” she said. “It’s one thing to come up with a project and implement it, but taking it international brings it to a whole new level, since there are so many things you don’t think about. For example, all my lab work was done abroad, so we had to come up with solutions when we ran out of distilled water or when the electricity went off during our experiments.” 

Pulscher also enjoyed interacting with students and faculty studying a diverse range of global health topics. “It was great to have the opportunity to interact with all these people because it really has allowed me to expand the scope of ideas and different methods that can be used for global health problems,” she said. “Now I know who I can contact when I’m thinking about a problem.”

Leaving an Educational Legacy at Duke

While in the MSc-GH program, Pulscher helped draft a proposal for a winning Bass Connections grant along with MSc-GH alumna Jenae Logan. The project, “Building Capacity for Surveillance and Diagnosis of Respiratory Viruses,” builds on existing research partnerships in Malaysia to investigate respiratory pathogens circulating in public spaces. The team collected samples and conducted countless interviews over the summer and is currently analyzing data and developing educational materials for hospitals and open animal markets based on risk factors that were deemed important.

This past summer, Pulscher organized the 2017 One Health Training Program at Duke. This three-week intensive program, led by Gray, gives students an introduction to One Health, public health laboratory techniques, zoonotic disease, entomology, food safety and environmental health. 

After attending as a student in 2016, Pulscher took on the task of managing the program for the 42 attendees from seven different countries. “It was really cool to work with One Health collaborators all over the globe and put together this program to teach them about One Health. The students were amazing and came from all different backgrounds, from masters and PhD students to people overseeing labs or working in the government.”

Later in the summer, Pulscher was stationed in Kunshan, China, equipping a new One Health lab for the global health program at Duke Kunshan University (DKU). She helped equip the lab and assisted in training staff in lab techniques, along with starting some projects that mirrored work in Malaysia. One such project implemented air samplers at DKU and several surrounding high schools. Pulscher also had an opportunity to travel with Gray to Southwest China to meet new collaborators and investigate potential new research questions.

Studying Health of the Christmas Island Flying Fox

Now Pulscher is beginning a PhD program in environmental and life sciences at the University of Sydney. Her research will center around the impacts of nutrition, toxicology, and infectious disease on the endangered Christmas Island flying fox, a type of bat. 

The species has been in decline for the past few decades and Pulscher will seek to determine if this is related to environmental health factors or pathogens present in the population. One hypothesis is that cadmium from a large phosphorus mine may be impacting the health of the bats. If this is the case, Pulscher plans to research the effect of cadmium on the human population of Christmas Island as well. 

Additionally, she plans to research flying fox zoonotic pathogens that are transmittable to humans in case a breeding program must be initiated to boost the population. Her completed research will show a more complete picture of how Christmas Island flying foxes play a role in the health of their environment.

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Laura Pulscher captures a small mammal to take a blood sample in rural Mongolia in the summer of 2016--part of her MSc-GH fieldwork. Photo by Jim Rogalski.

I found One Health, and I realized that it encapsulated all my interests: human, animal and environmental health.

Laura Pulscher '16, MSc-GH alumna

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