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Spotlight On: Dr. Woutrina Smith

Woutrina Smith is an Associate Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. 

Woutrina SmithCMSI is incredibly unique (and fortunate) as an organization to be able to unite so many distinguished researchers in such a variety of disciplines. Along with ecologists, oceanographers, hydrologists and many others, CMSI draws upon UC Davis’s world-renowned veterinary school to incorporate leaders in the field of wildlife medicine and ecosystem health. One such researcher is Dr. Woutrina Smith, an associate professor in infectious disease and epidemiology. Dr. Smith conducts research on sea otters along the California Coast to better understand their diseases and their role in ecosystem health, and she also has research projects on zoonotic diseases in East Africa that investigate the disease transmission interactions between the pastoral herders and farmers, their livestock, and the local wildlife.

Dr. Smith grew up in Alaska, where she was surrounded with wildlife and coastal issues even as a child. After college, she followed her wildlife interests to UC Davis for Veterinary School, while simultaneously getting involved in volunteer sea otter research by helping with necropsies (like autopsies) on otters. While it was terribly stinky work, Dr. Smith found that she loved the discovery process of figuring out why each animal had died, a bit like a vet CSI.

“Sea otters are really amazing in how much disease they can put up with—anything from nose trauma from mating, to parasites, to boat strikes—all these different things, and most of the time they just keep on going. It was fascinating learning about why the animals died—because it would teach us what was happening to them when they were alive, and how to keep them healthy.”

“Sea Otters are really special, because they are like a canary in the coal mine for coastal ecosystem health. They live right along shore, eat 25% of their body weight every day, and feed on filter feeders that concentrate pathogens and pollutants that people inadvertently wash into their ecosystems. We are interested in sea otter health because they are a threatened species and are very charismatic, but also because they teach us about potential problems that might be occurring on land and in the sea.”

Dr. Smith has been at Davis since 1997, and, in addition to her sea otter ventures,  has focused her research on zoonotic disease—diseases that can transfer between wildlife and people – in other parts of the world. She tries to understand what risk factors and transmission routes can make humans and animals sick, where water is one of the many potential vehicles of disease transmission.

“One Health research is a team effort, where you have a group of researchers and experts from different disciplines all coming together around a common problem. I found that you really can develop a career in wildlife medicine and ecosystem health if you find the right network of people to work with and show them that you bring a useful area of expertise to the team.”

When asked about what advice she had for aspiring marine scientists, Dr. Smith stressed the importance of getting out there and experiencing the research or potential career paths.

“Jump in and get involved! Sometimes the job might not be as glamorous as you think it is—sometimes the hours are long, or the job is stinky (sea otter necropsies come to mind), but once you get out there and find ways to volunteer or get involved, you might just find your passion.”

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