Penn Vet’s Lisa Gretebeck Tackles Public Health Through Research and Outreach

By Madeleine Stone  @themadstone

Lisa Gretebeck always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian. Like many aspiring young vets, Gretebeck was first attracted to the career through her love for animals.

“It definitely started with my dog,” Gretebeck recalls. “She was a part of my family for about sixteen years. When she started getting sick and dying, I remember being so moved by the quality of care our family vet provided for her. Seeing that care and devotion to animals really influenced me.”

Gretebeck is fulfilling her lifelong ambition, having completed her coursework at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine this past May. But her impression of what her profession holds in store has evolved.

Now, as a medical research scholar at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., she is on a course to improve not just animals’ lives, but the health and wellbeing of humans as well.

Gretebeck’s veterinary journey started when she left her hometown of Kumamoto, Japan, traveling halfway around the world to attend Middlebury College in Vermont.

While a pre-veterinary student, she visited Jamkhed, a rural village in the Indian state Maharashtra, working with the Comprehensive Rural Health Project as a member of a mobile health team. The experience was eye opening.

“I started to see that being a vet was about more than caring for sick animals. You can do a lot of good for human health and society as a whole,” Gretebeck says.

That first trip to India motivated Gretebeck to do something more. With the assistance of her undergraduate organic chemistry professor, she founded Amar, a microfinance project that provided a group of widowed Indian women with goat production training, empowering them to become community leaders in animal husbandry and public health.

Gretebeck’s interest in how animals fit into the larger public health picture and Penn’s health schools championing the ‘One Health’ concept: the idea that the wellbeing of humans, animals and the environment are interdependent, led her to Philadelphia and Penn Vet.

“At Penn, there’s a huge amount of collaboration between the different healthcare professional schools,” Gretebeck says. “I knew I wanted to have a positive impact on human health in addition to animal health, so this aspect was really appealing to me.”

As a veterinary student at Penn, Gretebeck wasted no time getting involved with research. She pursued different opportunities over summers and during the school year, including stints in a biomedical lab at Freie Universitat in Berlin and at the HuaXia dairy farm in Sanhe, China. An externship with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture her third year found Gretebeck conducting farm and pet store inspections, testing birds for avian influenza, and creating educational materials on porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, raw milk and safe needle usage.

“I had no idea vets did so much,” Gretebeck says, laughing. “I wish I could have done more, but there’s only so much time.”

Gretebeck also took full advantage of the resources available on campus during her four years at Penn. She kept her interests broad, doing clinical rotations in oncology that involved visits to the Perelman School of Medicine and learning about the synergies between cancer in animals and humans. She also took the popular exotics elective rotation.

“That rotation was great because you never knew what you were going to be dealing with and you had to be prepared for anything,” Gretebeck says. “One day you might be removing a tumor from a frog, the next you’re doing an ultrasound on a guinea pig.”

While her research experiences and coursework were enriching, Gretebeck remained committed to connecting science with broader social justice issues. At the end of her second year in 2012, Gretebeck, along with fellow veterinary student Nikki Wright, received a Penn Vet Inspiration Award of $10,000 to begin implementing Amar Haiti. An outgrowth of the organization Gretebeck had founded in India, Amar Haiti aims to improve animal health and productivity, and thereby positively affect human and environmental health.

“Through education and medical treatment, we hope to create the opportunity for sustainable development in Haiti,” says Gretebeck.

The Amar Haiti program has become very popular, garnering support from Penn students and faculty alike. Since 2012, the program has successfully coordinated four trips to Haiti, brought over 20 Penn veterinarians and vet students to aid in their mission, and provided care for more than a thousand animals. The program is currently co-directed by Penn Vet students Megan Murray and Mara Kraenzlin, who are working closely with five Haitian farmers to further improve animal production and welfare.

Over the years Gretebeck felt herself growing increasingly interested in the subject of zoonotic diseases, illnesses that are transferred from animals to humans. She read Spillover, a popular science book detailing the recent explosion of diseases that have passed from wild animals to people, including SARS, Ebola and AIDS.

“That book really had an impact on me,” Gretebeck says. “We live in such a big world, but with our globalized economy a viral outbreak in China can impact the lives of people everywhere.”

This became the area of public health where Gretebeck felt she could have the greatest impact. She immediately set her sights on the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s next to D.C., and it’s really the best place to work on public and global health issues,” Gretebeck says. “There are also lots of opportunities to keep learning through classes, seminars and conferences.”

In her new position at NIAID, Gretebeck is working with Kanta Subbarao, whose research team focuses on identifying potential pandemic strains of influenza and developing vaccines.

Gretebeck will be working to develop vaccines for coronaviruses, a family of respiratory viruses that cause a range of diseases in farm animals, pets and humans, including SARS and its genetic cousin MERS.

Gretebeck says it’s too soon to say where she’ll end up after her NIH fellowship. But she’s excited by the possibilities.

“I know I want to keep working in animal and human health,” she says. “I think it’s really important to enjoy the path you’re on and always be open to new opportunities and ideas. Have the courage to follow your intuition.

“Sometimes while I was at Penn, doing so many different things, I wondered how all these pieces would add up. It’s only when looking back on your experiences that you discover you have a story that leads to where you are today.”

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