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Fate led vet from Los Angeles to studying mastitis

Progressive Dairyman Writer Audrey Schmitz Published on 30 September 2016
Dr. Jessica Scillieri Smith

Jessica Scillieri Smith grew up wanting to become a veterinarian so badly she was determined to get into any vet school right out of high school. A friend recommended she apply to the University of Vermont because of their joint program with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Smith says she applied on a whim and was accepted into their program.

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“It may not have been my dream vet school, but most people don’t get to be that picky about vet school, and you are happy if you get to go,” Smith says. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I do this program, I don’t have to worry about applying for vet school in three years.’”

Hailing from Los Angeles, California, Smith set her eyes toward the University of Vermont and made the commitment to being in the Tufts program before she had ever set foot in the state of Vermont.

“I went to Vermont for the first time for my June orientation, and I could not have picked a better place. It was just one of those fate things,” Smith says.

During her first year of college, Smith enrolled in the Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management (CREAM) program to gain large-animal experience in preparation for vet school. The yearlong class consisted of working at a student-run dairy herd. At the time, the herd was 32 cows in a tiestall barn.

The class of 15 students made management decisions, worked with the nutritionist, gave reproduction shots, were present for vet checks and managed all the finances.

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“I fell in love with the dairy industry and the idea that as a veterinarian I could do more than just treat someone’s sick dog or sick cat,” Smith says. “Not only could I help an individual animal, but I could help a business and a family who is using the business to support themselves.”

After completing the CREAM program, Smith sought employment at other dairy farms in the Vermont area and started to focus her undergraduate research in dairy-related areas. This was a very pivotal time in Smith’s life. Because of her involvement in dairy, she revamped what she wanted to do as a veterinarian.

“I refocused everything. I went to college with the idea that I wanted to be a veterinarian and was going to be a small-animal orthopedic surgeon,” Smith says. “My switch to dairy and food production medicine was totally a 180.”

Smith knew Tufts University was not known for putting out dairy vets and she would have to get additional dairy experience outside of the normal curriculum.

“I felt like I needed to do extra stuff in the large-animal area, especially in production medicine because that isn’t one of Tufts’ strong suits. I knew I would have to seek out extra experiences and that they wouldn’t just be handed to me,” Smith says. “I drove an hour each way to the ambulatory clinic to do my elective time when most people did it on campus.”

During her senior year, she spent her elective time working with different dairy practices in New York, Pennsylvania, New England and the Midwest while exploring job opportunities.

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Graduating from vet school in a class of 83 people, Smith says she is the only one who now practices food animal medicine. Today, she works for Quality Milk Production Services as the senior extension veterinarian in their northern laboratory studying mastitis pathogens.

“I kind of ended up studying the disease process of mastitis a little bit haphazardly,” Smith says. “We had been talking within Quality Milk about some farms down in central New York that had a lot of cows with chronic subclinical mastitis from strep species.

They did additional testing on those cultures and found they were an organism called lactococcus.”

Smith says the lactococcus organism is one that is almost never talked about with mastitis. Her lab decided to determine all of the mastitis-causing organisms in the strep species by sending strep samples to their molecular lab to positively identify each to the specific genus. In six months, they received almost 500 mastitis samples.

Of all the samples, 150 were identified as the two most common strep species, dysgalactiae and uberis. However, right behind those, about 120 of the samples were identified as lactococcus.

The research study also tracked the cows for two months and found that cows with strep lactococcus were less likely to have a lower somatic cell count within those two months. Those cows were also more likely to leave the herd than cows with strep dysgalactiae.

“It was interesting because this pathogen that no one really identifies, and we don’t really know a lot about, looked to be causing cows to stay as high-somatic cell count cows,” Smith says.

They also found that the regular lab tests were actually incorrectly identifying some strep lactococcus as strep uberis.

“It is almost like this puzzle that we have been misidentifying species for a long time. We had to go back and re-evaluate what we thought of strep uberis and also learn about strep lactococcus,” Smith says.

According to Smith, there are still a lot of unanswered questions when dealing with mastitis pathogens. Her goal is to help provide more information on mastitis to help dairy farmers manage it better on their farms. She believes this will ultimately help them become better farmers.

“I think it is really important as an industry that we do a good job of treating the cows that will benefit from treatment and not treat the others to minimize and reduce our antibiotic use,” Smith says.

“Today, I am finally in a job where I am able to do research that hopefully will eventually help dairy farmers do a better job of producing a high-quality product the American public and world can consume.”  end mark

Audrey Schmitz was a 2016 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO: Dr. Jessica Scillieri Smith’s passion for helping animals led her to mastitis pathogen research. Photo provided by Jessica Scillieri Smith.

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