Study-abroad course introduces students to Global One Health

Animal science major Willow Chesmer holds a sea urchin at an aquaculture facility.
Animal science major Willow Chesmer holds a sea urchin at an aquaculture facility.

“My mother was born in Belfast, and my father’s family came from the Midlands,” says Sheila Andrew, professor and extension dairy specialist in the Department of Animal Science.

Her comments are greeted with a guffaw from Sandra Bushmich, the College’s associate dean for academic programs and a professor in the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science (PVS). The two have recently returned from their second time leading a group of students in an extraordinary course, Global One Health: Irish and US Perspectives. Bushmich explains that it seemed that everyone in Ireland knows Andrew, but the larger story too is one of many connections.

The three-credit course provides an opportunity for students to study in Ireland and the United States. Under the direction of Bushmich and Andrew, students focus on One Health, the connections between animal health, human health and environmental sustainability. Students benefit from Andrew’s and Bushmich’s connections in dairy and cheese production and aquaculture, meeting with leaders in the industries in the United States and Ireland. During the first week, they travel across New England to meet with experts in these fields. Weeks two and three are spent in Ireland, where they learn how Ireland and the European Union regulate the industries by visiting production facilities and looking closely at food safety practices.

The genesis of the program was several years ago when Cameron Faustman, then associate dean, urged faculty members to develop creative study-abroad programs for students from any major without prerequisites. Faculty were encouraged to form a team of two and compete for support. Andrew, who had already developed a program in Tuscany, was joined by Bushmich, who as an undergraduate at Cornell had studied at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Their proposal was one of those chosen to win the competition.

Through a contact with a feed company, Andrew developed a connection with Alltech, a worldwide company in Ireland that manufactures animal health products. Bushmich had connections to food safety and aquaculture organizations. Together, they worked to forge other linkages. In preparation for their travels, students learn about food safety and environmental aspects of dairy and fish farming industries from College faculty. Sea Grant faculty at UConn’s Avery Point Campus provide background on seaweed farms and oyster hatcheries.

Students travel to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton, MA, to learn how human diseases manifest themselves in animals. In Ireland, the group visits a veterinary school at University College Dublin to learn how similar issues are addressed there.

Students speak with a scientist at a veterinary diagnostic laboratory.
Students speak with a scientist at a veterinary diagnostic laboratory.

In Waterbury, Connecticut, students visit Ideal Fish, an innovative land-based, high-tech fish farming program on a former manufacturing site. On the second leg of the program, they set out in boats on near Donnegal, Ireland, to observe an organic salmon farm and visit a processing plant, then visit the Marine Institute, near Galway, which conducts shellfish and other aquatic species food safety testing and research for the industry. the current director of this facility was formerly at UConn.

The course is a transformative experience for students, demanding but rewarding. During the first week, students are housed at UConn in university housing or nearby hotels from which they visit various sites to study the One Health vision in the United States. In Dublin, they stay in a hotel while visiting food production and other scientific facilities there. While touring other parts of the country, they stay in small inns and bed and breakfasts. Farm Tours Ireland facilitates transportation and lodging and includes various cultural experiences.

After two years of operation, Global One Health: Irish and US Perspectives is having a measurable and positive impact. Students are given pre- and post-tests to assess their understanding of One Health; results show that they gain significant knowledge and skills. One student plans to apply to veterinary school at University College Dublin. A Ph.D. student received a Fulbright to work on a project to test the use of GPS tracking for fishing lines and lobster pots in Ireland and Scotland as part of future Ph.D. research.

Says Bushmich, “This program has far exceeded our expectations. It is incredible how much depth of knowledge the students acquire almost effortlessly. They learn through experiences and by talking with people. We are always thinking of ways to make it easier and less expensive so that more students can be part of it.”

Plans are underway for May 2020. More information can be found on UConn’s Education Abroad website.

By Nancy P. Weiss