By Maryann Makosiej
A State Public Health Veterinarian and former Epidemic Intelligence Officer, Dr. Natalie Kwit is a versatile scientist on the front-lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her start, however, was not in a grand laboratory or even a state health department.
“We had all sorts of random pets growing up in Chicago,” she stated. “Hamsters, gerbils, chameleons, fish, and of course, dogs.”
Even after taking care of a motley menagerie in the city, Kwit only decided to pursue veterinary school after working at a vet clinic during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. She then worked as a zookeeper in Chicago’s Brookfield zoo to broaden her experience with animals.
After completing her degree, she began veterinary school at the University of Illinois. There, she gained her first exposure to public health in a second-year epidemiology course that explored how disease moves in populations.
“It was one of those classes where I didn’t have to just rote memorize it,” she said. “I liked the aspect of prevention.”
Drawn to the math and application of the public health field, Kwit pursued her Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Minnesota in a dual-degree DVM/MPH program.
Following school, Kwit spent five years in North Carolina working at a small animal clinic as a general practice veterinarian.
“I wanted to solidify my clinical skills and learn how to explain complex scientific concepts to the public,” she said. “I also liked working with the animals and the fast pace of primary care practice.”
In North Carolina, Kwit applied for the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The two-year, hands-on post-doctoral training program in epidemiology is among the nation’s most competitive.
She was accepted.
Assigned to the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases at the CDC office in Fort Collins, Colorado, she worked on investigating disease outbreaks of plague, tularemia, Lyme disease, and others that can pass between animals, arthropod vectors, and humans.
As a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Kwit brought a unique perspective to the team.
“Veterinary medicine has that comparative medicine approach,” she said. “I felt comfortable speaking about infectious diseases in humans because I learned about them in animals.”
Kwit’s experiences helped her to gain exposure in public health in not only writing, presenting, and data analysis but also through on-the-ground work, including investigations on Zika virus-related microcephaly in Brazil, tularemia among national park employees in Wyoming, and its transmission between dogs and humans and through organ transplantation.
At the completion of her EIS Fellowship, she became the State Public Health Veterinarian for Vermont, a job she holds today and one that has deeply changed since the pandemic.
“I used to think my life was busy before but I didn’t even know what busy was like,” Kwit said. “Everything else is on hold.”
While most of her day is spent on the computer in the COVID-19 response, a silver lining in the pandemic for Kwit has been being able to work closer with people from disparate disciplines. Public Health is an inherently interdisciplinary field and tracing an outbreak takes not only scientists but citizens of the community as well.
“What I enjoy most about being in state government and my position is that it’s applied,” Kwit said. “We have to make decisions on the fly and use the best science out there to make those decisions.”
Outside of grappling with a pandemic and addressing day-to-day public health needs, Kwik truly enjoys the outdoors. When not on the computer, she can be found Nordic skiing, running, hiking with her dog, and in a post-pandemic world, singing karaoke.