One Health: An Interview with Dr. John Barlow
Updated: Feb 5, 2019
By Maryann Makosiej
Walk into Dr. Barlow’s office, and you will be inundated with books. David Quammen’s “Spillover”, public health textbooks, mastitis control papers—his library is continuously growing. From researching, teaching, and advising, like all tenure-track faculty, the Ph.D, DVM, and Associate Professor does a bit of everything. With his undergraduate training roots in pathobiology at the University of Connecticut, Barlow earned his DVM from the University of Illinois, and later, his Ph.D. in Molecular and Mathematical Epidemiology at UVM. These days, he is an Associate Professor in CALS with a sustained interest in mastitis epidemiology, zoonotic disease, antimicrobial resistance, and public health.
Dr. Barlow enrolled at the University of Connecticut in 1984 with the intention of pursuing veterinary medicine. His original point of view had been one of clinical practice, but his experiences at UConn exposed him to veterinary research. In 1992, he earned his DVM, and spent the next three years in private mixed animal practice in Vergennes, Vermont. In 1995, Dr. Barlow found a postdoctoral opportunity at UVM under Dr. Karen Plaut. His work on mammary gland development eventually led him to pursue his Ph.D. with a focus on molecular epidemiology of cattle infectious disease.
The average day for John Barlow starts with a cup of chai tea. He devotes a lot of his work day (translating to 50-60 hours/week) to student and service committee meetings. The rest of the time generally involves time in the Barlow Lab. Between writing and reading proposals, literature review, data analysis, and physical laboratory work, his spare time is limited. A perfect day, he attests, involves sustained time in the lab working on his next project. This spring semester his teaching responsibilities include ASCI 177, Animal Plagues and Global Health, and a new class ASCI 298, One Health: Antibiotic Resistance.
The main focus of Barlow’s appointment is research. Past research includes explorations of cattle MHC genes and pathogen recognition for Foot and Mouth Disease virus. Work on host-adapted strains of Staphylococcus aureus associated with bovine mastitis is an ongoing interest. These days, Dr. Barlow and his team are finishing work on a series of publications of a field study related to the epidemiology of staphylococci on organic dairy farms and farms with on-farm cheese production. Further, they continue to deepen their understanding of mastitis epidemiology and control.
Infectious disease and epidemiology are core themes in Barlow’s areas of expertise. With the rapid advancement of these fields and the sheer amount of potential research, how does he decide what a “good project” looks like? His answer rests in education and funding. “Education is necessary to develop a foundation of knowledge in your field. You need to be able to recognize the unknown questions and then construct a testable and specific hypothesis," he elucidates. As for funding, the ability to create well-written grant applications and find the right collaborators is paramount. Luck never hurts, either.
The legacy of global health, including that of One Health, rests in its youth. “I only found out about my field and especially One Health about 12 years ago. To that point, its prominence has only risen in the past six,” Dr. Barlow contends, explaining that he did not intentionally pursue global health as an undergraduate because it was not a path he recognized as a kid from a rural background. Instead, what he knew from his high school days was limited in scope, and his vision was private rural veterinary practice; his undergraduate and veterinary training opened his eyes to the broader opportunities.
It’s understood that One Health Approach encompasses the idea that animals, plants, the environment, and humans are all intrinsically connected and that collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines are needed to solve many of our critical health problems. What is less understood is how this theory plays to an almost innumerable amount of fields. Picture "infectious disease", and you might imagine Ebola in Liberia. But, in fact, One Health is not relegated to foreign crises. It affects our everyday lives in very real and measurable ways.
For example, mastitis (i.e. inflammation of the mammary gland) can be due to a persistent, bacterial infection affecting the udder tissue of a cow. It’s one of the most common diseases of dairy cattle in the US and worldwide, but its effects extend far beyond the individual cow. An infected cow can be a source of infections for other cows in the herd, and possibly for humans in contact with those cows. Moreover, cows are used by humans for milk production. An infection can decrease the amount of milk a cow can produce or compromise the quality of the milk itself. Lower milk production impacts the profitability of a dairy farm producing milk for wholesale or retail markets. For small-holder farmers in Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa reduced milk production can mean a farming family has less food or income to survive the “hunger season”, the time between when their stored crops run out and their next crop harvest begins. Every-day choices like these can be understood through the increasingly clear connection between humans, animals, and the environment. One Health is not an obscure concept, but rather something that impacts all of us at the most local level.
Indeed, the significance of One Health lies in its diversity. “One Health is infectious disease, but it's also waste management. It’s food and agriculture systems, nutrition, environmental toxicology, climate change, lead pollution,” Dr. Barlow illustrates, drawing on the instances in which the concept impacts our everyday lives. He continues by explaining that global health is a significant field. It needs to continue to be better funded and more broadly understood by the general public. After all, people invest in what they understand and care about.
One Health is a vision that will continue to grow at UVM. The first step for ensuring its growth relates to increasing exposure. Expanding the number of classes that integrate One Health concepts, encouraging engagement of students and other faculty, and
integrating animal science courses to the mainstream are all efforts to increase exposure. Further, it will be imperative to invite lecturers from other institutions and bring institutions together to engage with other disciplines.
UVM’s One Health program looks to the future, and so does Dr. Barlow. Some of the details he most looks forward to include continuing his teaching responsibilities (including leading an Anatomy class in the Fall of 2020 and a senior discussion-based course on Antibiotic Resistance) and welcoming an influx of graduate students to the Barlow Lab. As for now, he will continue to brew chai tea, research mastitis epidemiology, and build the global health field.