Rebecca Christofferson loves how her research for the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine contributes to the overall health of the community.
She also loves how she can incorporate her passion for jazz into her work, which is why she sometimes makes special trips to Roselawn Memorial Park on Baton Rouge’s North Street to collect mosquitoes. That’s where legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans is buried, and, well, she’s a fan.
“A graveyard is a really good place to catch mosquitoes,” Christofferson said. “And since I love jazz and Bill Evans, we sometimes catch them at his grave. It’s just our way of including him in our work.”
True, there’s no feasible connection between jazz and mosquitoes. But in Christofferson’s world, the two work hand-in-hand when applying her research to the vet school’s One Health initiative, a mission that connects human, animal and environmental health.
Christofferson has been an associate professor in the vet school’s Department of Pathological Sciences since 2015. Her main field of study is mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. She’s aided by graduate assistant Erik Turner.
And their individual field of study contributes to the overall One Health mission instituted by the school’s dean, Oliver Garden.
He’s the first to say the idea of One Health isn’t anything new. It’s common knowledge that a circle of life continually rotates among humans, animals and the environment. When one is affected, all are.
And though the vet school primarily focused on animals in the past, Garden looks at the school’s work through a different lens..
“Clearly, diseases that threaten humans involve an animal as a host and vice versa,” Garden said. “We are linked, and many of the diseases that our veterinary patients suffer are very similar to those of human beings. And we at the vet school do at least as much research on human as we do veterinary health, because we regard them as inextricably linked.”
And, Garden added, One Health is a key concept that defines 21st century living and 21st century medicine and healthy existence.
“And we at LSU Vet Med embrace One Health in everything that we do, whether it’s through areas of teaching, healing, discovering and protecting,” Garden said.
Garden calls these areas “missions.”
“These missions pervade everything that we do,” he said. “So, for example, in our mission of protecting species, we have one of our clinical science faculty members, Javier Novas, who’s a professor of neurological medicine, and since 2003, he’s been the vet for Louisiana’s alligator industry.”
Garden also highlights Christofferson’s work, pointing out her study of pathogens, along with how those pathogens are cultivated in the environment, have a direct impact on both human and animal health.
“So, for example, Dr. Christofferson, who does work on viruses and emergency infectious diseases, has been doing work on sarcoidosis and is instrumental now in articulating the university response to monkeypox,” he said.
Of course, that doesn’t have anything to do with jazz. Not officially, anyway. But for Christofferson, Bill Evans adds something personal in her own One Health mission when she sets her mosquito traps next to his grave.
The water-filled trays provide a breeding ground for fertile females, which are the only mosquitoes that bite. Males and females who aren’t pregnant actually feed off pollen.
“Yes, they’re pollinators,” Christofferson said. “The females only need protein from blood when they’re carrying eggs.”
That’s one fact she shares when taking the One Health mission into high schools and other areas of the community. She also teaches her audiences how to tell the difference between male and female mosquitoes.
“The male mosquito has fuzzy antennas,” she said. “Those are just some things they’re interested in, and we can use them to talk about other things we’re doing.”
Christofferson and Turner step into one of three labs in which they work and removes a dead mosquito from a trap designed for adult insects.
This trap, designed to capture adult mosquitoes, has imprisoned two male and one female, which doesn’t have fuzzy antennas.
“Yeah, the males get the prettier antennas,” Christofferson said, laughing. “We’ll trap more and bring them into the lab to study.
And they’re looking for Zoonotic viruses, which are viruses that infect both humans and animals.
“Most of my viruses are zoonotic,” she said. “So for example, some of the viruses I’m working with right now are called bunya viruses or ortho bunya viruses, and they affect cattle as well as humans, and they’re transmitted by mosquitoes.”
Add to this mix the fact that mosquitoes also categorized as animals.
“People sometimes forget that,” Christofferson said. “I work with the dengue virus, which was primarily a human public health problem.”
Dengue includes such variants as Zika and West Nile, which cause fever, headache, vomiting, muscle and joint pains for people living primarily in tropical environments.
“In Louisiana, we have the environmental factor for mosquitoes carrying this virus, so we can study these mosquitoes and how the environment interacts with the mosquitoes to transmit the virus,” Christofferson said.
And through it all, Christofferson keeps her eye on how she can apply her findings to the One Health initiative.
“One Health is a new term, but it’s not necessarily a new concept,” she said. “So, when people start talking about One Health, we already sort of lived it, and it has been really good for us be able to put a name to it. This is why we do this tripartite thing of animal, environmental and human health. It’s why when we solve one problem, we have to make sure that that Rubik’s cube is not too disturbed. So it wasn’t really a big stretch for us to sort of slip into One Health.”
But Garden is determined to do more by spreading this message through community outreach.
“We’re increasingly engaging with the community through outreach programs,” Garden said. “We provide key services to the community and basic veterinary needs, but in that, we’ll also be educating.”
Garden added that the school also is scheduling monthly community outreach programs in its library.
“We invite people into the school to be educated on One Health and and everything that pertains to it,” he said. “We also embrace different ways of conveying our message. For example, we’ve just had the culmination of an artist-in-residence program over the summer in which multiple items of art speaking to our key mission in One Health were produced.”
Garden added that the school also is incorporating a program for students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the One Health program.
And in the end, it never hurts to add a little jazz into the mix, even if it just means collecting mosquitoes at a legend’s grave.