Animal Biosciences PhD Students Awarded Pre-doctoral Fellowships

Dairy cows in a lightly snow covered field in late fall.

Caitlin Jeffrey and Victoria Taormina, Ph.D. students in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences (ASCI) Animal Biosciences program, received pre-doctoral fellowship grants under the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Competitive Grants Program. The fellowships from the Education and Workforce Development Program provide two years of salary, tuition and materials and supplies support for their thesis projects.

Jeffrey is a veterinarian working toward a Ph.D. in ASCI Associate Professor John Barlow’s Lab. Her project, Advancing Knowledge of Non-aureus Staphylococci Epidemiology, the Leading Cause of Dairy Cattle Mastitis: Species and Strain Typing Matters, explores the molecular epidemiology of this important group of mastitis pathogens.

Jeffrey will use whole genome sequencing to identify the virulence potential of non-aureus staphylococci, with a focus on the most common species Staphylococcus chromogenes. She is excited to identify potential genetic differences that help explain variability in inflammatory response to intramammary infection with this bacterium. Jeffrey will use an extensive library of isolates and associated data on mastitis cases that she generated from field studies during the first years of her Ph.D. training.

Taormina is working on her Ph.D. under the mentorship of ASCI Associate Professor Jana Kraft. Her project, The Role of Dairy Fat in Chronic Low-Grade Inflammation and Disease Prevention, aims to compare circulating inflammatory markers as well as the response to an inflammatory stressor in participants with prediabetes after the consumption of a diet with whole yogurt compared to a diet with fat-free yogurt.

Chronic low-grade inflammation characterized by elevated concentrations of systemic inflammatory markers is a hallmark of many diet-related chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. What excites Taormina most about this project is the opportunity to use a food-based intervention, as opposed to a pharmaceutical-based intervention, to address a widely prevalent public health problem.

In addition to supporting their research in the final two years of their program, the USDA pre-doctoral fellowships require detailed mentoring and professional development plans. Jeffrey and Taormina will capitalize on this funding to expand their professional networks, strengthening networking and communication skills through conference and seminar presentations, and develop mentorship and leadership skills through training and mentoring undergraduate students. Both projects have clear ties to UVM Food Systems research and USDA and Vermont Experiment Station priorities.

Improving the health of dairy cattle is the focus of Jeffrey’s research, which builds on her experience as a food animal clinician. Better animal health improves cattle productivity and well-being, thereby advancing the well-being of farmers who rely on them. Improving human health and nutrition is the focus of Taormina’s project. There is much misinformation and confusion among consumers about dairy products, and dairy fat in particular, as a part of a healthy and balanced diet. Taormina and the Kraft Lab are working to advance human health by understand how dairy fat can be part of a healthy diet and contribute to prevention of diet-related chronic diseases.

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