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Leading the Flock

Posted June 12, 2018

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Dr. Sarah Hamer stands in front of the Avian Health Complex, which houses more than 200 birds for research and teaching.

As the new director of Texas A&M’s Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center, Dr. Sarah Hamer brings an array of professional experience and, most importantly, a passion for studying and preserving native and exotic bird species.

As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Dr. Sarah Hamer spent countless hours inspecting trees and bushes and scanning yards and sidewalks in search of the American crow, transforming residential neighborhoods and community parks into vital sites for her research.

Hamer was tracking and observing this particular species in order to understand their movement, behavior, and nesting habits, hoping to find out why the birds seemed to adapt to urbanization better than other native bird species.

“We sewed radio-transmitters onto the birds’ tail feathers  to track their movement and see what habitats they were using,” said Hamer, now an associate professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS). “By understanding how these birds moved and utilized resources, we could identify critical factors that allow these birds to thrive in the urban environment.”
Hamer and her colleagues began to notice that a large number of American Crows were getting sick and dying.

“Because we were tracking their movement, we were able to locate and test the birds quickly after their death,” she said. “Nearly all of the dead birds tested positive for the West Nile virus. The virus impacted a lot of different types of birds, but disproportionately impacted American Crows.

“We also sampled and tested mosquitoes from the key habitats where the crows were roosting at night and found the virus within the mosquitoes, as well,” Hamer said.

As they conducted this sampling, people living in those neighborhoods also were getting sick from the virus, and what began as a young student’s ecology project quickly morphed into research on the relationship between human and animal health.

“That experience as a master’s student really set me on a career path of studying these emerging pathogens that impact animal health, but also impact human health,” Hamer said. “I became very interested in studying wildlife populations and disease vectors, such as mosquitos and ticks, and how the pathogens they transmit are passed to humans.”

As she was pursuing her doctorate in disease ecology at Michigan State University, she began to realize that much of her work involved communicating with health practitioners, which sent her down yet another route.

“I realized about midway through my Ph.D. that I was communicating with a lot of medical doctors and veterinarians,” Hamer said. “I decided then that if I had a medical background, it might open up more doors for my research, so that’s when I started in vet school.”

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Hamer in the lab

After completing her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at Michigan State University, in conjunction with the completion of her Ph.D., Hamer came to Texas A&M University to start a faculty position and lead a research program that focused on the ecology and epidemiology of a variety of human, animal, and vector-borne diseases. Her work has ranged from Chagas disease in humans, dogs, and wildlife, to conservation medicine for the endangered Whooping Crane, to studies of ticks and tick-borne diseases across the country.

It was her passion for wildlife, paired with her success in mentoring students and leadership in interdisciplinary federally funded research, that led to Hamer’s appointment as the Richard Schubot Endowed Chair and director of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at Texas A&M.

In the role, which includes a joint appointment with the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB), Hamer oversees the expenditures of the Schubot endowment to enhance avian health research, teaching, and clinical practice, including work conducted at the unique and world-famous aviary for exotic and native birds.

“I’m fortunate that my research and my hobby have converged,” Hamer said. “I’ve loved raising birds for most of my life and being a bird watcher. Being out in nature—studying wild populations and trying to keep them healthy—has helped fuel a lot of the research questions that I’m asking.”

Her leadership position gives her a chance to assist researchers and current students in reaching their academic goals, while also expanding on the current scholarship in which the center is engaged.

“It is awesome to be surrounded by so many people who are united by their passion for bird health. I value this opportunity to help solve important bird health problems and to provide meaningful training experiences for students,” Hamer said. “I also have a vision to expand the scope of the types of bird work the Schubot group tackles.”

Part of that expansion involves finding opportunities for internal and external partnerships.

“I’m looking to grow collaborations with a number of partners that also share this mission of improving avian health,” Hamer said.
Partnerships, Hamer said, are going to be essential as the team at Schubot moves forward.

“Many pressing issues with respect to avian health are complex, requiring expertise from different disciplines,” she said. “We will combine the strengths within the Schubot Center and partner with others to expand our capabilities and solve these complex problems.”

Hamer said the Schubot Center’s strong foundation has provided her with a great opportunity to lead researchers and establish the center as a powerhouse in avian health research. She said the resources and facilities at Texas A&M will help tremendously.

“We have a lot of resources and capability as one of the top vet schools at this big, tier one research institution,” she said. “Combine that with what we have in the wild lands just outside of our campus and it puts us in a good position.”

Education and research will be one-and-the-same in the center under Hamer’s leadership.

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A bird researcher and bird lover, Hamer owns an African Gray parrot, named Togo.

Because her education helped her discover her passion for studying zoonotic diseases, Hamer hopes to empower students with similar opportunities to launch into their own career paths focused on improving health.

Combining her teaching and research, for example, Hamer co-designed a new, high-impact course, “Methods in Vector-borne Disease Ecology,” with funds awarded to her as a Montague Teaching Scholar. In the course, small teams of undergraduate and graduate students worked together to conduct original research throughout the semester. Several projects centered on wild bird health.

“Our students completed a study that was published last year looking at zoonotic pathogens associated with the Great-Tailed Grackles, the large, black, noisy birds that hang out by the hundreds in the urban grocery store parking lots around town,” Hamer said. “We worked through the federal, state, and local permits necessary to allow our students to capture and band the birds and also collect blood and fecal samples that the students then analyzed back on campus.

“Our students found that some of those birds were shedding Salmonella, a food-borne pathogen,” she said. “When those birds hang out on your grocery carts that your food is in, this can be an issue. This is an example of how wild birds maintain pathogens that might have an impact on human health.”

Hamer said the Schubot Center’s world-class aviary provides countless opportunities like these for student research studies.

“There is no shortage of students who want to be involved in avian health research—undergraduates, graduate students, and veterinary students,” Hamer said. “These students will continue to be the fuel behind all our research output.

“Education is a key component in my vision for the center. In order to succeed as a research powerhouse, we must serve as a training ground for students of various capabilities,” she said.

Hamer’s leadership at the Schubot Center, she said, is just another way for her to pursue a passion that started as a hobby and led her down a unique educational path—and, hopefully, will lead others to do the same.

“I view my position at the Schubot Center as a way that I can merge some of my own background and perspective with an awesome team of enthusiastic clinicians, faculty, and students so that our research and training can have even more of an impact than we would have been able to individually,” Hamer said.

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of CVM Today magazine.

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