Leading the Flock
Posted June 12, 2018
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
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.”
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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.
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
“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
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.
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.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of CVM Today magazine.
Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive
Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas
A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; firstname.lastname@example.org;
979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)
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