Colette Nickodem, a second-year Ph.D. student in biomedical sciences at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS), is a recipient of the first United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Graduate Student Food Safety Fellowship.
The fellowship, established by the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, is a one-year, paid program that will support Nickodem in her food safety research interests while also providing mentorship on her research project.
She is one of four graduate students across the country to receive this opportunity.
Nickodem’s winning project aims to utilize naturally occurring bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, in beef cattle feedlots to reduce levels of antibiotic-resistant (aResistant) Salmonella.
Cattle acquire Salmonella from their environment, which can accumulate in their lymph nodes and then can be incorporated into ground beef products. This creates a food safety concern, as humans can become ill from eating this contaminated beef.
“The majority of human salmonellosis cases are due to foodborne illnesses or contaminated food products,” Nickodem said. “It’s very important to make sure that everyone knows this is a thing that happens, that food gets contaminated.”
Nickodem’s research is a fitting culmination of her educational background; with a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology from Texas A&M, she is able to apply strong analytical skills and her knowledge of the food system in a “One Health” approach to tackle food safety-related research.
“It’s a full circle because through the nutritional science degree, I had to take a lot of food safety classes that relate back to all of the foodborne pathogens that are spread through animal products,” she said. “Since I have the public health background, I want to always relate what I’m doing back to the human health side of things.”
The FSIS ORISE fellowship is unique in that it exposes recipients to public policy that translates hard-science findings to real-world guidelines for the food production industry. Nickodem says she is eager to learn about how policies and processes are enacted to make a difference.
“I think a lot of times, you do your research, you present it in a publication, and that’s usually it,” she said. “One thing I don’t know very much about is being able to bring those findings to a higher level and make big interventional changes at a place like the Food Safety and Inspection Service. It’s a goal for me to be able to understand that process more because it might be something I want to do in the future.”
The mentorship opportunities provided are another draw to the program for Nickodem, who will work with scientists at the USDA who have expert knowledge in her field of interest. In addition to providing guidance on her project, this committee will also provide insight on how her work can be applied to the big picture of food safety and a window into the USDA’s inner workings.
“I think it’ll be really interesting to be able to collaborate with people at USDA in the FSIS program,” she said. “Since they are going to be connecting me with scientific experts who are specific to my research, they will be able to give me valuable information about my project. It’s going to help me brainstorm some more on in-depth ways to go about my research and think about some problems I hadn’t thought about before.”
Nickodem is not without a mentor at Texas A&M, however.
When joining the biomedical sciences Ph.D. program in the epidemiology, infection, and immunology track, she had originally intended to rotate through multiple labs before making her pick. However, a shared interest in epidemiology sparked an instant connection between Nickodem and Dr. Keri Norman, an assistant professor at the CVMBS.
“When I interviewed with her, we just kind of clicked,” she said. “I emailed her after the interview saying, ‘Would it be OK if I could be in your lab rather than doing a lab rotation?’ And she was all for it.”
Norman already had a grant from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, through which Nickodem began working with Salmonella and beef cattle feedlots to develop intervention strategies against the harmful pathogen.
It was Norman who first encouraged Nickodem to apply for the FSIS ORISE fellowship, suggesting that her research interests aligned well with the program’s goals.
“The FSIS ORISE fellowship is a tremendous opportunity for Colette, and I am eager for her to share the information she learns about public policy and other duties of FSIS scientists with her fellow lab mates and colleagues,” said Norman.
Nickodem says she initially was not aware of how prestigious this fellowship was when first applying, but she is grateful for the opportunity and the support her mentors at the CVMBS have provided.
“Regardless of what position it is, I have to put the same amount of effort in, and that’s what I plan on doing,” she said.
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216