I grew up on the island of Newfoundland, Canada. In high school, I had a summer job studying seals with dedicated scientists at Memorial University. The marine lab was perched on a cliff overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. In 1992, our view of the ocean changed: all the buoys marking cod fishing nets disappeared when the fishery was closed due to overfishing and cod population collapse. This was eye opening, and it showed how complicated the decline of an animal population could be, with environmental, political, and economic causes and effects.
I was motivated to learn more about conservation and ecology, so I majored in biology at university and gained as much lab and field experience as possible. Eventually, my goals of contributing to conservation, learning hands-on skills, and working with animals led me back to my childhood aspiration of becoming a veterinarian.
The Psychology of Pathology
When I started vet school, I tried to find the best way to apply the specific skill set of a vet to the general field of wildlife conservation. I quickly realized that, for me, pathology was the link.
Veterinary pathology is the study of animal disease – what causes it, how to diagnose it, and how it happens. Pathology is an especially valuable component of wildlife conservation. This is most obvious during an epidemic, when it’s crucial to understand the cause in order to find a solution.
However, the knowledge gleaned from a post-mortem exam includes so much more than just the cause of death. Clues about diet, nutritional and reproductive status, exposure to toxins or pathogens, and more, can all be collected at necropsy. In this way, pathology can provide a window into the hidden lives of wildlife. Most importantly, the potential effects of disease are much greater in an animal population under pressure than in a balanced ecosystem.
We can use the tools of pathology to identify and track potential disease threats before they impact a population, or to mitigate disease issues already at play.
After graduating with my DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), I started an anatomic pathology residency at the University of California, Davis. My final, and most exciting, year was spent at the Wildlife Disease Laboratories of the Institute for Conservation Research, where I worked with an amazing team in a state-of-the-art facility. I was lucky enough to stay on with the division for two more years as a Fellow in the Amphibian Disease Laboratory, helping provide diagnostic support for captive amphibians in zoos and conservation programs.
Bats and Beyond
After my fellowship, I left San Diego for several years to pursue a Ph.D. studying bats and viruses at the University of Georgia. My graduate studies taught me much about virology, laboratory techniques, disease ecology, and, above all, how to think like a research scientist. But I knew I didn’t want to pursue a purely research career—I wanted to find a way to apply my training directly to wildlife conservation.
Finally, in June of 2014, I returned to the Wildlife Disease Labs in the new position of Wildlife Pathologist. Here, I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of a team of experienced and engaged zoo pathologists. Within our group, my job is unique because my primary role is to provide support to the Institute’s many wildlife conservation programs. I work closely with the other pathologists, molecular biologists, technicians, clinical veterinarians, biologists, and epidemiologists to help coordinate wildlife diagnostics and health surveillance.
Our goal in the Wildlife Disease Labs is to remove disease as a roadblock to conservation. And I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
Megan E.B. Jones, DVM, Dipl. ACVP
Scientist, Wildlife Disease Laboratories
Institute for Conservation Research