When people think of veterinarians, odds are good that they don’t immediately think about global human health issues. Radhika Gharpure’s mind, however, does.
This 28-year-old veterinary doctor has no real interest in giving cats and dogs their yearly checkups. She instead wants to be at the forefront of animal health as it relates to human health around the world, and she wants to help shape public health policies on Capitol Hill.
That last part is no mere flight of fancy. Gharpure has been selected for the American Veterinary Medical Association Fellowship Program, which places selected veterinarians with members of the U.S. House or Senate as policy advisors. She was one of three applicants selected from a pool of 19 to serve for a year on Capitol Hill, providing a member of congress with scientific counsel on policies related to animal health, animal welfare and public health.
Mark Lutschaunig, head of the AVMA’s Governmental Relations Division, said that “all the knowledge a veterinarian has” comes into play in the appointment. Fellows are not lobbyists and they do not work for the AMVA, but they offer their insights in hopes of affecting public policy that comes out of Washington, he said.
Lutschaunig said the program has been around since 1988. Over the past decade or so, the program has placed three veterinarians a year, typically selected from a final candidate pool of between 15 and 20. A committee selects these finalists based on information submitted, CVs and research background, and then sends candidates a case study on a major health policy issue. Candidates have a mere two days to answer, and the most impressive candidates get an interview with the three-person committee.
Lutschaunig cited Gharpure’s background in externships with organizations like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Agriculture as reasons she made the cut. She also impressed with her student and post-graduate work in zoonotic, or animal-borne, diseases.
This year’s case study centered on labeling for genetically modified foods. Gharpure said her approach to answering was based on a deep bed of scientific literature and the general consensus among researchers that genetically modified foods are no less safe than organic foods.
“There are no adverse health consequences with genetically modified foods,” she said. “But there’s a misconception that there are.” She added that this misconception is probably the largest gulf between what scientists understand and what the public believes.
That there is sometimes a rift between what scientific research shows and the beliefs members of the public hold is in the general consciousness these days, and Gharpure says the scientific community has recently been reenergized to getting their voices heard. Scientists of all stripes, she said, had become complacent with their messages. With backlash against scientific principles coming to the fore since last year’s presidential election, scientists have become more invested in getting those messages across again. She called the reaction from the scientific community a positive development.
Gharpure has been rooted in science her whole life. Born in the United Kingdom, she came to the United States around 2000, when she was in fifth grade. Her father, Vishwanath, is an oncologist who relocated to the U.S. She grew up ensconced in a medical household in Plainsboro. She graduated from WW-P North in 2006.
Gharpure’s parents were born in India. Her mother, Anjani, is a yoga instructor who recently published a book on the subject, “YOGA to Master the Mind.” She also has a brother, Anant, who graduated from WW-P North in 2010. He is working on his Ph.D. in biomedical science at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Gharpure graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 with a bachelor’s in biology. She had already figured on pursuing veterinary medicine, but she had developed a deep interest in public health, especially how animal health and human health intersect. She attended veterinary school at the University of California-Davis.
While at veterinary school, Gharpure participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smith-Kilborne Program. Under the program, Veterinary Services within the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service selects one veterinary student from each school in the United States and one student from Mexico each year to learn about foreign animal diseases, opportunities in government work and communication skills.
She also did externships with the National Institutes of Health (looking into cancer drugs for dogs that could also work in people) and the California Department of Public Health. Part of her research involved an emerging avian virus currently causing issues among bird livestock in China, H7N9.
By the time Gharpure graduated with her veterinary doctorate in 2016, she knew she didn’t want to be stuck in a lab or open a veterinary office. She’s not against vets’ offices, of course. It’s just not for her.
After California, she moved to Baltimore to earn a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“I originally thought I would be doing comparative research (after veterinary school),” she said. “I wanted to investigate chemotherapy agents that could be used in canine cancers and human cancers, but I had a couple of lectures on population health and epidemiology, and I loved them. I loved that it was research oriented in that you were asking questions but also population oriented.”
She said she chose Johns Hopkins because she had several mentors at various parts of her veterinary training that had done their MPH at Hopkins, and they all highly recommended the program. “I wanted to go somewhere that was oriented towards human health, but that had a wider, multidisciplinary approach.”
Also, living in Baltimore put her close to Capitol Hill, which is where she’ll begin working as an AMVA fellow this fall. She doesn’t yet know which legislator she’ll be working with. She said she knows who she’d like to work with, but cannot say who it is. Interviews with congress members have not begun.
Lutschaunig said the process of finding a professional home on the Hill is entirely up to the candidates.
“They have to interview,” he said. “It’s up to them where they go.”
Wherever she lands, Gharpure clearly wants to affect public health policy through a veterinary perspective. She said the reach of zoonotic diseases is a large facet of emerging human health issues—as many as three out of four of all new viruses are, in fact, animal borne.
When her fellowship ends in 2018, Gharpure would like to tackle global animal/human health issues. More than anything, she wants to help the WHO in its quest to eradicate dog-borne rabies over the next decade and a half.
“Rabies is something that’s always intrigued me,” she said.
She hopes to do some work in India, where rabies is a serious public health problem. Until then, she is looking forward to the possibilities that await on Capitol Hill.