Posted August 05, 2022

Get to know self-proclaimed Public Health Veterinary Epidemiologist Kathryn Dalton, PhD, VMD, MPH, who is the keynote speaker for Phi Zeta Research Day on Friday, October 14, 2022.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About Dalton

Dr. Kathryn Dalton

Intramural Research Training Award Postdoctoral Fellow Genetics, Environment and Respiratory Disease Group Epidemiology Branch National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Institutes of Health

  • PhD in Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 2020
  • MPH with a concentration in infectious disease and food safety, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 2016
  • VMD University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, 2013
Let’s get into it—why did you agree to be our keynote speaker for Phi Zeta Research Day?

I’ve never been a keynote speaker before, so thought it would be fun! I My first response was, “Really? You want me?” You’ve had incredible, very renowned speakers that are very advanced in their careers, and I’m like, “You guys know I’m just a post-doc, right?” I still consider myself early-career. And I’m not going to diminish that. I’m going to talk to the students directly. I’m only 10 years past my veterinary degree, and I’ve managed to do, hopefully, a lot with that. So, I’m going to approach it as an early-career scientist, really talking with the trainees one-on-one, and understanding where they’re coming from—and hopefully inspiring them!

That sounds great! And you’re right, past speakers have been advanced career, but our faculty are really excited to have you for that reason—you’re more of a contemporary, you’re more tangible to the students we have at Phi Zeta. It’s exciting to have someone like you come in and be accessible to them.

What I’m so excited about—like, sure, I know I have to give a talk and I’ll figure out something to talk about—

(laughs)

—but I’m just really excited to be part of Phi Zeta Research Day, interact with the students, see what research they’re involved in, and understand the breadth of work that is being done there. I’m really excited.

Good! Yes, everyone is so excited, and that’s exciting.

That’s so nice to hear!

What will a non-veterinary student get out of hearing your keynote?

My talk will likely highlight the value of multi-stakeholder collaboration and engagement and benefits from working collaboratively across diverse scientific (and non-science) fields. This concept is relevant for all professionals, particularly trainees as they are building their network and refining career options.

Additionally, my talk will feature the importance of mentorship, a central pillar of professional development for all trainees.

Looking back, why did you decide to become a veterinarian?

That’s an interesting question. I was not one of those individuals who always wanted to be a veterinarian since they were five years old. That was not my path. I always knew I wanted to be in science, particularly the life science and biology realms, and I debated a lot of other career options. But I always really loved animals, and grew up in a rural, agricultural community surrounded by lots of different pets and other creatures. I was in undergrad and met a vet doing wildlife research, and it really opened my eyes to other areas that veterinarians could be involved with, and really bridging that core research background with this medical background. It really just opened my eyes, and that’s what I thought I wanted to do, more wildlife research, so that’s what I went into vet school thinking. But that quickly changed.

Good, because now, look where you are.

Exactly! I ended up taking my first public health class in my first year of vet school. I really just fell in love with it. I had the opportunity to visit the CDC and meet vets involved there, and that kind of sealed the deal for me, so to speak.

Did you always feel very compelled to research?

I was more focused on the practice side of things. I definitely wanted a very implementation-based, hands-on type of research that had a more direct, impactful focus to it, and not just this esoteric, high-level, you know, ivory tower-type research.

So, more with an outreach component—

Yes, exactly.

What led you away from the outreach and toward bench research?

It wasn’t until I got into Hopkins, and it really opened my eyes to all the different aspects of public health, from practice and policy to more implementation-based research, and got involved with a couple projects that really made me question whether I wanted to go into practice or whether I wanted to get more core research skills. At the same time, I was getting more experience mentoring students and teaching, and found that I really liked that. I think I was starting to like that part even more than the research part.

Is there more schooling for you on the horizon?

In terms of degrees, no. My family would joke with me, “Oh, what’s next, are you going to get a JD?” No, I’m done. And I struggled for a long time thinking about whether I wanted to do the PhD. I’d already had the first doctorate—the veterinary doctorate—as well as the MPH. Then again, at that point, I saw myself more in the research field, and having that PhD opened up doors that weren’t available previously. Veterinarians are very good at collaboration and really spreading across different disciplines, and that PhD basically invited me to the table of different disciplines and put me on an even playing field to work with other professionals. Although, do I think you could sit at that table without a PhD? Absolutely.

On Mentorship

As you discerned your career, what was challenging and rewarding about those transitions?

I ended up finding a laboratory and, specifically, a mentor, Dr. Meghan F. Davis, who was very supportive of me and my professional group. She also was a veterinarian, so she really understood my background. We had similar interests, so that was really instrumental in my professional development. I think for any student or early-career professional—honestly, the mid- and late-career professionals, too—having a supportive mentor is so important. I also was learning how to be a mentor, and I was mentoring students. Even though I was just starting my PhD, I had the opportunity to train a lot of incoming lab staff, as well as different master’s students. I really loved that part, that direct one-on-one. I enjoy inspiring students and just talking to them about their journey, offering advice on ways they can go forward.

Talk about Dr. Ewart. I spoke with her to prepare for this interview. She said she used to work with you, and you had a mentorship relationship at Johns Hopkins. Do you still talk?

Oh, yes! We just had a meeting a few weeks ago. She is absolutely wonderful. I am so thankful to have her as a mentor. It was really random how we met. She went to Johns Hopkins, too—actually, the same department that I was in. I think it was during my first or second year of my PhD, they randomly emailed students, “Trainees, do you want to sign up to get an alumni mentor?” I honestly thought it was going to be a one-off thing, that they were going to assign me a random person, and I would just email them once, introduce myself. Maybe we would have a meeting, maybe I could get advice on my CV or what classes to take. I was not expecting too much out of this, but they ended up matching me with Sue. Not surprising, I think she was the only vet in that group, and I was the only vet PhD student.

Obviously, I had heard her name come up in conversations before. I kind of knew who she was. But it wasn’t until this random alumni connection that we met, and we just instantly clicked and, personality dynamic-wise, we really got along. I have received so much from that relationship. She is such an incredible mentor. She obviously has tons of experience and knowledge in the field.

But I think more importantly, I have learned so much from her on how to be a good mentor. She is such an empathetic listener, and really knows how to be a mentor to very diverse students. I have greatly benefitted from our relationship, and hope that it will continue in the future.

I’m sure it will.

I hope so. She’s great.

What about you being a mentor? You mentioned that’s one of the things you really love doing now. What are the most rewarding and challenging parts?

Sometimes, it is very difficult when there are set deadlines in place, especially external deadlines—like students have to turn in this abstract by a specific date—and guiding them to that point without pushing them there. Especially since I’m someone who’s more, “Let’s talk about your past and what are your career interests and oh, let’s sit back and think about the data!” as opposed to, “I need you to do x, y, and z, and I need you to get it done ASAP.” That’s not really my mentorship style, so I find it challenging when I have to put myself in that box in order to meet certain external deadlines. But I know it has to happen, it can’t be all fun.

I think my favorite part is when all that stuff is done and then I do get to have conversations about what their interests are and what they want to do, and then, if I happen to know people that are in this field, I can connect them. Seeing them progress and grow and reach out to different fields and different interests—that’s the part that I really enjoy.

Working at NIH

How long have you been in your current role?

I’m fairly new. I’ve been at NIH for about six months now—so, newish? At times, I feel like I’m settled, but other times, I still feel new, especially working in this remote environment. I know everyone is trying to adjust. It’s been different.

Not that any veterinarian has a typical day, but for you, what would be the closest thing?

I started off doing more lab-based work and bench science. I now do more data analysis. I’ll have meetings and different stakeholder engagements, whether its one-on-one with my mentor and my mentees or larger project meetings. But mainly, I’ll work with a few different data sets and analyze them. My whole day is basically in front of a computer, doing literature reviews on the data and figuring out new ways to analyze it. And then a lot of writing. A lot of writing.

Talk more about the data analysis, about the stories and meaning that can be pulled from that.

If I had a business card, it would say, “public health veterinary epidemiologist.” And that’s how I approach my data. For me, epidemiology takes this big-picture view. It’s stepping back to figure out, “What do these variables actually mean, what is this? What does that actually mean in practice?” I design studies to get data that are interpretable and meaningful, and can actually have practical implications.

I think my veterinary degree does alter how I approach the topic of epidemiology, just bringing a One Health lens to both how I design studies and how I interpret the data, really prioritizing those human interactions with the environment, as well as the animals that they come into contact with.

As a veterinarian, can you speak to how you approach data differently or see it in different ways? What do you pick up on that your collaborators may overlook?

I am always surprised at ways my veterinary degree pops up at unexpected times—sometimes, it surprises me what people don’t know. For example, I am working with data on different agricultural exposures and because of my experience working in large animal medicine, as well as growing up in an agricultural community, I know that there are some important factors to consider when you’re looking at the health of people who work in these agricultural fields, such as different management practices that impact their potential exposures and health outcomes. Things that come up—like, “Oh, wait—beef cattle are managed different from dairy cattle—even though, “It’s all cows,” you can’t put them together, they’re two different things.

In the work I’m doing now, the biggest thing I gained from my vet background is that veterinarians are inherently trained to be systems thinkers, whether it’s thinking outside the box or bridging facts together to make larger interpretations. We are inherently trained to know how to treat a rabbit because we learned how to treat a horse, or we can take care of a cheetah because we know how to take care of a cat—things like that that all vets in their training go through. It’s that skill of applying information in one setting and knowing when to use it in another setting that I’m always surprised that other professional degrees—I won’t say they don’t have it, but they don’t have as rich of a training that veterinarians do using these skills. I use my veterinary degree day-in and day-out in my research.

Dalton’s Research

What are the big problems you’re attempting to solve or further elucidate?

My research interest, broadly, is how environmental exposures impact both human and animal health through the mechanism of the microbiome or different microbial communities, whether they’re in the gut or other body sites, as well as the microbes that we’re exposed to as part of the environment. It includes the microbes that are on animals, who have their own unique microbial communities. Overall, I want to determine how those different exposures impact health outcomes. It’s a really interesting field that is rapidly growing. I’m looking at different environmental exposures that impact our microbiome, which we know has a lot of different health impacts and is associated with many different disease conditions that range from cardiometabolic all the way to neurological and psychiatric issues.

We’re always finding different health connections, but understanding those upstream factors is what I’m really interested in.

I started out in infectious disease looking at one pathogen, and it really was this core veterinary training in systems thinking that led me to think, “Oh, we shouldn’t just be looking at one organism, but it’s how these organisms work in a community and how they influence each other—and to take a systems thinking approach to microbiology. I think my veterinary background influenced my trajectory and movement from looking at a single pathogen to looking at communities.

You’re looking more at dynamics—

Yes, exactly, and their connections, and then the connections that those communities have with our body, and then with our external environment—including animals, too.

What’s most satisfying for you in the research process? What feels the best?

There’s always the fun parts where you’re going through the data and you get the result and you’re like, “Oh wait, this actually means something, this actually is important! Let me go back and make sure that it’s true and reanalyze it in a different way,” and then, “Yes, it’s still true!" that’s always really exciting.

But I will say the thing that I really enjoy the most is when I help other people get to that stage. I’ve had that happen to me a lot where you get to the “Yay, this is exciting” stage, so the newness has kind of worn off. It’s still fun, but not as much now.

It’s really great when working with other people, especially people who have never done data analysis and are new at it, and guiding them to that discovery stage and seeing their response to finding something important in data. I think it’s really exciting. And then I also like when I have the opportunity to collaborate with other individuals and other professionals, especially experts from different fields, and how I can bridge my research to other individuals. Whether it’s core biostats people that are creating different methods for how to analyze data, or if it’s people from completely different fields like social science and humanities. It's understanding what their needs are and ways that, collaboratively, we can move forward together to solve different problems. It’s really the people side of things—I like the numbers and the data side, but it’s really the individuals that I’m working with that get me excited and get me out of bed in the morning.

As someone who has participated in that collaborative process directly and, I assume, probably also the opposite when you’re very siloed, what are the challenges or limitations? Was there a point in your career where you realized it’s really important for you to work with more people in different disciplines?

Sometimes, people want to put veterinarians in a specific silo, a specific box, like you’re only doing food safety work or a zoonotic disease. “Those are your lanes, stay in them.” And that’s not to say that we don’t need veterinarians in those issues—they’re two incredibly big problems—but there’s so much more that we can do. And we have the knowledge and experience and background to do them successfully. We really bring an important contribution to any public health topic, whether it’s chronic disease management, neurological diseases—really anything that a vet is interested in.

But we need to make our unique contributions known to other individuals. They may not think to invite you to the table, but just being an advocate for yourself and your unique background, and knowing where you can contribute, is how we can expand the field and collaborations outside of those stereotypical ones that vets are very well-represented in.

Do you have an all-time favorite research experience?

I actually really do love my dissertation [link] work, which I know is funny because you talk to most PhDs and they’re like, “I hated my dissertation! I just wanted to get it over with!” And there was definitely some of that, I wanted to get it over with. But my dissertation really did take a One Health approach in multiple ways. It considered humans, animals, and the environment, but it also approached a single problem through multiple different lenses.

I was looking at therapy dogs that work in the hospital and whether there is a potential risk to pediatric patients who are involved with them, specifically in terms of looking at infectious disease and if these dogs can be a vector of hospital-associated pathogens. The project expanded and asked if dogs alter the microbial communities of the kids they interact with and also if the dogs’ microbial communities were affected, and whether that influenced these dogs’ health outcomes—because they’re workers, they’re volunteers, so it almost took an occupational health and safety approach to the animals, which, obviously, I loved. And then I took a step back from that and applied qualitative research techniques—like interviewing people, which is commonly done in the social sciences—to actually have conversations with the healthcare workers, as well as the therapy animal handlers, to understand what they think the risks are and what are different mechanisms they use to help keep themselves, their patients, and their pets safe.

I loved working with the patients, with the therapy animals and their handlers, and really just seeing that close interaction and being involved with that very special moment—just knowing in some small capacity, this work was advocating for these programs to be safe and, most importantly, sustainable so these dogs can continue to do the incredible work they do and the patients and the healthcare workers would benefit from it.

You looked at it from all angles.

Yes, exactly. It was a really special experience, and I’m so happy to be a part of it, and it’s something that I am continuing to be involved in—unfortunately, not as hands on, but definitely something I hope that I will circle back to in my career.

2 Ph D Therapydog
Dalton collects samples from a therapy dog in the hospital during her PhD program, which explored how these dogs could be vectors for hospital-associated pathogens and, potentially, at-risk themselves.
3 Vetschool India
Dalton works on an independent study project in rural India during veterinary school, which helped spark her interest in public health and One Health and better understanding how the shared environmental plays into human and animal health.

Links to Dalton's Research