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Moving One Health from the field to the classroom

Dr. Jeff Wichtel

Headshot of Dr. Wichtel

The One Health undergraduate program will be one of the most flexible and interdisciplinary programs the University of Guelph has ever offered.

– Dr. Wichtel

Big or small, islands represent isolated and complex ecosystems. Prince Edward Island, for example, is home to a unique balance of crop production, livestock production and aquaculture, not to mention all of its natural attributes. A change in any of those systems can almost immediately influence the other.

And that makes PEI a great place to understand the intricacies of One Health…which is where OVC Dean Jeff Wichtel, Chair of the Advisory Board of the University of Guelph One Health Institute, developed a deep interest in the interface between humans, animals and the environment.

Wichtel, formerly Chair of the Department of Population Health at the University of PEI, led a department with a strong ecosystem health focus. The effects of pesticide and microbial run-off from farmland on aquatic food systems provided perfect case studies to demonstrate the value of a One Health approach. And since 2015, he’s worked to create new avenues for students interested in One Health at the University of Guelph.

Now, as Dean of the Ontario Veterinary College, Wichtel has championed the application of collaborative, systems-thinking mindset of One Health to pedagogy. Along with the College of Biological Sciences,  and other leaders and faculty at the university, the One Health undergraduate program – the first of its kind – was designed to focus on giving students the skills and confidence to create multidisciplinary teams, analyze systems, and to solve complex issues.

The One Health undergraduate program will be one of the most interdisciplinary programs the University of Guelph has ever offered. An innovative team of educators has designed a curriculum with a core set of courses in biology, anthropology, geography, chemistry, physiology, ecology and sociology – aimed at giving students the ability to understand health from both social and scientific perspectives. Students will then be able to specialize in one of four One Health focus areas: disease, environment, policy, or culture.

This undergraduate degree in One Health will provide students with knowledge, skills and abilities that are highly valued and essential to solving today’s complex health issues – as well as the necessary background to pursue graduate work or enter into professional schools such as animal or human medicine.

Wichtel says the program will serve students who want to contribute to solving the complex issues our world is facing today. It’s his goal to make sure they graduate with the ability and the confidence to do so.

“The truth is, most of the simple problems in the world have been solved,” says Wichtel. “We must get used to working in complex systems with uncertain outcomes, and that requires a lot of confidence, and most often it requires failure. Because failing means that we start again and look at it from a new perspective.”

Wichtel has a deep and varied history in One Health studies. As a farm animal veterinarian with a specialization in theriogenology (animal reproductive biology), he came to respect how farmers care for their animals and provide for humans, while still being stewards for the environment. He encountered One Health problems in New Zealand where the growing – and economically vital – dairy cattle industry, so vital to the economy of that country, was leading to excessive leaching of nitrogen into natural water sources.

Wichtel was also engaged in One Health research in Kenya. There, he worked with organizations like Veterinarians Without Borders and Farmers Helping Farmers to increase production on family farms. The health, education and wellbeing of these families were often completely dependent on the production and health of only a handful of cows, and the population density in the fertile parts of the country was creating a lot of pressure on the environment.

A photo of Dr. Jeff Wichtel standing behind a dairy cow while student veterinarian Jennifer Huizen examines it.
Wichtel and Atlantic Veterinary College student Jennifer Huizen in Kenya working on a dairy cattle nutrition study.

“I realized that these situations were complex enough that they couldn’t be solved by an individual researcher,” he says, “but as a team of multidisciplinary researchers, we could often find solutions.”

Like many others, Wichtel discovered the importance of One Health before he stumbled across the community of like-minded researchers. Now, not only has Wichtel applied the approach to his own work, but he has found ways to integrate it into student learning at Guelph.

By: Marilyn Sheen

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