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Student Spotlight Grace Nichol

A ‘tick-y’ subject: Master’s student embraces the complexity of ticks and tick-borne disease

Photograph of Grace Nichol standing outside with a spruce tree in the background

First-year Master’s student Grace Nichol never thought an undergraduate degree in biomedical science and mathematical science would lead her to a lab dedicated to studying nasty ticks and tick-borne disease in graduate studies.

But that’s what happened when Nichol, now pursuing a Master’s in Epidemiology, was introduced to Dr. Katie Clow – a veterinarian and tick expert – as an undergraduate research student the summer between her third and fourth years.

Under Dr. Clow, Nichol studies Dermacentor ticks and the factors causing their increased spread in Canada’s western provinces. Statistics are key to a project like this, something Nichol is no stranger to after four years of mathematics and statistics courses.

“I feel like my mathematical science minor 100 per cent prepared me for what I’m experiencing now in grad school,” she says.

Nichol has been collecting data and creating models of where Dermacentor variabilis (American dog tick) and Dermacentor andersoni (Rocky Mountain wood tick) ticks are located and where they might be expanding their habitat range. Tracking tick locations has become increasingly important because – similar to other ticks like the blacklegged tick – Dermacentor ticks carry pathogens that can infect animals and humans.

Many factors are at play – climate change, wildlife health and animal and human population distributions among them. So, Nichol is using a One Health approach in her work – that is, applying the idea that human, animal, and environmental health are interconnected. She says that traditionally people have pointed fingers at climate change as the reason ticks are spreading, but she sees how important it is to take a more holistic approach.

Nichol is also enrolled in the Collaborative Specialization in One Health, which allows her to connect with other students enrolled in the specialization, working on different projects. Here she has the opportunity to learn about One Health application in various disciplines and connect with students at various stages of their graduate degrees.

Nichol praises how collaboration is central to One Health and highly values her interdisciplinary advisory committee who offer veterinary, microbiology, disease modeling, and ecological perspectives to her project. Her experiences with collaboration in this degree have greatly impacted how she envisions her future career; Nichol hopes to work in a setting where she can apply transdisciplinary approaches to issues of human, animal and environmental health, such as infectious diseases spread by ticks.

“It’s fascinating to see how everyone approaches things differently,” says Nichol, “I want to work on a team where people have different areas of expertise but the common goal of improving health.”

Funding for Nichol’s graduate work is provided by OVC Pet Trust, as well as personal funding through NSERC CGS-M and an OVC MSc Scholarship.


Update: Grace Nichol is now a PhD candidate in Epidemiology and One Health at the University of Guelph.

Article by Anna McMenemy

Hear Master’s student Grace Nichol praise the collaborative efforts central to her research and education in the Collaborative Specialization in One Health:

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