For as long as she can remember, Darryl Ann Girardin of Presque Isle has been passionate about animals, especially large ones. And since the eighth grade, when she researched the best pre-vet schools in the country, she’s known she was going to study at the University of Maine.
Ironically, she also grew up without any household pets and, before she came to UMaine, had no experience with large animals.
“The first thing I did was volunteer at Witter (UMaine’s teaching and research farm) and work in the calf pens,” she says. “The farm is a mile down the road with a 40-cow dairy herd and 12 standardbreds. I enjoyed getting the hands-on experience. There aren’t that many (universities) where you can do that.”
As a UMaine freshman and sophomore, Girardin continued to volunteer doing livestock chores. She describes the three months between her sophomore and junior years as “one of the best summers of my life” because she started daily milking chores, beginning at 3:30 a.m. Her animal and veterinary sciences coursework required her to be involved in the care and handling of both cows and horses.
“Witter is my favorite place at UMaine,” she says. “It’s there that I learned the importance of hard work and a job well done. Those animals count on you for their care and you learn a lot when that’s the case.”
In her junior year, Girardin was deciding on possible topics for her senior capstone and honors theses, including the biosecurity implications of infectious disease outbreaks on farms, with the help of her academic adviser, Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner. Lichtenwalner is an assistant professor of animal science and a University of Maine Cooperative Extension veterinarian who directs UMaine’s Animal Health Laboratory, a campus-based service for Maine veterinarians, livestock producers and animal owners.
In addition to providing a variety of diagnostic services, including necropsies and research, Lichtenwalner works with veterinarians, farms and industries to help control problems related to animal health in the state.
“I realized I really liked learning about the mechanisms of disease,” Girardin says. “I had already started applying to vet schools, but realized I wanted to do more than I originally thought. I wanted to do something with food animal health and infectious disease, possibly become a state vet, monitoring diseases while helping to keep production high and implications to the environment and animals low.”
By the end of her junior year, Girardin had decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health, focused on infectious disease and public policy as they relate to domestic food animals. After that, she’ll pursue her degree in veterinary medicine.
Girardin’s hands-on experience in the Animal Health Lab included necropsies on young moose. These were animals found dead in the Maine woods during 2010, and brought to the lab by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officers to determine the cause of the higher-than-normal mortalities. Lichtenwalner and her team, including senior capstone student Jana Drury, found high counts of lungworm in the young moose, which led to the question — and Girardin’s honors thesis — about the species of the lungworm parasite in Maine moose.
The speciation process involved Girardin learning how to perform DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction, gel electrophoresis, cloning and DNA sequencing. The research team isolated a gene from these lungworms whose DNA sequence will be compared to those published in a genome database.
“This procedure allows us to be open to possibly discovering a novel lungworm species — or at least one not previously known to be infecting Maine moose,” says Girardin, whose research was selected for this year’s Undergraduate Research and Academic Showcase on campus. “The lungworms discovered in other studies are not host specific, which means one species of lungworm could infect moose, deer, even cattle. This could have serious implications for the control of the parasite.”
Last September through November during the Maine moose hunt, Girardin joined Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officers at the tagging stations to collect lungs from the gut piles. Moose lungs were collected to analyze the presence or absence of lungworms. If lungworms were found, they were collected for lab work to determine the species that was infecting the moose.
Girardin also assisted Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officers in the collection of moose ovaries for a reproductive health study.
“When I tell people what I do, a lot of them say, ‘Eeeww, why do you want to do that?’” says Girardin, who is president of UMaine’s Pre-Veterinary Club and a resident assistant on campus. “I like being elbows-deep in the gross stuff. We need to know what diseases are affecting our populations of animals — wildlife especially. We need to know if we’re going to have a problem on our hands.
“When you think of Maine, you think of moose and their role in our economy and even our identity as a state. What if all of a sudden they were gone? This is an early project — the problem was just discovered. But we’re taking the reins on it and trying to understand it early to know if we’re going to have a problem with lungworms in the future.”
Image Description: Darryle Ann Girardin