Dr Rachel Iglesias is working to stop the next disease outbreak in our animals

Veterinary epidemiologist Dr Rachel Iglesias has been working on Australia's COVID-19 response in the National Incident Room. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Veterinary epidemiologist Dr Rachel Iglesias has been working on Australia's COVID-19 response in the National Incident Room. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Dr Rachel Iglesias usually works to keep animal diseases out of Australia to keep farms healthy and profitable.

But for the last four months the veterinary epidemiologist has been on secondment to the National Incident Room in the Department of Health working on Australia's coronavirus response.

It turns out making the temporary switch to human epidemiology was not too much of a stretch.

"Epidemiology as a discipline is much the same whether you're dealing with animals or with people," she said.

"Some of the terminology is different. We do somewhat different things when we're dealing with animals, so we're interested in a herd of cattle, not one cow, whereas for public health you're really interested in the individual and what the individual is doing, so that's slightly different. But most of the skills are quite transferrable."

It's not the first time her career has taken an unexpected turn. Growing up in Western Australia, her dream was to be a wildlife veterinarian.

She had a love of animals from a young age and spent time hopping over the neighbour's fence trying to make friends with a retired racehorse and various farm animals.

After completing a veterinary science degree, it proved very difficult to get a foothold in the competitive world of wildlife medicine. Dr Iglesias fell into private practice instead, followed by a busy stint in small animal emergency practice.

Ultimately it was love that brought her to Canberra and the public service. After a period of time in long-distance relationship, she moved to the capital to be with her now husband and took up a role at the Department of Agriculture.

"I came to a great team and it was a real change in career pathway but surprisingly an absolutely fantastic, fortuitous event," she said.

READ MORE:

Dr Iglesias' team usually works on planning a national response to animal diseases. Foot-and-mouth disease has been a major focus since the outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 shocked the world, but a variety of diseases continued to threaten Australia's primary industries.

"African swine fever is definitely one that we're concerned about at the moment, probably for about the last two or three years since it started spreading through Asia," Dr Iglesias said.

"African horse sickness has also just been found in Asia for the first time just in the last 12 months and a disease called lumpy skin disease has also been spreading through parts of Europe and also has shown up in India and some of the surrounding countries just in the last 12 months or so as well. So there's lots of diseases that are of interest at the moment."

Dr Rachel Iglesias' team work to keep diseases such as African horse sickness, lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth disease out of Australia. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Dr Rachel Iglesias' team work to keep diseases such as African horse sickness, lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth disease out of Australia. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

While working towards a fellowship in veterinary epidemiology, Dr Iglesias has recently been chosen as a Superstar of STEM by Science and Technology Australia. The two-year program is designed to put women in science, technology, engineering and maths into the spotlight to help break down stereotypes.

For Dr Iglesias, it's an opportunity to highlight a field that is not often put forward as a career option in vet school, as well as a way to cut through the bureaucracy to communicate more directly with farmers who benefit from her work.

"It's a huge privilege to be able to work in Canberra in the public service and have the opportunity to do things that affect people all over Australia but it's also really hard to communicate with them about what you're doing," she said.

"Hopefully it will get [farmers] to actually start telling us more about how they're finding what we're doing and what kinds of things they value, what kinds of things they want, and then the work that we do can be better tailored to what is actually required."

  • Superstars of STEM is a series highlighting Canberra women kicking goals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This story Dr Rachel Iglesias is working to stop the next disease outbreak in our animals first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments