Anyone who thinks conservation work isn’t exciting hasn’t thrown vaccine-laced bait from a helicopter in the name of rabies control. Or, spent a year in Australia battling frog fungus. Or, climbed into caves in search of bats. Over the course of her career, Dr. Alison Robbins has had many adventures, all in the name of disease prevention and conservation. Now, three decades into her career, her latest adventure has her spending less time with wildlife and more time with students.
As the Assistant Director of the MS in Conservation Medicine Program (MCM), Dr. Robbins teaches seven courses. From infectious disease to field and interpersonal skills, the classes that she teaches span the breadth of her expertise. With strong academic qualifications and extensive field and research experience, Dr. Robbins taps into her vast background to teach and support her students.
Starting small, going big
With a BS in biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Robbins’ introduction to the scientific world was small, micro small. During her first job as a research assistant at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, she decided that she wanted to work with science at a larger, population scale. She earned her MS in biology and conservation at Tufts University and then went on to earn her doctorate of veterinary medicine (DVM) at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
By the time Dr. Robbins graduated with her DVM, she had the academic tools and training to address conservation medicine at many levels. From the biochemistry of disease to the medical effects on an individual animal, to the complexities of disease at a population scale, Dr. Robbins was perfectly placed to understand and address these issues within a conservation context. However, it would be several years before she would go into conservation work.
Fresh out of veterinary school, Dr. Robbins spent several years practicing veterinary medicine. She credits the time she spent at both a small animal practice and a cat clinic as an important period during which she developed critical interpersonal skills. Conservationists need to be able to work with a variety of people, from policy makers to the public, while translating scientific information into layman’s terms. Her time in practice gave her the skills she needed to do just that.
Dr. Robbins’ first major conservation project was with the Cape Cod Oral Rabies Control program. When the program began in 1992, the rabies virus was spreading rapidly from the southern states to the northern states in wild hosts such as raccoons. By vaccinating raccoons on Cape Cod, the program could substantially slow the spread of the virus in the area. Under Dr. Robbins’ direction, the program was a success and has been used globally as a model to demonstrate how disease can be controlled in free ranging wildlife.
Toward the end of her 16-year tenure as Director of the Rabies Control program, Dr. Robbins took a one-year sabbatical to study a fatal fungal disease, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (BD), in frogs in Australia. Upon her return in 2007, she shifted her focus from rabies to white-nose syndrome in bats. Over the course of several years, she worked to create diagnostic and treatment methods for the devastating disease.
In 2010, Dr. Robbins was asked to help develop the new MS in Conservation Medicine Program (MCM) at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Since then, she has devoted her time and energy to developing interdisciplinary curricula and teaching methods, directing and teaching courses, and mentoring the next generation of conservation medicine practitioners. In this new role, Dr. Robbins has discovered a passion for teaching and working with students whom she describes as “passionate and bright.” This new adventure keeps Dr. Robbins feeling challenged and satisfied as she strives to adapt and improve the program to best prepare her students for the challenges of conservation medicine now and in the future.