PhD student Dr. Naomi Jane Harms.

Avian cholera research earns $40,000 award

University of Saskatchewan graduate student Dr. Naomi Jane Harms has received the W. Garfield Weston Award for Northern Research (Doctorate) – a $40,000 award which will support her study of avian cholera in northern Canada for the next two years.

By Lynne Gunville
The award is offered to graduate students demonstrating academic leadership and excellence in northern natural research science. It's presented by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation in partnership with the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies (ACUNS) and its awards program, the Canadian Northern Studies Trust.

"I was very happy and extremely honoured to have our research and the importance of the work we are doing acknowledged by the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Canadian Northern Studies Trust," says Harms, "and I think the award reflects on the U of S which supports and promotes excellence in northern research."

Harms, a PhD candidate in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Veterinary Pathology, has been working with her supervisor, Dr. Catherine Soos, wildlife disease specialist for Environment Canada and an adjunct professor in the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Pathology. They're part of an international, multi-disciplinary research team that is based at several institutions and includes numerous community members and hunters from Nunavut and Nunavik.

"This is a very large project that involves a huge amount of collaboration with others; therefore, many people are included in the recognition given by this award," explains Harms, who earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program at the WCVM in 2007.

"I have been extremely lucky to work with a fantastic group of researchers, students and northerners, and my own research has been incredibly enriched by working with these people."

Harms has been studying carrier birds in snow goose and eider populations as well as exploring the role that stress and climate may play in disease dynamics in waterfowl populations.

She's also been studying the genetic makeup of the bacteria that causes avian cholera. The Pasteurella multocida isolated in eastern Arctic study sites is being compared to isolates from other locations throughout Canada and the United States.

Her results will provide key information about transmission patterns of the disease, including the source of the pathogen for northern waterfowl and the potential connections between avian cholera in domestic southern birds and in migrating wild birds in the north.

Another significant aspect of her study is the use of multiple genotyping techniques that will provide important information on the genetics of P. multocida – a major cause of disease in birds and other species around the world. In addition, her data measuring the effect of factors such as stress and climate on the eider populations has implications for other species of birds in other ecosystems.

Harms points out that this extensive collaborative effort of Inuit communities, researchers and institutions has also provided a framework for wildlife disease investigation and diagnostics for the eastern Arctic. That's an achievement that's really important to her, particularly now in her position as program veterinarian for the Yukon Government.

"I've deeply valued the opportunity to conduct field research in a remote and stunning landscape and to work with amazing wildlife species. I think that the North and the northern environment are key to a healthy planet, and so all research that sheds light on the health of northern ecosystems is very important."

CORRECTION NOTICE: The W. Garfield Weston Award for Northern Research (Doctorate) is a $40,000 award which will support Dr. Naomi Jane Harms' study of avian cholera in northern Canada for the next two years. An incorrect grant sum was included in the WCVM Today (September 2012) e-newsletter. We apologize for the error. WCVM Today.