WCVM graduate student Dr. Felicity Wills grew up alongside cattle on her family’s ranch. Photo by Christina Weese.

Aussie vet excels in prairie research

Felicity Wills first fell in love with agriculture and its way of life as a young girl growing up on her family's commercial beef cattle farm near the east coast of Australia.

"I can remember going out with [my dad] to calve cows from a really early age, and he was always quite happy to get us involved and have a go ourselves," says Wills. "So I think right from the start, I had a passion for working with animals."

Fast forward to today: Wills is taking that passion and interest in animals and working on a career in veterinary medicine. She's in the second year of her Master of Science program in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's (WCVM) Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

Before coming to Canada, Wills finished her veterinary studies at Charles Sturt Wagga Wagga, a rural university in Australia. She then found a job at a large animal practice in the southeastern state of Victoria where she worked with horses and cattle. But after three years, Wills wanted a change.

"I was mostly a field vet and I really wanted to get … more experience in some intensive internal medicine cases," says Wills.

That's when she started looking at clinical internships in North America.

"Saskatchewan was one of the ones [places] that spoke to me in the sense that here … we're very production animal-oriented, which is one of my particular areas of interest."

Wills got an internship with the WCVM and made her way to Canada in 2014. After the one-year internship was done, she decided to begin graduate studies in 2015. Wills' graduate research focuses on gastrointestinal nematodes (internal parasites) in beef cow-calf operations.

"They're probably considered one of the most detrimental livestock diseases globally," says Wills.

Gastrointestinal nematodes can significantly reduce the productive efficiency of beef cattle. Once infected by them, cattle can develop problems such as anemia, loss of appetite, diarrhea and malnutrition. Perhaps more significantly, animals that appear healthy may fail to gain weight because of these parasites.

"You always love to save that one animal and do the amazing kind of medical saves, but often, the place that we can make the most impact for people is to look at their production system and see where we can contribute to improving … efficiency."

Wills' research project involves looking at the epidemiology of these internal parasites from a specific angle.

"[I'm looking at this from the] point of view that over the last 10 to 20 years, things have changed significantly both in the way we raise cattle and … things like the climate, which we think is probably changing the way these internal parasites are behaving."

For example, previous studies have concluded that changes to temperature and moisture levels brought about by climate change are having a direct impact on the numbers of parasites as well as on their migration into different areas.

After gathering and analyzing fecal samples from beef cattle, Wills has some initial findings that concur with these findings.

"Compared to probably studies done 15 years ago [on this topic], the prevalence of this disease seems to be higher …. so I think certainly it is something we need to be looking at because it's a significant issue in the prairie provinces."

Wills has also made use of an anti-Ostertagia ostertagi antibody ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) in her research. This technology, which has been effectively used in the dairy cattle industry, could provide a more efficient method for monitoring parasite levels in beef cattle.

Ultimately, Wills has enjoyed the research work because it's more than just helping one animal, and she hopes the results of her research will help to make the whole industry "a little more stable and a little more profitable" for everyone.

"You always love to save that one animal and do the amazing kind of medical saves, but often, the place that we can make the most impact for people is to look at their production system and see where we can contribute to improving … efficiency."

Wills' research represents one aspect of a groundbreaking five-year study aimed at reaching that goal. The study is led by her supervisor, Dr. John Campbell, a professor and large animal researcher at the WCVM.

Campbell's team has developed a western Canadian beef cow/calf surveillance network that's been tracking thousands of cattle across the three Prairie provinces since 2014.

"Dr. Wills is part of our surveillance network … working on the parasite samples and analysis," explains Campbell. "The ultimate objective is to get some papers published for the science of parasites in beef cows in Western Canada, so she's been studying the epidemiology of the parasites and has some neat results."

He says Wills' ranching background has been a key asset for the research work.

"She's familiar with the beef industry and so that's a big advantage … on a project like this one," says Campbell.

He adds that Wills has the making of a great graduate student.

"A good grad student soon becomes smarter than the professors around her. So she's about there … [in] the particular area that she's studying," says Campbell.

Once her graduate program wraps up later in 2017, Wills probably won't be heading back to Australia too soon.

"My plan … is to apply to a large animal medicine residency so to continue on with my specialist training," says Wills. "My dad is asking me to come home because he's ready to have a vet available, but I think I'd like to pursue a residency at this point."

After that goal is accomplished, Wills could see herself returning to Australia to work in a large animal consultancy practice, but she's keeping her options open.

"I do have a big and quite a close family, so I do miss them when I'm over here. But I have loved the opportunity to travel, so if the right job came up here or elsewhere, I would certainly have to look pretty closely at that," says Wills.

Article written by Taryn Riemer, a freelance writer who grew up on a grain-beef cattle farm near White Fox, Sask.

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