U vet students to be featured on National Geographic show

Stephanie Kudrle

National Geographic often features images of African safaris and elephants, but the focus last week was mosquitoes and Minnesota.

Luther Groth and Stacy Tinkler – third-year University veterinary medicine students – were chosen as subjects for National Geographic’s “Explorer” program, which regularly airs on MSNBC.

“Explorer” chose the College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul for its research on the West Nile virus and vaccinations. The subject will be included in a segment on diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.

Groth and Tinkler were already studying the West Nile virus in mosquitoes and horses with faculty member Dr. Jeff Bender.

“We got lucky,” Tinkler said.

The team studied the virus in horses to find a vaccine for humans.

The students worked with “Explorer’s” host and let the film crew follow their research.

Groth and Tinkler traveled to six mosquito trap sites around Minnesota to study and catch infected mosquitoes. They drew blood from infected horses, interviewed horse owners and took pictures of the areas.

The film crew traveled with Groth and Tinkler to Duluth to get footage of work on a sick horse. Film segments were also shot in the St. Paul veterinary labs, where Groth and Luther spent hours identifying mosquito species under a microscope.

“I never thought I’d have an interest in mosquitoes or bugs,” Tinkler said. “But the field work was fun; we spend so much time in the classroom.”

The students said filming with National Geographic was a unique experience.

“The crew had such interesting personalities and interesting adventures,” Groth said. “They just got back from filming about Ebola in the Congo.”

The program will also focus on monkeypox and Ebola, which are also transferred from animals to humans.

Originally, the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus was designated to be the focus of National Geographic Explorer’s filming, but Groth and Tinkler’s field research and its focus on public health caused the program to shift subjects.

“Public health brings human medicine into the study and expands our impact,” Groth said. “Eighty percent of all emerging diseases can be transferred from animals to humans.”

West Nile virus is a disease carried by mosquitoes to animals and humans. It traveled to the United States from Africa in 1999, when there breakouts were recorded in New York.

The virus has the potential to cause illness and death in humans. Minnesota’s first casualty, Moorhead, Minn., resident Robert Bender, died Tuesday of complications related to the virus, the Minnesota Department of Health said Wednesday.

Last summer, 30 percent of the approximately 1,000 diagnosed cases of West Nile virus in Minnesota horses were fatal.

Although there are fewer cases this year, Groth said, the lower number could be attributed to increased awareness among horse owners, more vaccinations and dry weather.