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Ten-minute chat
  1. Sarah Cleaveland


Sarah Cleaveland recently returned from east Africa, where she is supervising a research programme to investigate the impact and control of zoonotic diseases including rabies, and working on new projects in livestock health – a vaccination trial against malignant catarrhal fever and a study of endemic foot-and-mouth disease in Tanzania.

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How did you get involved in the rabies control programme?

I first became involved with rabies as a volunteer on the Serengeti cheetah project. As one of only two vets in the Serengeti, I was asked to assist in the diagnosis and management of a rabies outbreak, which was affecting the endangered African wild dog population. After starting to look into rabies in more depth, I became aware of the devastating impact on people who have to live with the disease, and it became clear that we still had only a poor understanding of rabies throughout much of Africa. This stimulated me to develop a PhD study on the epidemiology of the disease in the Serengeti.

Did you always know that you would be a veterinary epidemiologist?

No: before going to university, I had aspirations to become a journalist for National Geographic. I would like to be able to say that, once set on a veterinary track, I had a clear plan for my career, and systematically developed the skills needed to progress towards my career objectives. The reality is that my early career development was a rather haphazard process – perhaps like many others. At vet school, I assumed that I would follow a career in clinical practice, and was almost entirely unaware of epidemiology or the opportunities for a research career. I certainly never considered that I had the ability to be a research scientist. But there are many different ways to make a contribution in research, and I have been extremely lucky that I have been able to take up the opportunities that arose and to pursue a career that has been fascinating, challenging and rewarding.

Describe some of the activities your job involves you in.

The job is genuinely varied. My time is divided between east Africa, where I am engaged in running field research programmes, and the University of Glasgow, where I work with a diverse group of scientists, developing research proposals and writing up the results of our research for publication.

My interactions with students range from formal lecturing (mostly in zoonotic diseases and conservation), to small-group teaching and supervision of graduate students from the UK and Africa. Although my job now involves more engagement with policymakers and international meetings I am still able to spend time in the field, which keeps me grounded in the reality of the problems facing livestock owners in Africa.

Most of our field research in Africa involves working with local vets and livestock officers, carrying out household visits, animal sampling and questionnaire surveys, and I also work with vets in the Serengeti on wildlife disease surveillance. This can range from the ‘glamour’ end of the business – for example, darting lions and buffaloes – to the grisly, for example, postmortem examinations of rotting carcases. I enjoy the grisly activities the most!

What do you like about your job?

A critical aspect of any job is the people with whom you work. As researchers, we are fortunate to have some flexibility in choosing our collaborators, and I am lucky to count many of my colleagues as among my closest friends.

In Africa, I have a genuine sense of privilege to be able to work with extraordinarily resourceful and resilient people in some of the most beautiful places in the world. I am also lucky to have a job that has the potential to make a difference to people's lives, and this can obviously be very rewarding.

What do you not like?

Having the sense of never having done enough, or never having done it well enough. Research is a demanding career and many of the people working in research are exceptionally talented, so it can sometimes be hard to measure up.

Why is your job important?

The disease problems that we are trying to address are important, but have often been overlooked. For example, people usually think that foot-and-mouth disease is not a problem in low-production herds, such as the traditional livestock-keeping systems throughout much of Africa. But when talking to pastoralists, you become aware of the scale of the problems they face. When their cattle stop producing milk, it is not just an economic issue, it means that their children go hungry. When herds lose the calves that represent their future livelihood, it can lead to destitution. Similarly, a disease such as rabies has often been considered insignificant by policymakers across Africa, but research has shown that rabies not only kills many people (mainly children) every year, but causes enormous anguish and anxiety, affects animal welfare and threatens several wildlife species. Most importantly, we are convinced that its control and potential elimination are feasible objectives. The veterinary profession has every right to be proud of rinderpest eradication; I am convinced that we could also rid the world of canine rabies.

Sarah vaccinates a dog against rabies

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

Be open-minded, recognise opportunities when they arise, and don't be afraid to take them.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

My father always advised that following one's interests and having fun were the most important criteria in choosing a career, and also critical for doing a job well. More specifically, I will always value the advice from a close friend and colleague in the Serengeti to tighten wheel nuts very carefully after changing a wheel!

What was your proudest moment?

My proudest moments are still when, seven years after we started rabies campaigns around the Serengeti, we see hundreds of villagers lining up with their dogs for rabies vaccinations and telling us of the impact that the campaigns have had.

What was your most frightening or embarrassing moment?

The most frightening moment, and the most embarrassing, are one and the same – when a very stupid decision put me in a dangerous situation having to escape from a charging buffalo.

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