Alumni Spotlight: Alyssa Kaganer ‘13, PhD ‘21, Cornell Wildlife Health Lab
Dr. Alyssa Kaganer began working with wildlife as an undergraduate student at Cornell University in 2012. She recalls “stumbling” into research at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, where she was mentored by Drs. Krysten Schuler and Elizabeth Bunting. It was this experience, coupled with the opportunity to explore her interests in infectious diseases alongside Dr. Kelly Zamudio, that piqued her interest in pursuing a PhD.
Dr. Kaganer obtained a BS in Biological Sciences and Animal Science with Distinction in Research from Cornell in 2013, and then went on to become one of the first graduates of the Cornell-Smithsonian Joint Graduate Training Program, completing her PhD in 2021. Her graduate work focused on the development and the application of molecular tools to protect amphibian species from emerging infectious diseases.
"To build sustainable, healthy wildlife populations, we need to develop resources that enable us to mitigate damaging human behaviors while placing the health and advancement of human communities at the forefront of conservation efforts."
Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are contagious diseases that are expanding in geographic or host distribution and frequency. Her work is especially timely, as amphibian populations continue to decline globally at unprecedented rates.
“Unfortunately, it can be really challenging to protect amphibians from disease because many species are hard to find, and each species reacts differently to disease. My graduate work used molecular tools to improve our understanding of the distribution of amphibians and EIDs on the landscape, and discover how interactions between the amphibian immune system, EIDs, and other microbes affect the severity and outcome of disease,” Dr. Kaganer shared.
For Dr. Kaganer, the best part of her graduate training was the diversity of her experiences. “I worked with and learned from academics as well as state and federal researchers who work on conservation challenges facing a huge range of taxa across a wide geographic distribution in different cultural contexts,” she says. “These experiences introduced me to different ways of thinking about conservation and the role that scientists can play in protecting global wildlife populations.”
For those looking to follow her into the field, she recommends keeping an open mind and emphasizes the value of curiosity. “Wildlife conservation is an incredibly broad field and research is an incredibly powerful tool; you never know where you'll come across a question or method that resonates with you. Find questions that interest you and a supportive environment to back you while you figure out how to answer those questions, and you'll be in a great position to learn and grow!”
That mindset has served Dr. Kaganer well in her current role as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab. Here, she is continuing her amphibian conservation work by developing new tools to detect environmental DNA, or DNA that is free in the environment, left behind by amphibians and an amphibian pathogen, ranavirus. She is also working on advancing surveillance tools for the prion (infectious protein) that causes chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer.
When asked why she chose to enter such a challenging field, Dr. Kaganer’s commitment is clear. “I chose to pursue graduate training and a career in wildlife conservation because I firmly believe in the intrinsic value and beauty of wildlife. Wildlife species across the globe are threatened by extinction as a direct result of human activities including deforestation, climate change, movement of invasive species and pathogens, and human-wildlife conflict. To build sustainable, healthy wildlife populations, we need to develop resources that enable us to mitigate damaging human behaviors while placing the health and advancement of human communities at the forefront of conservation efforts. I want to be a part of the solution to these problems and help build a healthier and more sustainable planet for all wildlife, domestic animals, and people.”
Written by Colleen Sorge ’20, DVM ’24
All photos provided by Alyssa Kaganer.