2022 Distinguished Alumni Awards
June 28, 2022
Each year the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine celebrates outstanding alumni in various stages of their careers with two annual awards: the Lifetime Achievement Alumni Award for those who have graduated more than 10 years ago and the Outstanding Recent Alumni Award for those who graduated within the last 10 years. An additional award, the Outstanding Faculty Alumni Award, is given to a faculty member for their contributions to student and alumni education and mentorship. The 2022 recipients are Captain Jennifer McQuiston (B.S. '93, DVM '97, M.S. '98), Lieutenant Commander Caitlin Cossaboom (B.S. '10, MPH '14, Ph.D. '15, DVM '17) and Phillip Sponenberg, respectively.
Awards will be presented at the "Alumni Awards Ceremony" Oct. 22 as part of Connect 2022, the college's signature event. Connect 2022 includes reunion events, mentorship and career opportunities, and a continuing education program of alumni speakers, where these distinguished awards recipients will present lectures to their classmates and colleagues.
Lifetime Achievement Alumni Award
Capt. Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Capt. Jennifer McQuiston began her public health career at the CDC in 1998 as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (E.I.S.) officer assigned to work on rabies and other zoonotic diseases. Widely recognized for her expertise on zoonotic diseases, McQuiston has received numerous national awards, including the Daniel E. Salmon award from the National Association of Federal Veterinarians and CDC's James H. Steele Award for outstanding work on veterinary public health issues.
"Once upon a time, I was honored with a young alumnus award. I didn't know there was one for old alumnus, too!" McQuiston joked.
One of McQuiston's more recent successes occurred in 2022 when she led a team of epidemiologists at the CDC that helped identify the source of four cases of Melioidosis. After months of disease detective work, McQuiston's team found the source: an aromatherapy spray sold at Walmart. With the puzzle solved, they stopped the spread of this dangerous contagion that left two people dead.
Humble about her successes, McQuiston said, "Melioidosis is so yesterday. We're onto Monkeypox now."
McQuiston explained that CDC outbreak responses can change on a dime, but her current role is as the CDC Incident Manager trying to help states manage a large, multi-state Monkeypox outbreak.
In June, McQuiston said, "The outbreak appears to be spreading right now, with more cases reported every day. And outside the United States, there have been over 1000 cases in Europe. We don't know how big it may get, but the truth is we're in the very early stages of this outbreak."
McQuiston said she has utilized the foundational education she received at the veterinary college throughout her career. "It really did prepare me to go into this career in public health. I use the skills on both sides every single day. The lab piece and molecular biology research gave me the foundation to understand lab work and how it ties to the public health response. Learning the basics of being a vet and how to work with animals is so important because most of the diseases I work with are zoonotic, and you must know animals to have an effective public health response."
At this stage in her career, McQuiston doesn't spend as much time in the field as she used to. "I didn't realize I'd miss animals so much when I was a young officer and did outbreak investigations, but as I've aged out of being the one that gets on the plane - I put people on the plane, now - I find other ways to connect. Right now, I'm fostering two mama cats and five kittens and I volunteer when I can with Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) in underserved populations."
McQuiston added, "Receiving this award is really poignant because I've worked closely with Caitlin Cossaboom, who also works at CDC and is being honored this year with the Outstanding Recent Alumni Award. It's wonderful to know the work we do is recognized at Virginia Tech. It was such a rich place to learn the skills we're applying in our daily lives."
Outstanding Recent Alumni Award
LCDR Caitlin Cossaboom, veterinary epidemiologist, Viral Special Pathogens Branch, CDC
LCDR Caitlin Cossaboom spent 11 years pursuing her education at Virginia Tech before securing her dream job as a veterinary epidemiologist with the CDC. As a member of the Honors College, she earned a bachelor's degree in Dairy Science and Animal and Poultry Sciences, a master of public health (MPH) in 2014, and a doctorate in biomedical and veterinary sciences in 2015 through the college's DVM/Ph.D. dual degree program. Through her doctoral work under the direction of X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, she identified the first strains of hepatitis E virus from farmed rabbits in the U.S. She joined CDC and the U.S. Public Health Service as an E.I.S. officer within the Bacterial Special Pathogens Branch in 2017. In 2019, she transitioned to her current position as a veterinary epidemiologist in the CDC's Viral Special Pathogens Branch.
"For two years as an E.I.S. officer, I supported international and domestic surveillance and outbreak response of zoonotic bacterial diseases," Cossaboom said. "Since finishing E.I.S., I've deployed several times, including to support the responses to Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea. For the majority of 2020 I was pulled into the CDC 's COVID response."
As the increased need for veterinarians continued during the pandemic, Cossaboom's skills were utilized in new ways. "My first COVID deployment was in Feb. 2020 in San Antonio, Texas at an air force base, working on CAPT Jennifer McQuiston's team to support repatriation of U.S. citizens from Wuhan, China and the Princess cruise ship from Japan, where the team identified the 15th case of COVID-19 in the U.S. Shortly after that, I supported several investigations of SARS-CoV-2 household transmission among humans and animals, as well as infection rates among shelter animals. Later that year, I was pulled into several investigations of SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms. It was really great to be able to bring together both aspects of being a vet and an epidemiologist."
This overlap is exactly what Cossaboom prepared for during her time at the veterinary college, where she combined her interests in public health and zoonotic diseases. "I was so lucky to have mentors in several different areas because I'd been around for so long. For example, Dr. Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, my undergraduate research adviser, ended up staying on as one of my committee members and mentors for my Ph.D. I completed my Ph.D. work with Dr. X.J. Meng, who was and is, an incredible and influential mentor in my career and life. Finding Hep E [hepatitis E] in farmed rabbits during my Ph.D. work set the stage for investigating the cross species/zoonotic potential for foodborne transmission to humans, which I was able to use for my MPH capstone project. I'm really thankful for all of the experiences and opportunities that I had at the college."
For the last year, Cossaboom has been back with the Viral Special Pathogens Branch of the CDC and is happy to resume in-person work again. "This job is so exciting and so rewarding. It's a great balance of emerging zoonotic diseases and supporting countries or states with disease surveillance and outbreak response. I can't imagine having another job."
Outstanding Faculty Award
Phillip Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.
Phillip Sponenberg came to Virginia Tech in May 1981. For over 40 years he has taught and mentored students and is now a professor of pathology and genetics, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.
"I characterize an academic teaching career as trying to make a relatively small positive impact on many lives. There's also an opportunity to make a huge impact on a few lives, so I try not to screw anyone up," Sponenberg joked. "What strikes me is how alumni will remember something I just did casually and forgot about, but they cherish it. It's a big responsibility because the opposite could be happening, too. Something trivial to me could be life-changing to someone else."
Sponenberg used to be in charge of reunions and was also the adviser for the student group for 30 years. He has seen many changes over his teaching career, one of which being COVID's impact on in-person classes. "With the pandemic, there is less and less opportunity to engage individually. The clinical didactic courses are still partially online, so the in-person attendance has dropped off. This is hard as a teacher because I rely on cues from the audience to gauge where students are at. In the absence of those cues, if questions aren't in the chat and it's just a bunch of black boxes, we're in trouble."
Sponenberg said this will likely be a semi-permanent change because of the societal shift post-COVID. "At a lecture before the pandemic we probably had 80-90 percent of students in class, but now that's maybe 50 percent."
These challenges haven't detracted from Sponenberg's joy at watching students grow and develop into practitioners. One highlight he recalls had to do with an unexpected impact he made on one of his students that resurfaced 20 years after the student graduated.
"About two years ago an alumnus made a thousand-dollar donation in my name. I was like, how did this happen, because I never felt like I really reached this student, who was very talented, but wasn't applying himself. After his first year, I said, look we're expecting better and you're capable of it, so get it together. It was pretty risky really and nothing happened initially, but after the donation was made, I contacted him. He said 15-20 years later that what I said straightened him out and now he's a faculty member at another vet school."
Sponenberg continues to enjoy watching students develop, as well as helping newer faculty and ensuring their success. "Sometimes it gives you goosebumps, seeing students who come back together swapping success stories and becoming independent faculty members. I get to touch the future."