Veterinary and public health alumna wins United States Public Health Service’s Excellence in Public Health Award
November 3, 2023
Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine alumna Ella Rak '17, DVM '23, MPH '23 has won the 2023 Excellence in Public Health Award. This award, issued by the United States Public Health Service, recognizes outstanding work done during veterinary school.
Rak graduated this spring with both her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and her Master’s in Public Health.
“Ella is one of the more impressive veterinary students I have ever worked with, and she has already impacted the lives of people and animals in profound and lasting ways. Ella embodies the true spirit of One Health, demonstrated by her ability to work effectively in both public health and veterinary settings, integrating her knowledge across disciplines and effectively building collaborations to serve her community,” said associate director of the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine Cassidy Rist.
In 2017, Rak graduated with bachelor’s degrees in dairy science and in animal and poultry science from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Before entering the veterinary school, Rak served in the Peace Corps as an agricultural extension volunteer in Cameroon. There, she facilitated training for preventative care for ruminants and poultry in addition to organizing human health campaigns on topics like malaria education and HIV testing.
In spring 2020, Rak began volunteering with the Medical Reserve Corps, administering COVID tests to the residents of long-term care facilities. She worked her way up to a full-time paid position as a case investigator for the New River Health District, where she investigated over 5,000 cases — all while juggling schoolwork for her dual degree program.
Rak is passionate about improving access to care among ostracized communities such as undocumented communities, people experiencing homelessness, or people who use drugs. Her interest in working with marginalized communities started while she was in the Peace Corps, and that interest intensified as she learned more about these communities while working with the health department.
"I'm thankful for Virginia Tech's public health program for facilitating a lot of these opportunities; I would not have been involved in the beginning stages of being in the medical reserve corps if not for the public health department and the mentorship and support that the program gave me,” said Rak.
Rak says that the projects that meant the most to her were the work she did with the Street Dog Coalition and the Harm Reduction Coalition.
She cofounded the Street Dog Coalition’s Southwest Virginia Chapter and organized teams of volunteers to provide veterinary care and community health services to people experiencing homelessness.
Her work with the Harm Reduction Coalition was inspired while working at a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness — some people wanted to learn how they could keep their pets safe while they were using substances.
Rak led a team of public health students working with Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition to develop field trainings and guidelines for how laypeople can administer Naloxone to pets who have consumed or otherwise been exposed to drugs.
Rak experienced firsthand how providing veterinary care can also provide an opportunity for human health interventions. For example, while administering a rabies vaccine, veterinary professionals can explain to the dog’s owner about how vaccines work, combating misinformation and promoting human health.
"That opened up a lot of doors about ways we can create healthcare interventions that aren't necessarily centered around just the pet or the person,” Rak said. “If we can look at them as a unit, we can have overall improved health outcomes.”
Rak was the first veterinary student in the Emergency Response Branch of the Centers for Disease Control’s Epi Elective Program. The Epi Elective Program is a training program for people pursuing advanced degrees, and it allowed Rak to see public health in action on a national scale.
"I'm really proud of the variety of experiences I was able to have. I think it made me a very well-rounded public health professional, even though I've taken a different path,” said Rak.
Having graduated this past May, Rak is now an emergency veterinarian in Richmond, Virginia. However, public health is still a priority.
"I’m really passionate about continuing to have a public health and community-based approach even when working one-on-one with clients — whether that's through opioid education, being able to discuss accidental exposures with clients, or working with clients who are experiencing housing insecurity themselves.” Rak said. “No matter what setting you're in, you can still make an impact in public health and on the community as a whole."