CAHFS Spotlight: Heidi Vesterinen

Our monthly series of CAHFS Spotlights highlights our residents, graduate students, faculty, and staff. This month, we're spotlighting one of our collaborating researchers and former veterinary public health resident, Dr. Heidi Vesterinen.

What is your current job? I work as a researcher with the CAHFS team in the College of Veterinary Medicine, supporting various projects and activities that relate to infectious animal disease prevention and control, especially concentrating on building capacity for the global veterinary workforce. Currently I’m collaborating on projects around African swine fever in Asia and beginning to investigate rabies in Minnesota. In the past year I was also supporting the One Health Workforce project and the Agricultural All Hazards Emergency Planning in Minnesota. 

How did you end up at the U of M? After graduating with my veterinary degree from the University of Helsinki, I worked as a city veterinarian in Eastern Finland. Much of my work was concerned with preventative medicine and disease management. I thoroughly enjoyed the epidemiological investigations and population level health management. I had also always harboured an interest toward public health, so the field work pushed me to finally decide to pursue a public health career. A few months after making this decision, I learned about the Veterinary Public Health and Preventative Medicine Residency program at CAHFS from a colleague. Some further research into the residency got me very excited, as the program offers a wide exposure to the field in the form of different projects while also including teaching assignments (which I love) and the opportunity to get a MPH while working. This was exactly what I was looking for, and luckily my application was accepted.

What are you most passionate about professionally? I am especially passionate about enabling efficient and transparent information sharing around public health matters so that we become better at sharing best practices. The topic of my work can change from one disease to another, as in the last 3 years I’ve work for example on foot and mouth disease, highly pathogenic avian influenza, African swine fever, chronic wasting disease, and rabies. But regardless of the project, I’m always looking at the commonalities between the disease prevention and response efforts, the opportunities for improvement, and of course trying to identify the gaps where we should be doing more research. 

Where can we find you when you are not working? When out of the office, I am most likely to be found from my yoga mat, traveling to all sorts of new and exciting places or sharing delicious food with the important people in my life. I also spend a fair amount of time cuddling my three cats - it’s hard to find a more meditative state of mind than the one you fall into when stopping to listen a fluffy little thing purr next to you.

Where did you grow up, and why are you not there now? I grew up in central Finland, at an organic farm with 60 lactating cows, horses, chicken, dogs, cats and other critters. The milk produced was used at the farm creamery to make Tilsit and Brie type cheeses, yogurt and butter. When I look back, It’s no surprise veterinary public health is where I find my passion. After all, I grew up observing the farm to table path from cow to cheese, and appreciating the delicious artisan products that my father produced. To pursue veterinary medicine, I needed to move to Helsinki where the only veterinary school in Finland lies. After that the world has been my oyster. Veterinary medicine and public health have taken me to far away places, from the Nepalese jungle to First Nation Reservations in the United States.

What is your dream job (besides the one you have now!)? I used to dream of becoming an astronaut, and some parts of that dream still appeal to me, although the childhood dream has lost quite a bit of it’s shine through the years. My current dream is to keep working in a multidisciplinary team tasked with improving some part of our health systems to the benefit of all living beings.

What are your future plans? Right now, I’m working to get my clinical license for the United States, so that I will be able to act as a fully qualified veterinarian. The license will give me an ability to work in areas of veterinary public health that require clinical decision making. While currently I work on education and research projects, in the future I could also be involved in something like infectious animal disease control in clinics, or for state or federal agencies, with this license.