Meet the Scientist: Roxanne Larsen

Roxanne Larsen, PhD, is an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences. She has a doctorate in biology and 14 years of teaching experience in anatomy and physiology, and her research has focused on the origin of neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Larsen will be presenting "What is CWD" on Saturday, September 14th at 11:45am at the upcoming Bell Museum event: Spotlight Science: Chronic Wasting Disease 

Roxanne Larsen

What do you find unique or interesting about studying CWD? CWD is an example of how animal health can directly and indirectly affect human health and livelihood, and for me it’s like a puzzle or a mystery. There are so many unknowns in CWD; it was discovered over 50 years ago and we still know so little. I love trying to problem solve and discover small patterns that may lead to solving a larger problem. You don’t always get to solve every puzzle, but you learn so much along the way and we all gain a better understanding of how things work because of the efforts of many people working on similar problems. CWD is a very complex puzzle, but it is a puzzle worth piecing together because of how many aspects of our lives it could affect. 

How did your upbringing influence your views on CWD? I grew up hunting all sorts of game animals, and my family processed them on our farm just as we processed more typical agricultural animals. My siblings and I learned to pay attention to sick looking animals and to avoid potentially damaged or diseased tissue. Because of my experiences growing up on the farm and hunting, my research into neurodegenerative diseases, and my understanding of anatomy and physiology, I’m not fearful when it comes to continuing to hunt and eat deer meat. I believe awareness and education allows me to make informed decisions about what is safe and what isn’t in relation to hunting and harvest.

As a hunter yourself, what do you want other hunters to know about CWD? I want to help others understand what tissues to avoid, what the outward signs of the disease look like, and how to protect yourself when processing animals. Being informed allows us all to be more aware, educated, and knowledgeable so that when we do go hunting we can better identify healthy animals and process them in a safe way. Empowering people with knowledge helps them regain some control over their activities, especially something as traditional as hunting. Hunting is a valuable piece of a normal process to keep animal health in check.

What drew you to study chronic wasting disease and other neurodegenerative diseases? My specific interests in neurodegenerative diseases started when I was at Duke University. I taught many courses, including histology (the study of microscopic structures like cells), physiology, and anatomy. While teaching students, I began to see patterns in cells and tissues that appeared to be linked with recent research on neurodegenerative diseases. Once I saw this connection I was hooked on investigating how these cellular components influenced the function of the larger tissue (like the brain). 

What other research are you currently working on? Currently, CWD is a large portion of my research, but I also conduct research in biomechanics – which is the study of the motions of the body. I study movements like running and walking in both humans and animals. I’m an avid runner myself and I’ve always been interested in how we navigate through our environment, whether that is running or walking on a sidewalk, on a gravel road, or on a trail in a park. Much of my research is grounded in better understanding the normal functioning body and comparing that to when dysfunction is occurring.

To learn more about CWD research and outreach, join us for Spotlight Science: Chronic Wasting Disease on Saturday, September 14 at the Bell Museum.

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CAHFS News is a compilation of current topics and news updates in animal health, food safety, and veterinary public health.