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  • Writer's pictureTracy

Sit Down with Dr. Debra Miller, Director of One Health Initiative + Wildlife and Fisheries Professor

Listen to our recorded session on Spotify or Anchor.

Dr. Debra Miller's WHY is to unite people from multiple disciplines to protect and promote health for all life on Earth.

"Tackling these 'wicked problems' takes absolutely everyone," Dr. Miller says.

Essentially, she is on a mission to save the planet.

We stumbled upon Dr. Debra Miller fortuitously while researching cave salamanders in East Tennessee. Dr. Miller wears many hats - the Director of the One Health Initiative, the Director of the Center for Wildlife Health, a Wildlife Biologist and Veterinary Pathologist, and a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Dr. Miller is a busy woman with an ambitious goal of uniting multiple disciplines across the university and beyond, to protect and promote the health of the planet. Dr. Miller specifically works with amphibian and reptiles - particularly with salamanders and leatherback sea turtles. One of the pathogens that Dr. Miller has focused on is a fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (B Sal for the lay people). This pathogen causes a disease (chytridiomycosis) that is causing havoc on salamander populations across Europe with mass devastation to salamander populations. The disease causes distress for their skin - and as salamanders use their skin for breathing and a lot of bodily functions, the disease is wiping salamander populations out. Humans are spreading Bsal, as we were with spreading the disease of Covid. One way humans spread Bsal is through the pet trade. Dr. Miller and her team are working to keep Bsal from entering the United States, or tracking it and eradicating it if it does.

Dr. Miller discussed how humans need to consider how salamander loss plays into a greater part of our ecosystem - salamanders are excellent predictors of the health of an ecosystem, and when they begin to die out it, it speaks volumes of what is on the horizons. Dr. Miller mentioned that our environment in the Appalachian mountains and streams is one of the most diverse areas rich with salamander populations on the planet.

Along with her work in amphibians, Dr. Miller has been tracking the affects of climate change on another species - the leatherback sea turtle. Since our climate has seen an increase by two degrees, our water and beach temperatures are also increasing. These increased temperatures act as an incubator for pathogens and diseases which harm sea turtles. Miller mentioned that the populations of the leatherback sea turtles are declining and may disappear altogether in the next sixty to one hundred years.

However, the initiative that Dr. Debra Miller most wanted to discuss was the one that provides hope and optimism for us all.

The One Health Initiative (OHI) at the University of Tennessee, is the multifaceted approach working to tackle a myriad of issues such as food security, tropical forest diseases, antimicrobial resistance. The multi-disciplined approach of the OHI is to examine the problems facing our planet, which Dr. Miller refers to as 'wicked problems.' The wicked problems are the big-bad problems that face our planet and its inhabitants. These wicked problems include biggies such as climate change, extinction, Covid, substance abuse, chronic wasting disease in deer to name a few.

The idea is that the team at the One Health Initiative recognize the ambition and may not be able to solve all of the world's biggest problems, but the team recognizes that they can create ways to solve at least part of the problems in order to make the issues more manageable.

With all the 'wicked problems' Dr. Miller and the One Health Initiative team works on, the team also finds a sense of optimism when working together tackling these great issues. She mentions that when everyone pitches in, we truly can solve the problems together.

Ready to roll up your sleeves and get involved? First, learn about what the OHI and their work. Visit their website, follow them on Twitter, watch past lunch and learns on YouTube, or get involved with the Tennessee RiverLine clean up. Dr. Miller also mentioned talking about the problems and solutions that directly involve you and what your community are facing.

It is vital to connect to others in order to discuss these issues and to help. The One Health Initiative is ready to help and inspire you to help!

NOTE: If you are a college student right now, you could even consider becoming a part of One Health by working towards a Minor in the program.

And for fun, on our Lighting Round, Dr. Miller answered the following questions:

Do you prefer the beach or mountains? BOTH

What is the current book you are reading?- Harry Potter and Wings of Fire (Dr. Miller mentioned she has a ten year old at home)

What continues to motivate you?- Nature and her family.

What is YOUR Why? Reach out to be on our podcast and talk about your why!

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