Marcela Uhart

Aggies in One Health: Q&A with Marcela Uhart

Marcela Uhart, is an Argentinian veterinarian and Director of the Latin America Program at the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. Her research spans across a variety of topics, including: infectious and parasitic diseases, zoonotic pathogens, pollutants (e.g. plastics), biotoxins, antimicrobial resistance, physiology, ecology, and health risks from human interactions. Uhart’s research aims for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health under a One Health approach that acknowledges the interconnections between wildlife, humans and the environment.

What first sparked your love of animals?

I grew up on a very large cattle ranch in northern Argentina, in a wild, forested and wetland area of the dry and humid Chaco ecoregions. I grew up with animals. I learned how to ride a horse almost before I learned how to walk. Horses were my life when I was a child. Riding horses was what I did nearly every minute I was not at school.

What was it about your interest in animals that led you to veterinary medicine (as opposed to a different type of career involving animals)?

No one who knew me as I grew up ever doubted I would be anything but a vet. I loved animals of all kinds all my life, and I always said I would be a vet. When I finished high school however, I did sometimes consider being a field biologist. But I always quickly defaulted to veterinary medicine as I not only wanted to be near animals every day; I also wanted to have the power to heal, to help animals who were suffering.

What is one of your craziest animal stories from early in your career? 

I have so many funny animal stories… from my first years I mostly have penguin and elephant seal stories. Penguins are just fun to watch, and some love to interact with people. I smile thinking of a penguin who dedicated several minutes daily to untying my shoelaces while I sat recording behavioral data in the colony (he also usually poked his head into my teacup), to another penguin who came into our field quarters every day at the same time (he energetically pecked at the door to announce his presence), hobbled around checking every room and every person and then left. I always enjoyed watching young elephant seals as they played in tidepools. As they practiced holding their breath to gain diving skills they often released air bubbles that their friends tried to catch. Like dog puppies playing with water. This could go on and on, as they took turns releasing and catching the bubbles.

One crazy elephant seal story is that once I was sitting on a sand dune above the beach during my lunch break, watching the elephant seals below. This was early in the breeding season, when you get to see a few pups being born a day (and you get to bet whether it is head or flippers first!). That day was magnificent, the ocean calm and crystal clear. Out of nowhere I caught site of a massive black fin swimming by (a male killer whale!), which in an instant turned facing the beach and begun to hurl at great speed towards the shore. As it did this, the orca swam sideways, hiding its massive dorsal fin, a common practice to conceal their presence and surprise their prey.

To my surprise, out of the water, right in front of the submerged orca, jumped a large, hugely pregnant elephant seal. She passed the wave break and sped up the beach as fast as her huge belly allowed her to flop, in panic, constantly looking over her shoulders, first one, then the other, until she just collapsed on the sand. As she did this, the orca beached itself, but was a couple meters short from the female. He missed…then, as the orca wiggled back to the water and released itself from its intentional stranding, the exhausted elephant seal moved her hind flippers abruptly just once, and out of her popped a black, fury, fuzzy pup. In the few seconds until the pup moved and called for mom, I worried. But then mom responded to the call, and very, very slowly, with her last tiny bit of energy, she turned to face and smell her pup. I stayed watching until she flopped on her side and exposed her nipples which after several nudges in all the wrong places the pup found and began to nurse. No lunch for the killer whale at that beach that day, but I continued monitoring the baby elephant seal until he was a large, silver-white chubby weaner, ready to start life on his own in the big broad ocean.

Did you know you wanted to work with wildlife?

Even though being a wildlife doctor was always on my mind, it wasn’t an option in vet school in Argentina and I didn’t know any veterinarians who worked with wildlife outside zoos. But I knew I didn’t want to work with captive animals,  I wanted to work for conservation and health of wild animals in their natural habitats. So I initially defaulted to horses, which were my life long love. But then, magically, a biology professor in my vet school (who I drove crazy because he worked with penguins in Antarctica) invited me on a research field trip to Patagonia to work with penguins after an oil spill. I quickly jumped on the opportunities that stemmed from that initial project, and that is where everything wonderfully came together and my career with wildlife began.

Could you give a quick summary of your education, career, and service?

I went to vet school in Argentina, where  becoming a doctor in veterinary medicine implies 6 years in school. By the time I was halfway through my veterinary training I began volunteering for a project with penguins, and that soon led to more training and summers doing fieldwork with expert wildlife veterinarians from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). When I finished vet school I knew I would only work with free-ranging wildlife. Upon graduation I continued to work part time with WCS, and also joined a policy-change driven project addressing poisoning by agriculture pesticides of an endangered migratory raptor species.

In two years’ time I got my first opportunity to work with elephant seals, which I did for three years during which I also took on more responsibilities and projects for WCS in several countries in Latin America. I continued with WCS for seventeen years, at increasing levels of responsibility, becoming the lead field veterinarian for Latin America and building and managing a team of over 20 veterinarians in five countries, with over a dozen projects in our portfolio.

In 2013 I was fortunate to join the OHI at UC Davis, and have since continued to focus on wildlife health research, wildlife conservation, enhancing capacity and putting one health into practice. During my thirty plus year career I have served on many international organizations including the Wildlife Disease Association and the World Organisation for Animal Health, as well as on many expert panels, especially for marine mammals and hot topics such as avian influenza. Some key highlights are that I have managed to sustain long-term projects with marine wildlife, recruit talented scientists who can take what I’ve done to the next level, and have built strong partnerships and collaborations that will hopefully materialize into lasting contributions to wildlife conservation.   

Is there one piece of advice you'd give aspiring veterinarians and conservationists? 

My key advice is to persevere and work hard. Don’t give up on your dreams and do all you can to find opportunities, to find your specific niche. Be optimistic. Use you passion and your love for wildlife and conservation to fuel your everyday work and life. Take every opportunity to learn. Focus and pay attention to detail. Embrace collaboration and listen to others. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Be patient. Be patient. Be patient.