Dr. Roberta Duhaime taking a blood sample along with county supervisor Mario Morales from a nilgai antelope during the first Cooperative Aerial Nilgai Harvest, as teams in South Texas work to deal with a particularly pesky tick. (Courtesy Roberta Duhaime)
Veterinarian and epidemiologist Roberta Duhaime’s advice for young people in the community is simple: “try everything.”
Duhaime’s career as a veterinarian has taken her across the United States with the American Department of Agriculture.
“I always wanted to be a vet, but I did other things,” said Duhaime, who was working as a customs agent at JFK Airport in the 1980s and returned to vet school as a mature student, tapping into scholarship money in addition to working various part-time jobs during summers.
The 61-year-old Duhaime is the daughter of the late Louie Duhaime and Mary Paul, and grew up in Queens. Mary, now 98 years old, moved to Brooklyn from Kahnawake when she was 19, and returned in 2009 to remodel the family’s summer home off the Old Malone Highway where Mary now lives.
“I’m very proud of her because she made up her final decision,” said Paul. “She graduated when she was 32 years old, the oldest graduate, and it was so impressive at her graduation; a stage full of people. I said, ‘never in your life will you see so many doctors at one time in one place.’”
Duhaime finished her undergraduate degree in anthropology in 1979, and returned to school and graduated from Cornell University in 1989 in veterinarian medicine. She worked two years through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia in Oklahoma City to train as an epidemiologist.
Epidemiology studies diseases and epidemics.
“What we deal with really is populations,” she said. “I don’t treat individual animals. We look at the population health.”
In 2003, Duhaime was brought in to work in the century-old cattle fever tick eradication program in South Texas. The program, Duhaime explained, essentially started the department of agriculture over 100 years ago, and had never had a staff epidemiologist before Duhaime.
“They finally said, no, we’re going to have to hire one, and amazingly I got the position,” she said.
Prior to 1906, Duhaime explained, “no one knew that any kind of insect for animals or people could cause any disease.”
Malaria, lyme disease and other insect-caused diseases were yet to be discovered. In the late 1800s, veterinary surgeon Daniel Elmer Salmon and a team of doctors discovered that massive cattle deaths during cattle drives from Texas to northern markets were caused by one-host ticks that started the eradication program in 1906.
“That was the very first time that anybody knew at all that there could be something in a tick or any kind of insect that could harm or effect the health of people or animals,” said Duhaime.
Fast-forward to 2003, and Duhaime was brought into the program to discover how to deal with the same ticks infesting white-tailed deer and nilgai antelope in South Texas.
The job found her while she was working on a detail on exotic Newcastle disease in chickens in California.
A “tick rider,” someone who patrols the border on horseback looking for infested livestock, told Duhaime about the job opening for an epidemiologist, and she jumped at the chance.
“What I really enjoy is the people are great,” she said. “The community there is great. The guys are great, and it’s challenging.”
At the time, Duhaime was the only female in the department, aside from secretaries, which made for some trying years, including a legal challenge.
Duhaime is also part of the APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) Native American Working Group, which brings on interns from Onkwehón:we communities across the country, and she is honest and blunt with them when talking about her job.
“I usually tell those students that this is not a good place to work still, however, the government needs diversity, and they need to have Indian people, so that there’s different points of view,” she said. “Somebody has to come in there, otherwise it stays the same.”
She said there is between 20-125 Indigenous veterinarians across the country.
Workplace politics and frustrations aside, Duhaime, working out of San Juan, Texas, thrives working in the field. She hopes other Onkwehón:we students will consider all options available to a epidemiologist or veterinarian.
“It is very diverse,” she said. “I encourage anyone to look at the veterinary-related field as a career option since there are many aspects to explore within the field of veterinary medicine.”