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From Elephants to People: A Veterinary Scientist's Unique Career Path

Kumari, an Asian elephant at the National Zoo, died suddenly of EEHV, which Laura Richman first described in 1999. (Credit: Jessie Cohen, Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

In 1995, Laura Richman was working as a veterinary pathology resident at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., when she and her colleagues faced an unusual case. A 16-month-old elephant named Kumari had died mysteriously after a 5-day illness. Richman and Richard Montali, one of the zoo's veterinary pathologists, did a detailed necropsy and noticed swelling, signs of pain, and a strangely purple tongue. When they looked at heart, liver, and tongue tissues under a microscope, they saw signs of severe bleeding and telltale blotches that pointed to an unknown virus.

Laura Richman advises early-career scientists interested in translational research to look beyond the training of a basic biomedical Ph.D. "Take all opportunities, and ask questions of everyone," she says.

"First slide that went under the microscope, I saw the evidence of the virus and I couldn't drop it," Richman says. Her relentless curiosity propelled her on a scientific journey to understand the virus, now known as elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV).

Richman, who at 47 is now vice president for research and development for translational sciences at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland, couldn't have foreseen that the discovery would lead her to a career in human translational medicine. But her veterinary background was essential, she says: "I wouldn't be where I am today without the elephant work."

From the veterinary clinic to pathology

Laura Richman (Courtesy of Laura Richman)

Richman began working with animals in high school as a veterinary technician in a clinic in Whittier, California. Then, as a zoology undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, she worked as a technician at the university's primate center, feeding and working with infant rhesus macaques. By the time she headed to veterinary school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Richman knew from those experiences that, although she loved veterinary medicine, she didn't want to work in a clinic for a living.

In vet school, a passion for looking for what other researchers missed led her into pathology. In 1994, after finishing her D.V.M. degree, she took a residency in the National Zoo's pathology department. Pathology residents there investigated the cause of death for deceased zoo animals and worked closely with the zoo's team of clinical veterinarians to analyze tissue samples and diagnose disease, says Montali, Richman's mentor, a veterinary pathologist at the National Zoo from 1975 to 2004, and now a part-time faculty member in the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Medicine's Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology in Baltimore, Maryland. Through collaboration with scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Richman and other residents got broad training in pathology research methods.

Richman, Montali says, "was interested in just about everything." When Richman and Montali discovered the signs of a hemorrhagic virus in Kumari, Richman was convinced that this case wasn't isolated. She wanted to know what it was, where it came from, how it spread, and how they might be able to test for it. The initial data suggested that the culprit might be a herpesvirus.

From pathology to virology

Soon after they realized that a herpesvirus might have caused the elephant's death, Richman and Montali met with Gary Hayward, a virologist at the JHU School of Medicine who studies herpesviruses in both humans and chimpanzees. Richman even joined his group to study this elephant virus. She soon realized that if she took a few courses, she could turn her research into a Ph.D. Because of her veterinary degree, she was eligible to apply for a National Institutes of Health K08 grant, which supports research training for people with clinical degrees. That grant funded her work in Hayward's lab for 5 years.

This is part of an article series for CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, an online community. These articles are published on both Science Careers and within CTSciNet.

The project was unusual for Hayward's group. While other researchers in the group might be looking at or designing mutations of herpesviruses, Richman's project involved classic detective work, piecing together data from the deaths of other young elephants to understand and characterize the virus. She initially found 10 cases in Asian and African elephants in North American zoos. By studying the genetic sequences of the viruses from tissue samples, Richman confirmed that these viruses had proteins characteristic of herpesviruses but were different from any that had been previously discovered. These early findings were published in Science in 1999.

Though EEHV often remains dormant, the disease that can develop is often fatal and is the cause of about half of the deaths of young elephants in zoos. If detected quickly, the disease can be treated with antiviral drugs. During her Ph.D., Richman developed blood- and serum-based PCR tests that are now widely used to test for these viruses. "She came out of the group fully trained as a molecular virologist," Hayward says.

Down the hall from Hayward's lab at JHU, clinical researchers were focused on the disease in humans, which sparked Richman's interest in human medicine. By the time she finished her Ph.D., Richman says, "I couldn't just be a pathologist anymore; it wasn't enough." Seeing the potential benefits of a translational research approach for human disease, she knew she wanted to extend the reach of her work.

A move to industry

Richman wasn't sure what her next career move might be. She considered continuing her research at JHU and applied for academic positions at institutions along the East Coast, receiving several job offers. But after an interview at MedImmune, "I was blown away," she says, by the resources and the opportunity to publish and pursue the problems that interested her.

MedImmune was relatively small when Richman arrived in 2002. In the early days, she did anything from running in vitro assays to heading up the animal facility. Richman was the first pathologist MedImmune hired. She built the pathology group from scratch: It now includes 19 scientists. The group does tissue studies, designs preclinical animal models and clinical trials, performs literature reviews, and studies regulatory issues for investigational new drug filings. One of the drugs Richman helped develop -- sifalimumab, for systemic lupus erythematosus -- is currently in phase IIb clinical trials.

After 7 years as the head of the pathology group, Richman was promoted to her current position as vice president for research and development for translational sciences in December 2009. These days, she coordinates research activities for programs in oncology and respiratory, inflammatory, autoimmune, and infectious diseases. She integrates preclinical data and studies from the literature to develop plans for clinical trials, with the aim of maximizing their efficiency and their effectiveness. She oversees the work of 200 scientists.

Richman keeps a hand in the elephant herpesvirus research that launched her career in translational medicine. She maintains an unpaid position as a research associate at the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory, founded at the National Zoo to handle testing for the viruses that she discovered. In June 2007, she traveled with a team to India to help a government organization start a lab to test elephants in India for herpesvirus. She continues to collaborate with Hayward and others who continue the day-to-day work in this research area.

"She has an unusual passion for science," says Hayward, who says he marvels at her energy, particularly considering that she's also a mother to two young daughters, ages 9 and 5. He's gotten e-mails from her at 3 or 4 in the morning. Hayward adds, "I'm not sure if that's the beginning or the end of her work day." It's a busy schedule, she admits. She relies on a supportive husband, she says.

Although her path from the veterinary clinic to a biotechnology company may be unusual, at every point Richman has followed her intellectual passions and applied her skills and interests in nontraditional ways. She advises early-career scientists interested in translational research to look beyond the training of a basic biomedical Ph.D. and think about developing a technical skill to supplement your scientific training, whether it's a clinical degree, legal training, or a degree in public health. "Take all opportunities, and ask questions of everyone."

Sarah Webb writes about science, health, and technology from Brooklyn, New York.

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