Alumnus Focuses on Zoonotic Diseases with CDC Internship, Master’s Program

A young man standing on the steps of Emory University's School of Public Health

Dan Popkin, a spring 2020 graduate from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has wanted to work with animals ever since working part-time at an animal shelter in high school. Sure, he’d love to take care of your pet, but he’s more interested in having a better understanding of zoonotic diseases — diseases that spread between humans and animals.

Since graduating from NC State in May 2020, Popkin has been working toward a Master of Public Health from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, Georgia. Coincidentally, Atlanta is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the ideal place to learn more about zoonotic diseases and how they occur. 

“I will be interning in the One Health Office at the CDC, which leads the agency’s One Health  efforts in the United States and abroad and works to prevent and control zoonotic diseases and other health threats affecting humans, animals and our shared environment.” Popkin said. 

One Health is described by the CDC as “an approach that recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment.”

As part of his internship, he will review scientific literature within the realm of One Health and summarize findings to be published for use by other federal agencies, government officials and the general public. 

It’s an opportunity that Popkin is extremely grateful to have, now more than ever, as the world continues to battle the novel coronavirus, which originally came from an animal, likely a bat.   

“Many diseases are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. More than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.” Popkin said. “My program concentration is in epidemiology and ideally, I would like to investigate that connection between human health and animal health.” 

“I want to better understand the scientific aspects of zoonotic diseases and the outbreaks they cause but also bridge the gaps between the scientific community and the general public so that people truly understand what’s going on, what’s factually correct or incorrect, and what they can do to better themselves and put themselves in a position to potentially avoid or lessen some of the impacts,” Popkin said.

Early Passion for Animals

Popkin’s interest in animals and zoonotic diseases started when he was in high school.

“I’m from New York, and the 4-H program I participated in was very different than one might imagine. It wasn’t going out to the farms or working with agricultural animals. It was more of a class where different animal professionals came and explained what they do and how they got there,” he said. 

He also worked 15 to 20 hours a week at an animal shelter for two years.

“Specifically being in a shelter environment, there was a lot of disease transmission, especially zoonotic in nature,” Popkin said. “I thought I had rabies at one point.”

Choosing NC State

Popkin had several schools to choose from when it came to earning his bachelor’s degree, but he specifically chose NC State and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences because of one experience and one person — William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Billy Flowers.

“What really made me choose NC State was Experience NC State. They had the animal science breakout session, where I spoke to Dr. Flowers. He talked with me and my family for maybe 25 to 30 minutes. I said, “Yeah, I’m going to go to State,’” Popkin shared of his first encounter with Dr. Flowers. A couple years after taking one of Flowers’ classes, Popkin ran into him in the hallway of Riddick.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Hey Dan, how are you?’ And we were just chatting, as he was waiting for his class to begin, a couple of his students came by and he rattled off so much information from our very first conversation at Experience NC State. “It really made me feel valued and important. It’s that family aspect that CALS really tries to incorporate.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.