UK Graduate Student Spotlight: Steffanie Burk

UK Graduate Student Spotlight: Steffanie Burk

Steffanie Burk

Photo: University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment

Name: Steffanie Burk
From: Harmony, Penn.
Degrees and institute where received: MEd, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pa.
BA, Biology, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pa.
PhD candidate, Animal Science, University of Kentucky

Steffanie Burk decided to pursue her doctorate degree in the University of Kentucky's (UK) Department of Animal Science because of UK's reputation for equine research.

“After talking with Dr. Mary Rossano (MS, PhD) about her parasitology research, I felt that the University of Kentucky would be the best match for me,” Burk said.

Burk’s main research focus is the development of a western blot test for Parascaris equorum, a parasitic roundworm that commonly affects young horses. P. equorum is found worldwide and is commonly referred to as the ascarid. The parasite usually infects horses younger than 18 months while older horses are commonly immune to infection. Severe infections can lead to respiratory signs, anorexia, weight loss, depression, colic, or even intestinal rupture.

The only diagnostic method currently available is the fecal egg count, which diagnoses infection by detecting eggs mature female worms produce in the small intestine. Thus, the fecal egg count cannot diagnose migrating larval stages, and diagnosis occurs approximately three months after the initial infection. New diagnostic tools could, however, help to detect infection earlier while clinical signs due to migrating larvae are still occurring, Burk said.

“For my project, we first hatched and incubated P. equorum larvae in the lab," she said. "We collected excretory-secretory products from the larvae and used those proteins for western blotting."

During the western blotting process, Burk and her team tested different horse blood sera for antibody binding to the larval proteins. They collected the sera used for the tests from a group of pregnant broodmares at UK’s Maine Chance Equine Campus and subsequently from their foals. This allowed Burk to study the immune response of a group of foals over time as they developed natural P. equorum infections.

Although early results indicate that the western blot test will not be a useful diagnostic tool, alternative approaches could have diagnostic potential. Burk said the project will provide new information on horses' immune response to P. equorum.

Burk hopes to pursue a faculty teaching position with opportunities for undergraduate research once her project is complete.

Shaila Sigsgaard is an editorial assistant for the Bluegrass Equine Digest.

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