Microbiology, fish, and global health: What do they all have in common?

Photo provided by Dr. Rodman Getchell

Providing research, education, diagnostic services, and extension, the Aquatic Animal Health Program (AAHP) at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine responds to emerging issues in fish health in New York State and internationally. Dr. Rodman Getchell, faculty member of the AAHP, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the exciting research being done and the significant role it plays in the field of aquatic animal health.


Surrounded by miles and miles of dairy farms, Ithaca might be one of the last places you’d think of when you envision faculty members dedicated to fish health. But at the forefront of animal health research is Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and so you wouldn’t be surprised to find that faculty are diligently working on emerging infectious diseases, molecular diagnostics, and pathology in fish. As a subset of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, the Aquatic Animal Health Program provides research, education, diagnostic services and extension.

Dr. Rodman Getchell is an Assistant Research Professor at CVM and teaches students in his Anatomy and Histology of Fish course each winter. After majoring in Microbiology at the University of New Hampshire, he decided to pursue his interest in fish at Oregon State University for a Master’s degree, where he researched salmonid diseases. He then worked for five years as a marine pathologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and soon after became the Extension Associate and Research Support specialist in the Department of Avian and Aquatic Animal Medicine at CVM. In addition to his recent research on rhabdoviruses of fish – which belongs in the same family of virus as rabies – he serves as a mentor for veterinary students and works with local communities through the Fish Disease Laboratory.

Dr. Getchell examining a skin scrape of a diagnostic case. Photo provided by Dr. Rodman Getchell

Getchell believes that aquatic animal health is the definition of a multidisciplinary field. “There are so many things you need to know. You need to know the physiology of the animal, reproduction, life cycle, diseases, and even water quality.”

The AAHP’s most profound research is on Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS), a rhabdovirus that originated from Europe and emerged in the Great Lakes in 2005. Causing tissue hemorrhage and ultimately death, VHS affected thousands of freshwater fish throughout North America and caused die-offs of numerous fish species. In May of 2006, Getchell and his colleagues confirmed cases of VHS in the St. Lawrence River. The World Organization of Animal Health categorized VHS as a transmissible disease with the potential for profound socio-economic consequences. For about a decade, Getchell dedicated his research to VHS; In 2019, he published a paper on the VHS outbreak in Cayuga Lake that affected Round Gobies, a small bottom-feeding fish. By sequencing the whole genome in eleven VHS isolates, he and his colleagues determined where the VHS outbreak originated from – Lake Erie.

Dr. Getchell observing behavior of juvenile striped bass during sedative trial while Brian Chambers (2022) measures oxygen concentration. Photo provided by Dr. Rodman Getchell

Through the Fish Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, a service lab that provides disease diagnostic assistance to the aquaculture and research community in New York State, the AAHP reaches the outside community. Not only do they collaborate with national organizations such as the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), but also with international universities such as the City University of Hong Kong and Japan’s Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine to help them improve their an aquatic veterinary health curriculum. While only four faculty members comprise the AAHP, they have made a substantial impact far beyond their local community, representing the land grant mission of Cornell University at its finest.

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