Layla Schrieber

As an Aboriginal woman with a passion for veterinary science research, Layla Schrieber chose to do her Master of Science in Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney on dogs and streptococci in an Aboriginal Australian community.

“One of my cousins forwarded an email from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science looking for an Indigenous PhD student. I met with Dr Robert Dixon, who ended up becoming my supervisor, and since I was pregnant at the time we decided on a Masters project as it would not be as stressful as the PhD,” said Layla.

“As I am based in Cairns, Robert put me in touch with James Cook University, which had a really good program called Building Indigenous Research Capacity (BIRC). Through this program, I met Professor Rick Speare who has done a lot of work on zoonoses and also has experience working with Indigenous students. So Rick became my co-supervisor.”

“When Robert passed away, I was lucky enough to have Dr Gary Muscatello, also from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science, agree to supervise me in the last stages of my research. I am so grateful because I really believe that without his input I wouldn’t have successfully completed my degree.”

Layla discovered that there is not much published zoonosis research conducted in Aboriginal communities – what she read was mainly descriptive prevalence data of diseases sampled in dogs, with only a few studies including human samples. So her study on streptococci on dogs and humans in the Yarrabah Aboriginal community, located near Cairns in North Queensland, was important and pioneering research.

“Streptococci are a bacteria that cause post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis and acute rheumatic fever, all of which cause a significant amount of morbidity and mortality in the Aboriginal population. My research had the aim of investigating whether the streptococci had zoonotic potential.”

In her research, Layla balanced her scientific laboratory based work, with work in the Yarrabah community to help develop strategies to manage canine zoonoses. As her research progressed, she continuously made sure her work was relevant to the study community.

“My husband is a Gungandji man, the traditional mob of the area in which Yarrabah is situated, so he is really well known and related to heaps of people there. Through my husband, I knew some family in Yarrabah, but not really well, so I still really had to make sure my research was sensitive because I had the added responsibility as family,” said Layla.

“Doing this scientific research was a real struggle, because of the terrible history of scientific research methods in our communities. I had to self reflect the entire time: Why did I feel certain ways? Why was I doing this research? It was comforting to discover that every Indigenous researcher goes through this experience. We have to, to make our research better.”

Layla found that Streptococcus dysgalactiae subspecies equisimilis (SDSE), which is a Lancefield group G or C, gram-positive cocci bacteria, could be found on both dogs and humans.

“I found that while genetically, these bacteria separated into ‘human’ and ‘dog’ groups, there were cases where I sampled ‘human’ strains in dogs and vice versa. This is due to the opportunistic nature of the bacteria – it will infect where it can, for example, in an open wound or diabetic ulcer.”

Layla concluded that keeping both dog and human skin healthy in the community would inhibit infection. The Yarrabah community already had a great healthy skin program for people, but she found that the community wanted more information on dog care and better access to veterinary services. Layla assisted the local Animal Control and Environmental Health officers in establishing Dog Care Days, in collaboration with, the RSPCA, and volunteer vets from James Cook University and Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC).

“One of the vets from James Cook University, Dr Felicity Smout, who assisted us with the dog care days is now providing regular veterinary services with the Yarrabah community. She is a wonderful woman who has built up a great relationship with the community, so I feel quite content knowing that she is providing what they need.”