Becoming a veterinarian: a little girl's dream, which, for Gwenaël Vourc’h, became a reality. French equestrian vaulting champion, passionate about both nature and caring for animals, she enrolled in the Alfort National Veterinary School after completing high school. But a particular interest in research quickly emerged: "One of my professors recommended ecology," recalled Gwenaël. At university, she was quite taken with that science, which studies the relationships between all the living beings that form part of our biodiversity: "Our courses did not simply focus on knowledge but also on understanding phenomena by putting organisms' functioning back into the context of their ecosystems."
Ticks: a study model that depends on the environment
addressing the relationships between living organisms and their evolution
For her doctoral degree, Gwenaël studied the interactions between deer and the red cedar trees they feed on in the islands west of Canada. She demonstrated how introduction of such large herbivores to those sites has brought about high selective pressure on the trees. Her work gave her "the foundation in methodology to address relationships between living organisms and their evolution." During a course she took in Vancouver, she came across an article about modelling the life cycle of ticks, from larvae to pupae and then the adult phase. "I saw that ticks were a good study model for me given the complexity of their cycle and the cascading relationships between ticks, wild fauna and the environment."
Diseases that can be spread by animals: a public health issue
On her return to France, Gwenaël joined the INRA (now INRAE) EPIA Unit, which focuses on the epidemiology of animal and zoonotic diseases, its links with the environment, global change and changes in livestock practices. In that way, she can combine her study areas of pathology and evolutionary ecology: "These diseases, which reveal the dynamics between pathogens, hosts, vectors and the environment, pose major public and animal health problems," explained Gwenaël.
One such transmission vector is the mosquito. While studying the 2006 chikungunya epidemic, she discovered traces of the virus in lemurs on Mayotte. There are also ticks. In 2007, she went to Yale University's vector ecology laboratory to model the density of ticks infected with Borrelia, a type of bacteria that causes Lyme disease. When she returned to France a year later, she became EPIA's Deputy Director and continued on that path, by working with many other researchers. Her work with her collaborators on tick populations at various scales (e.g. site, region, country) and during the different seasons revealed a close link with nearby vegetation and wild feeding hosts. This work showed that in France, ticks are increasingly active during winter and that ticks from Mediterranean zones are spreading north. Gwenaël and her colleagues are also studying Borrelia diversity and their transmission between species such as rodents, birds but also Siberian chipmunks, introduced to French forests recently. Finally, there are rats, whose genetic diversity she is studying in depth along with the risk of disease transmission in Ile-de-France (Paris and surrounding areas) parks.
In 2013, Gwenaël took over management of the unit, which, in 2017, became the Epidemiology of Animal and Zoonotic Diseases Research Unit with VetAgro Sup (a French higher education and research institution). This collaboration has bolstered her "One Health" approach, which considers human health to be inextricably related to the health of animals, plants, and, more broadly, the ecosystems where life evolves.
Feeling environmental issues "in her bones"
we need to reconsider our relations with other living beings
In 2018, Gwenaël took a sabbatical. She and her entire family flew to South America, where they cycled across the continent for a whole year. "We tend to approach things on a purely intellectual level during research," admitted Gwenaël. "This trip allowed me to actually experience things myself: see the decreases in glaciers and the Amazon Forest with my own eyes, have discussions with livestock farmers who are experiencing climate change even in the outback of Bolivia - such things are tangible and leave their mark on you." She returned to INRAE confirmed in her chosen study areas and convinced "that we need to reconsider our relations with other living beings." Gwenaël is currently finishing a book and editing a film that tells the story of her incredible experience.
Covid-19: A turning point in emerging-disease risk management
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic took the whole world, including scientists, by surprise. "Although as researchers we were aware of the risks of emerging diseases, I was still dumbfounded by how quickly the crisis grew and how very widespread it became," admitted Gwenaël. "It has highlighted the need for humility as nearly two years later, we are still not sure about its origin."
This pandemic is shining a spotlight on the issues she has been studying for years now: in April 2020, her talk on emerging diseases, zoonotic diseases and environmental changes for the French Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) attracted an audience of 900. This led to a wide range of requests for presentations on those topics from the media, general public, scientists, major higher learning institutes and the French Parliament. It also led to the publication of a book on zoonotic diseases. Gwenaël is now in charge of scientific activities for INRAE as part of the PREZODE programme designed to prevent the risks of new zoonotic diseases.
47 years old, married with 3 children.
- 1997: Diplôme d’Etudes fondamentales vétérinaires (Master's in Veterinary Sciences) from the Alfort National Veterinary School
- 1998: DEA (post-graduate degree) in Evolutional Biology and Ecology (Université Montpellier II)
- 2001: PhD in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology (Université Montpellier II)
- 2003: Research Scientist, EPIA Unit
- 2007: Guest Researcher, Vector Ecology Laboratory, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Yale (USA)
- 2008: Deputy Director, EPIA Unit
- 2009: Accredited to supervise research (HDR)
- 2013 - 2018: Director, EPIA Unit (became EPIA Joint Research Unit in 2017)
- 2019– present: Deputy Director, EPIA Joint Research Unit
2021: Knight of the French Legion of Honour (civil appointment on 01 January 2021, French Ministry of Ecological Transition cohort).