Jacey Cerda's Big Picture
For this DVM student forging her own path, all roads lead to One Health
By Rhea Maze
Photos courtesy of Jacey Cerda
Lawyer. Scientist. Dog mom. Wildlife photographer. Conservationist. Marathon runner. Spicy chili pepper gardener and hot sauce maker.
Jacey Cerda, currently in her third year of the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Program at Colorado State University will tell you that she is not your typical veterinary student—if there is such a thing.
Growing up in Jackson, Wyoming, Cerda fell in love with wildlife at a young age. “I was always surrounded by elk, deer, pronghorn, wolves, bears, and mountain lions,” says Cerda.
After brief stints at Cornell and the University of Southern California, Cerda came to CSU to study wildlife biology as an undergraduate. “I did not like being on the East Coast or in Los Angeles traffic, and CSU has one of the best wildlife biology programs in the country,” says Cerda.
While an undergraduate student at CSU, Cerda began dating her now-husband of 14 years Robert Cerda, a veterinarian and CSU DVM alum from the class of 2015, who was a great friend when they attended high school together in Ojai, California.
After graduating in 2007, the Cerdas took their degrees—hers in wildlife biology and his in animal science—and moved to Wyoming to gain work experience. While Robert worked as a veterinary technician, Jacey worked as a wildlife biologist for a consulting firm where she grew frustrated witnessing so much destruction happening to wildlife habitat areas.
“I did not understand why the Bureau of Land Management was not doing more to protect wildlife habitat in the area, even when they were presented with data on why it was important,” says Cerda. “And I wanted to understand that process and figure out how I could help bridge the gap between science and policy to influence change, so I applied to law school.”
But first, Chacma baboons.
While Jacey was on the waitlist for the University of Colorado Law School, she and Robert took jobs as field biologists out of a rustic research station in South Africa to help study social and decision-making behaviors of Chacma baboons. For a few winter months, they were out in the field with the baboons, hiking with them all day through the steep Soutpansberg mountains.
“It was hard to run down cliffs and through acacia trees after them, but it reinforced my deep love of wildlife,” says Cerda.
While there, Cerda learned she was accepted into law school and returned from Africa with a few hours to spare before her first contracts law class began at 9 a.m. on a Monday.
Throughout law school, Cerda soaked up every environmental, natural resources, and wildlife law class she could find. Over the summers, she worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society as well as for law firms to gain experience, all of which helped her earn a natural resources law student award upon her graduation.
But science beckoned.
Zeroing in on One Health
“I missed science and was still so interested in wildlife, conservation, medicine, and especially the One Health concept that was emerging at CSU,” says Cerda. She was drawn toward its transdisciplinary approach that recognizes the connection between the health of the environment, people, animals, and the planet.
“The concept of One Health was fascinating to me,” says Cerda. “I realized after becoming a lawyer that wildlife conservation problems, environmental science problems, and climate change problems are all people problems.”
This passion led her to earn a Master of Public Health degree from CSU where she immersed herself in research on Echinococcus, a species of tapeworms, in wolves and other wild canids.
Afterwards, Cerda returned to law and worked for several years as a trial attorney in civil litigation and local government land use, while continuing to do parasitology research work and discovering her love of teaching. Cerda designed and taught several semesters of a law and sustainability class for CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability, as well as Naropa University’s climate leadership graduate program.
“I love teaching,” says Cerda. “I especially love teaching law to people who are not lawyers. I definitely want teaching to be part of my career, especially teaching at the interface of science, law, and policy.”
But Cerda once again felt the familiar tug to pause her legal career and return to science. This time, she answered the call by applying to and earning a spot in CSU’s DVM class of 2024.
Finding her place—and wearing many hats—as a DVM student
After such a multifaceted education and career, Cerda feels like she has landed in exactly the right place at the right time, at the intersection of her strongest passions.
“I love policy, but I really wanted to get back to wildlife, medicine, and science,” says Cerda. “For me, it always comes back to that—and I realized that this DVM program would help me connect with all of my interests.”
Cerda serves as the curriculum committee representative for her class and through independent study work is investigating how veterinarians can be more involved with wildlife conservation. In the summer she returned to South Africa, this time with the Vets go Wild program, for more wildlife field experience and to work on cheetah, lion, and rhino conservation efforts.
“Learning about rhino conservation was very impactful for me, because the main issue with rhinos is poaching,” Cerda says. “To me, that is a problem that can be solved from the human-social side as well as from the legal and policy sides. It made me realize that I really can combine all of my interests in law, policy, science, and research to have an impact.”
Outside of the program, Cerda likes to decompress after a long day with an afternoon run. And she always brings her Canon camera along on trips or excursions into the mountains to capture the professional-level wildlife and nature photos that cover the walls of her and Robert’s home.
When they aren’t working, Robert loves to do woodworking and makes furniture and cutting boards, and Jacey loves to garden and cook.
“I have an extensive vegetable garden every year, and my favorite thing to grow is hot peppers,” says Cerda. “I love making them into hot sauces and pepper jelly. I love bold flavors. Robert is Mexican American so we cook a lot of Mexican dishes as well as different kinds of spicy food.”
Cerda’s favorite part of the DVM program so far is working in the vet hospital.
“I love being able to apply the knowledge that we’ve been working on,” says Cerda. “But the best, most beautiful part of veterinary medicine is that there are so many directions you can take it: you can take a more traditional clinical route, like Robert did, or you can do research, education, human-animal studies, and more,” says Cerda. “There are veterinarians at all levels of government. This degree allows us to apply ourselves in so many different, useful ways. The importance of transdisciplinary work only continues to grow, and that’s what I really enjoy.”