Nikki Thellman, DVM

About Nikki Thellman

  • Undergraduate University: University of Michigan (B.S. Microbiology)

    Nikki Thellman, DVM

  • Graduate University: Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
  • Thesis: HSV-1 VP16 recruitment of chromatin co-activators as a mechanism for reactivation from latency
  • Mentor: Steve Triezenberg, Ph.D.
  • Research Experience: Organic Chemistry Summer Fellowship synthesizing antitumor analogs at Barbara Ann Karmanos Institute Detroit MI (undergrad). Phi Zeta Research Summer Fellowship investigating innate immune cell response in the small intestine of rhesus macaques during SIV infection.  
  • Work Experience: Licensed veterinarian with 4 years practice experience as an associate veterinarian in companion animal medicine and surgery. In addition, managed a veterinary clinic and boarding facility the year before entering graduate training.
  • Conferences:
    International Herpes Workshop (2012 Calgary & 2012 Grand Rapids)
    Epigenetic Marks and Cancer Drugs 2013, Keystone Conference
    Co-Organizer of Origins of Cancer (2013)
    One Health Conference (State of Michigan) 2014: The Community’s Response to Disease Outbreaks
    Colorado Alphaherpes Latency Symposium 2014: Poster presentation
    Chromatin and Epigenetics 2014, Cold Spring Harbor
    American Society for Virology 2015: Oral presentation, travel award
    Co-Organizer of VAI Career Day (2015)
    ASM Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease (2016)
  • Hometown: Farmington Hills, MI
  • Hobbies: Family time with my husband and two wonderful boys, scrapbooking and working-out


How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?

Herpes viruses are forever. This includes the simplex viruses which cause cold sores or genital lesions, and also the chicken pox virus which causes shingles. These viruses hide quietly in a non-active state inside the nerve cells just outside of the brain. I study what makes the quiet virus “reactivate” or awaken to cause clinical lesions. Specifically, I study herpes simplex type-1 (HSV-1), the cold sore virus, at the level of regulation of viral genes with the goal of identifying ways that new drugs could block reactivation and prevent recurrent disease.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

I worked for four years as a practicing veterinarian, and while I overall loved my job, there were days that I questioned my career choice. I can honestly say that not a day goes by that I am not grateful for the opportunity to pursue my Ph.D. at VAIGS. Frankly, when things get tough I think about what I would be doing if I hadn’t decided to go back to school, then I think about all the doors that are opening in my future and that is enough to pull me through!

What do you want to do with your degree?

I have strong interests in scientific policy and epidemiology. If I don’t direct my own research laboratory in infectious disease I plan to be on the front lines of disease outbreaks globally. Either way, I will have an active role in scientific policy making, particularly in translating mechanistic and population studies to impact public health. I am pursing a Ph.D. with a focus in cellular and molecular genetics to learn the tools necessary to answer questions involving the mechanisms of disease. By combining both my clinical and scientific training, I hope to be a competitive applicant for the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Surveillance fellowship following graduation.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

I attended Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine directly from undergrad, and then worked as a small animal veterinarian for four years before starting my Ph.D. These four years were not only crucial for developing my clinical skills as a veterinarian but also for my professional growth as a leader and mentor. I managed a veterinary hospital, developed hospital protocols, and trained staff members at all levels. I firmly believe these professional skills have prepared me for this program and accelerated my growth as a Ph.D. candidate.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

My background is in microbiology and veterinary medicine. While some of the fundamentals in VAIGS’ program were a review for me, I am learning many new concepts in cellular and molecular genetics. I believe that this has broadened my knowledge of the biological sciences.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

I believe that my dual degree as a DVM / PhD will allow me to take a leadership role that directly impacts public health. I believe in the One Health concept, which is a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment.

Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?

Between graduate school and having two young boys, there is little time to get involved in community activities. However, being a graduate student has introduced me to more ways to get involved in the community. Involvement has been as easy as running a 5K for a good cause or volunteering at a local fund raising event downstairs from my lab. I even had my son participate in a “Shave-to-Save” event that was a great way to get him involved.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

I am most proud that my oldest son’s preschool teacher said that he was an example for the other students of “how to be kind and courteous”. I believe that we lead by example, and I like to think that his behavior is a reflection of my own. Through all the chaos and distractions of a busy day, we have to remember that we are all human and a little compassion goes a long way.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

I only grow more confident in my decision to attend VAIGS. Coming from larger universities, I did not know what to expect with a classroom size of just five. The smaller size of the program has allowed me access to excellent mentors, which in hindsight was lacking from my previous training experiences. It has also allowed me to become a mentor myself to other students or interns which has been incredibly rewarding.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?

This is a unique problem-based program, that truly trains you to “think” and “act” like a scientist. This form of training is not about how much you can memorize about a particular topic, rather about how you tackle a pressing problem. Knowing what the next question to ask is and how to approach that question is a critical component in the scientific process. VAIGS trains you how to do this.