March 24, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A woman wearing a T-shirt, hat, and sunglasses stands on a cliff with an ocean behind her.
Calvin University alum Janelle Wierenga '98 is working with a team of researchers to help endangered penguins in New Zealand.

For two-and-a-half days, Janelle Wierenga was at sea. Traversing nearly 400 miles from Dunedin, New Zealand to the subantarctic Auckland islands, she was on a mission.

“We’re trying to figure out basically two diseases causing pretty significant mortality and morbidity within the rarest penguin on the planet,” said Wierenga.

Wierenga is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, collaborating with a team of researchers who are working hard to save an endangered species of penguins, one that is culturally important to the local Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“To be able to work with an endangered species with the recent advancements of genomics within infectious diseases is a dream come true,” said Wierenga.

Laying a solid foundation

Wierenga is a 1998 graduate of Calvin University. At Calvin, she was a biology major, and she says her undergraduate education set her up well for the adventure she’s been on for the past 25 years.

“I know that the well-rounded and high-quality education in the liberal arts set me up well for the next steps in my educational endeavors and career,” said Wierenga, who credits her Calvin education for helping her gain acceptance “into veterinary school, one of the hardest graduate medical schools to get into.”

Wierenga’s path from vet school to where she is at now in Dunedin, New Zealand was anything but a straight course.

On an adventure

Over the past two decades, Wierenga moved from Michigan to Oregon, Illinois to California, Washington to New Zealand. She picked up a board certification in veterinary emergency and critical care, an additional master’s degree and a PhD, went into private veterinary practice, and for the past ten years has taught at a vet teaching hospital.

“I never had a 10-to-20-year plan,” admits Wierenga. “Hopping from one thing to the next doesn’t allow for boredom.”

But where Wierenga ended up now was no coincidence. Her bow was pointed in this direction the entire time. There were just many stops along the route.

A voyage of discovery

“Actually, research is a great fit [for me] as most of my career, whether in veterinary clinical medicine, public health, or scientific research, has been all about learning more, about trying to find the ‘answer(s)’ or possible solutions and doing this methodically, but ruling out the possible causes,” said Wierenga. “And this is something I truly enjoy—the thinking, pondering, and processing rather than the easy answers, though those are nice from time-to-time.”

While Wierenga spent some time in the Auckland Islands, she’s now back on mainland New Zealand continuing to work with the team to make headway in discovering the causes behind the two major diseases affecting newborn chicks, diseases that are threatening the extinction of the Yellow-Eyed penguins, also called hoiho in Maori, from New Zealand.

Committed to doing something

“One of the diseases has been occurring for at least 20 years,” said Wierenga. “They started implementing intensive care with those chicks, so they are uplifted to a wildlife hospital near where I live, given supplemental food, treated with medication, and with that intensive care we can get them through that disease. But, despite knowing about this disease, we still don’t know what’s causing it, what is the primary agent.”

Wierenga’s team has recently pivoted from diagnostics to metagenomics, where they analyze swab samples for DNA or nucleic acids and they sequence all the potential pathogens that could be causing the disease.

“Our goal is to see if we can find supporting evidence for the cause, and if we can, then what does that open up for further treatment, better management, or can we develop a vaccine down the road,” said Wierenga.

For Wierenga, she knows all of her research and effort may not stop the rapid decline of this penguin population, but she and her team are committed to doing something.

“Most people will put up their hands and say this is too big, we can’t do it,” said Wierenga. “I just want to keep trying. If just a few more people do the same, we don’t know what difference we can make. It may end up the same, but we don’t know if we don’t try.”

The research recently uncovered a novel virus that was found to be associated with one of the diseases, a more recently identified disease called Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or RDS. Continued work looking into chicks that had RDS will help to support the discovery, if identified, and lead to the development of diagnostic tests and treatment options for these chicks.

Recent stories