Stephanie Rossow

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Stephanie Rossow

On any given day—Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays included—UPS and FedEx trucks deliver packages to the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory on Gortner Avenue, where Stephanie Rossow has her office and her black lab snoozes on the floor. 

“So, it’s always kind of like Christmas here,” says Rossow.

But the surprises these packages contain are animal tissues and organs, and sometimes entire animals. Of greatest concern to Rossow are swine samples. 

Rossow is a swine disease diagnostician. Her clients are veterinarians—mostly from Minnesota—who are helping farmers and corporate swine producers manage the health of their herds.

“Minnesota is the second-largest producer of pigs in the U.S., and the timely identification of viruses and bacteria can facilitate an appropriate treatment that may be different than what they have been using,” says Rossow. Identification of bacteria and viruses, quick diagnosis of diseases, and confirmation of disease-free animals can help producers avoid millions of dollars of losses and alert animal health authorities of a disease that has the potential to run rampant through the state’s (and the nation’s) herds.

Dr. Stephanie Rossow with Bunker, her black lab, in her office at the Veterinary Diagnostic LaboratoryDr. Stephanie Rossow with Bunker, her black lab, in her office at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory

Veterinarians and trained staff perform the necropsy at the farm and send pieces of tissue they think “are important for making the diagnosis,” says Rossow. “Or they are suspicious of something new and may want verification or to see if more things are involved that they aren’t considering.” 

Much of Rossow’s detective work involves understanding how new agents and previously recognized agents interact to cause disease by using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based tests. She’s the faculty advisor for the Polymerase Chain Reaction Laboratory, where a minute sample of DNA or RNA can be duplicated and multiplied to millions of copies for easy identification.

“We look for everything—bacteria, viruses—when we get tissues or whole animals in,” Rossow says. But “most of the investigations have revolved around viruses over the years.” Disease agents she looks for include porcine reproductive and respiratory virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, and porcine rotavirus.

Much of this genetic work was barely possible when Rossow started at the lab in 1998. It has allowed diagnosticians and pathologists detailed insights into the cause of disease. But it has also revealed that disease is more complex than scientists ever realized.

Rossow admits she’s stumped “almost daily. It’s becoming more of a challenge to understand the pathogen relationships that may be going on. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you really know.”

While much of the work involves postmortem analysis, the lab also confirms that live pigs are disease- and virus-free before sale or shipping “so they are not taking some extra diseases along to infect a lot more pigs,” says Rossow.

Rossow grew up in Brookings, South Dakota, the first generation off an Iowa farm.

“I’ve always been interested in animals,” says Rossow. “And then I got hooked on veterinary medicine by reading some of the James Herriot books.”

Back then, her name was Kurt. She was a boy, but from childhood she thought of herself as a girl. Her father sold farm equipment, “so I used to ride with him on Saturdays on his different farm calls.”  

She completed her pre-vet work at South Dakota State University. 

“I got a job in their diagnostic lab as a student and would open up the animals for the pathologists to examine,” she says. “So that’s really where I got fascinated and interested in pathology.” 

She got her DVM at Kansas State in 1986. But the job market was poor and offers were not enticing. Rossow enlisted in the U.S. Army—hoping to eventually be accepted in their pathology training program—where she cared for military working dogs and ran small animal clinics at Grand Forks and Minot Air Force bases. (The Army supplies veterinarians for all service branches.) She even served in Panama, providing vaccines against rabies carried by vampire bats. 

“That was interesting but not too challenging,” she says. She also realized she would have little opportunity to work on food animals in an Armed Forces Institute of Pathology training program. So when four years was up, she resigned and entered a PhD degree program at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

“I got my foot in the door with the porcine reproductive and respiratory virus, and found swine producers and veterinarians to be very progressive—eager to learn new things and apply new science,” she says. “So that makes them especially fun to work with.”

Rossow underwent gender confirmation surgery two years ago and will continue hormone treatment for the rest of her life. 

“About the time I was 8 years old, I realized I was in the wrong body, and tried to fight against my true feelings until a few years ago,” Rossow says. “I realized I had to be honest with myself if I wanted to survive. As far as how it applies to my work, it doesn’t—other than that the support I’ve gotten from everyone at the U of M, the clients and veterinarians, has just been wonderful.”