Aspirations for a future specialising in veterinary research
I entered university in 2009. Much the same as many students starting at veterinary school, I had wanted to be a vet for as long as I could remember and was really excited about a future career in practice. Now, as a fourth-year student, I aspire to a specialist veterinary career involving research. Obviously, things change.
My experiences of veterinary research so far have included many opportunities that have inspired me. I have been awarded student scholarships to undertake research, have achieved a first-class intercalated degree and, most notably, was awarded the Student Inspiration Award at the inaugural Kennel Club International Canine Health Awards.
Veterinary-based research project
Bristol vet school has a reputation for research, and in my progression through the veterinary degree I became keen to get involved in veterinary-based research here. In my third year, I had been most intrigued by gastroenterology, microbiology and immunology, and sought to find a project that could combine and build on these areas. I approached the lead of comparative and clinical research at the School of Veterinary Sciences, who was very supportive and arranged a project that continued on from a previous study conducted at the school. The project, which investigated the significance of site-specific bacterial-mucosal interactions in the aetiology of canine inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as a student vacation scholarship. The BBSRC regularly funds summer projects with stipends for veterinary students. I subsequently spent much of the summer at the end of my third year in a microbiology laboratory looking down a microscope. I really enjoyed this introduction to clinically relevant research and a publication of the findings is in progress.
Intercalating into CMM
Following my short summer research project, I undertook an intercalated degree in the university's School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (CMM), for which I received a clinical research training scholarship from the Wellcome Trust. This funding is part of an initiative to encourage veterinary students to participate in research with the aim of improving both human and animal health. The scholarship covered the cost of the year's tuition fees, as well as a stipend. Intercalation (into another degree subject) is actively encouraged by Bristol vet school and had therefore always been an interesting possibility, although I probably didn't consider it seriously until after my second year. Having settled into a vet student routine, I was finding some subjects particularly fascinating – in fact, in some instances, it was frustrating that I didn't have the time to pursue these interests further. By third year, I had also decided that I wanted to be a specialist veterinarian (not that I had actually decided on a particular specialism) and, in my mind, an intercalated year was an opportunity to follow some academic interests in depth while also adding to my CV. Intercalating into CMM satisfied my academic interests, but with relevance to veterinary medicine. It provided another research project opportunity, and also meant an extra year enjoying Bristol's vibrant city culture.
"An intercalated year was an opportunity to follow some academic interests in depth while also adding to my CV"
Intent on retaining a clinical focus for my research within my intercalated year, I found supervisors to help me organise my own project. Considering the early stage of my career, I was advised to try out different topics, and not to be too focused in one area. Therefore, rather than continuing with my IBD research, I worked with another veterinary surgeon, also involved in research, who was happy to help me. The project looked at the role of staphylococci and specific virulence factors in chronic surgical wounds. A lot of hard work was involved, but my efforts were rewarded with a first-class degree (BSc) in microbiology and pathology. I'm hoping these new-found skills will be used throughout my career in critically analysing and implementing evidence-based medicine.
The International Canine Health Awards were launched at Crufts in March 2012, and my project supervisors encouraged me to apply for the inaugural student inspiration award. With their support, I was able to design a project leading on from my intercalation project on canine wound infection. I was thrilled at becoming the first winner of the student prize in March 2013. I think it is fantastic to have been recognised as someone with the potential to lead and advance the frontiers of veterinary medicine, but, importantly, I thank all of my supervisors who have been there to encourage my development and progression every step of the way.
Winning the £10,000 prize was a huge achievement, and the fund has meant a lot in terms of the research I have been able to continue. I funded my proposed research project through last summer and also travelled to the 7th International Conference on Advances in Canine and Feline Genomics and Inherited Diseases in the USA in September.
"Winning the £10,000 prize was a huge achievement, and the fund has meant a lot in terms of the research I have been able to continue"
My project involves a longitudinal study of dogs admitted to a small animal hospital for surgery. I was looking at the chronology in which commensal bacteria regrow into surgical wounds in the postoperative period in order to study the interrelationship between microbial virulence and susceptibility of some dogs to infection. In particular, I wanted to identify the prevalence of specific bacterial virulence factors found in infected or slow-healing wounds, which might help to determine risk factors for the development of surgical wound infection or dehiscence.
This is an ongoing project, and data collection is currently continuing without me while I get back into the swing of being a fourth-year vet student. I still check on the progress of the project and will soon be looking into carrying out the statistical analysis to find out what it has all meant.
It is hard to fit research into the busy timetable of a vet student, especially when term times are filled with learning and so much vacation time is spent on extramural studies. However, I enjoy doing research in the time in between, and I find the results really rewarding. I have also been fortunate in joining a hugely supportive and friendly research group, which has helped maintain my motivation in this field.
Looking ahead, I aim to specialise in veterinary medicine. I believe that research has an essential role in the progression of the veterinary profession, and I am determined to continue with translational veterinary research, bridging the gap between the lab and the consulting room. So, while I am currently focused on passing exams and hopefully reaching my graduation in just over a year's time, I want to continue from there with a PhD and a clinical residency and then see what further opportunities lie ahead. The great thing about the veterinary degree is that it opens up wide-ranging opportunities, and I don't feel that my career aims need to be limited.