Developing a taste for equine research
‘Research is boring’ is something that I have heard many veterinary students say, often without justification. The thought of research can conjure up images of people in white lab coats huddled over test tubes, mixing chemicals and scribbling down numbers in silence. Understandably, this may not be particularly appealing, especially for those who begin their veterinary degree with a view to working with animals.
However, as I have learnt over the past few years, this stereotype of research is just that. Far from a punishment to be endured if not avoided, research spearheads progress. It is an opportunity to explore new ground, expand our scientific knowledge and develop our understanding of how things work. Research is crucial to improving our ability to treat disease, and being part of this world can be an extremely rewarding experience.
"Research spearheads progress"
Before commencing my veterinary degree at Liverpool I gained a BSc (Hons) in biochemistry – a degree that was very much research-led in its delivery, making me appreciate not only how far research has improved our knowledge of the medical sciences, but also how much we have yet to learn. Having always been an inquisitive person, this potential for discovery in the scientific world was very appealing to me, motivating me to get involved with research during both of my degrees.
For example, during the final year of my biochemistry degree I applied to be part of Newcastle university's team for an international genetics competition, where we engineered a strain of Bacillus subtilis to act as a biosensor for pathogenic Gram-positive bacteria. This led to a team trip to Boston, USA, where we presented our findings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Being a part of this real scientific progress was a truly inspiring experience, in which I learnt a lot from a scientific perspective and also had the opportunity to work alongside and meet some great people.
University opportunities in equine related research
However, my main interest has always been with horses and, when I began studying at the University of Liverpool for my veterinary degree in 2011, I was pleased to discover there were plenty of opportunities to get involved with equine-related research. Having the expertise of a world-class equine hospital on my doorstep was something I was determined to make the most of. Consequently, during my first year I applied for a summer studentship supervised by Chris Proudman, a RCVS specialist in equine gastroenterology based at the Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital at Leahurst, and Merete Hass, who had just completed her veterinary degree at Liverpool. The project, funded by MSD Animal Health in collaboration with the British Horseracing Authority, involved analysing data on heat stress injury (HSI) incidents in British racing thoroughbreds. The analysis was to identify potential risk factors and allow the racing industry to make informed decisions to try to reduce the risk of HSI at racecourses.
Ria was pleased to discover there were plenty of opportunities to get involved with equine-related research
I later presented the results to a board of experts at the MSD Animal Health headquarters in Milton Keynes. This project not only improved my statistical skills; it also improved my knowledge of the racing industry – something I had not had much prior experience of, and something I have subsequently become increasingly interested in.
Research continued to play an important and influential role in my learning at Liverpool, and in third year we were required to produce a piece of novel research in an area that interests us. I approached Professor Proudman again to ask him to be my project supervisor. I wanted to study something clinically relevant, and equine-related, and he put me in touch with Richard Hepburn, a specialist in equine internal medicine who is currently studying for his PhD with the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool, while also working in equine practice. He is looking into the epidemiology of gastric glandular ulceration in horses, for which he has collected endoscopic data and images from over 700 horses. Little is known about the epidemiology of gastric glandular ulceration in horses compared with that of the squamous region, so for my third year project I performed basic descriptive statistics on his data to elucidate how the epidemiology differs and whether there are certain risk factors for glandular ulceration compared with squamous ulceration.
Admittedly, the project involved a lot of data entry and checking, and many long nights in front of my laptop, but as I began to analyse the data and find certain patterns, things began to get interesting, and I found myself wanting to plot yet another graph to see if certain variables affected outcomes. It was addictive, and I had to be strict with myself as regards spending too much time on the data and not enough on my studies.
As part of this project I was lucky enough to watch Richard endoscope some of the GB paralympic equestrian dressage team horses; a very humbling experience and one that I will not forget.
"Everything that veterinary surgeons do is underpinned by research"
Having always been the type of person who likes to have something to aim for and a direction in life, combining research and working in practice is something which greatly appeals to me. Everything that veterinary surgeons do is underpinned by research; from diagnostic tests to therapeutics. Many people study to be a vet because they want to ‘help animals’, and struggle with the idea of taking a back seat by spending time on scientific research. However, it is this very research that allows vets to help animals; improving the knowledge and capacity of veterinary surgeons across the world.