A research career in epidemiology
Growing up in Canada
I attended a highly academic school and did well in science and maths subjects so it was pretty much assured that I would attend university along with most of my friends. Since we lived just 20 minutes away from the University of British Columbia (UBC), this was where I was headed (close to home since my parents were paying). I had wanted to be a vet for a very long time, so I enrolled for an animal science degree in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. My dad was a little disappointed because he wanted me to go to medical school. In Canada, students must complete a minimum of two years of university courses before applying for the four-year DVM. While I knew it would be difficult to get into vet school in Canada as there is a lot of competition for the few places available, I was determined to try.
Alas, my grades were not good enough after two years so I did not apply until my final year as I decided that I would get a BSc(Agr) first. I was not successful in my first application to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but I was able to get a job working in the animal science department at UBC for eight months after I graduated.
A career in research
This was my first taste of research and I never suspected that this would be where I would end up in my career. During this time, I was also working part-time as a veterinary care assistant, and living at a small animal practice in Vancouver. Once my job at UBC finished with the slaughter and collection of tissue samples from the research sheep that I had cared for, I got a full-time position in a veterinary surgery referral and general practice, again as a veterinary care assistant. I was very fortunate to have had two paid positions in veterinary practice as well as on the UBC campus farm in order to gain the experience necessary for a strong vet school application.
During vet school my interest in small animal practice and particularly feline medicine grew stronger and, in 1990, I applied for a rotating small animal internship through the North American matching system. I spent a year at the University of Minnesota's veterinary teaching hospital – it was exhausting, challenging and at times even enjoyable, and I learned a lot.
"I never suspected that this would be where I would end up in my career"
This was my first exposure to journal club where we discussed recently published scientific papers, although I do not remember hearing the words critical appraisal mentioned at all. At the end of the internship I headed back to Vancouver to work in small animal referral, general and emergency practices. Before I left, I was a locum vet for a small selection of my favourite vets and practices from my time working at the emergency clinic, and was very happy.
Then I re-met someone I had known while I was in vet school in Saskatoon and we decided that I would move back to Saskatoon (a place that I said I would not return to: it's a desert – just a very cold desert in the winter – and I like rain). Life as a locum vet in Saskatoon was not as nice as it had been in Vancouver so I ended up taking a temporary position as a vet inspector working at a swine slaughterhouse for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It was summer and I worked from 6:30 am to 2:30 pm and then had the rest of the day to myself. I enjoyed my work there as the staff were wonderful. It was actually one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever had, and the inspection staff gave me a dozen red roses when my temporary position came to an end.
Masters in epidermiology
When I left the packing plant it was to start a masters degree in epidemiology. I had enjoyed the epidemiology courses that I took in vet school, taught by John Iverson who made his name studying the equine encephalitis viruses. When an advertisement for an MSc position came across my desk, I applied for and got it, with my friend and colleague Judy Currie providing me with a reference. This is how I met Carl Ribble, a great mentor and hero of mine. He became my supervisor along with Craig Stephen of the Centre for Coastal Health in British Columbia.
"Today I continue to do research, publish and speak, as well as offer a variety of training courses"
I enjoyed the research and course work, and discovered a love of teaching when I was invited to teach about rabies (the topic of my research). With a taste for research and teaching now firmly entrenched in my mind, I thought about what to do next, but before I decided that I would like to start a PhD, the opportunity came up to do some additional teaching for four months since Carl had left to go to one of the other vet schools in Canada. Then, because I cannot seem to be idle, I worked for the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre for four months developing a coding system for entering diagnoses from pathology reports onto the National Wildlife Health Database.
Finally, I started work on a PhD project looking at owner compliance in small animal practice, under the watchful, but slightly embarrassed, supervision of John Campbell and Cheryl Waldner as I was their first PhD student to want to do small animal epidemiology. I was able to design my own research studies and write my own grant applications for research funding from WCVM's Companion Animal Health Fund along with matching funding from Bayer Animal Health (Canada).
I continued to teach as much as I could during my PhD and was able to attend several teaching courses and seminars at the Gwenna Moss Teaching and Learning Centre at University of Saskatchewan.
By the end of my PhD, I had met James Wood and his team at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) in Newmarket and knew this was the place for me to begin my new career as a small animal epidemiologist. James was my dream boss, I was working in my dream job and I got to move to the UK – my spiritual home. When I left the AHT in 2009, I was ready to start working for myself as a consultant epidemiologist.
Being your own boss
Today I continue to do research, publish and speak, as well as offer a variety of training courses. I have had the privilege of working with many colleagues, institutions and companies collaborating on both small and large research projects. In recent years I have also become the editor for Veterinary Record Open, a new open access online ‘sister’ journal to Veterinary Record. Currently, I am also acting chief executive of the Animal Cancer Trust, primarily a website-based resource for owners dealing with a diagnosis of cancer in their pets.
"I call myself a clinical epidemiologist as I have the training and clinical experience of a vet as well as the population perspective and critical appraisal skills of an epidemiologist"
While I sometimes miss practice (or the thought of practice), I manage to get my fix of clinical medicine by working with others in general and referral practice and doing the odd bit of backyard consulting for friends. I certainly love being my own boss most of the time, although the travel and pay tends to be either feast or famine. I wouldn't change my career choices for anything. I love being a vet and I am still a vet in spite of what my parents' friends used to ask them: ‘Why doesn't Vicki want to be a vet anymore?’
One of my favourite ways of explaining epidemiology comes from Rothman (2012) who says that ‘It is more than just applying “common sense” unless one has uncommonly good common sense.’ I love it when I explain to others what I do as a small animal epidemiologist and they understand that what I do does not just help individual animals but has the potential to help many animals. I call myself a clinical epidemiologist as I have the training and clinical experience of a vet as well as the population perspective and critical appraisal skills of an epidemiologist. I try to make evidence-based medicine come alive and be fun for clinicians and researchers. I aim to teach critical appraisal skills by example. Many of my talks centre around using critical appraisal to assess evidence before applying it to clinical practice, with examples taken from current pet food and pharmaceutical company literature and publications.
I share a lovely farm cottage with my fiancé Roger, two cats Saffron and Lucy, and one very mad whippety-cross named Hattie who makes us laugh every day. Roger has taught me much about music as his guitar Gertie is his first love. When I am not stuck typing at my computer we love to go camping. To sum up my life as a vet so far, I have, to quote the Dixie Chicks, taken ‘The Long Way Around’!