Q&A: Niamh Lewis on specialising in animal reproduction
As part of a series of articles on veterinary specialisms, My Vet Future is talking to vets about their route to specialisation, with the aim of helping vets better understand how they can become specialists.
Name: Niamh Lewis
Current role: Director at Equine Fertility Solutions
- 2008: Graduated from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh
- 2009: Equine hospital internship at Lisadell Equine Hospital, Ireland.
- 2010-2012: Locum during stud seasons in Ireland, Australia and USA (Hagyard Medicine Fellowship).
- 2012-2014: KTP Associate post with the aim of setting up the UK’s first equine commercial intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) centre at University of Liverpool and Twemlows Stud Farm. Registered as an alternate route resident during this time.
- 2014-2019: PhD on equine oocyte and embryo metabolism at University of Liverpool
- 2015: Successfully sat exams in Europe and America to become a Diplomate of both the European College of Animal Reproduction and American College of Theriogenologists.
- 2014-present: Independent consultant and locum in field of equine ART (Artificial insemination, embryo transfer, ICSI).
Did you have a career plan upon graduating?
I always knew I wanted to become an equine vet but had no specific career plan as such. My top priority at graduation was to travel as much as possible, therefore I went on a 6-month trip to Africa before even applying for my first job.
After my trip, I began an internship at Lisadell Equine Hospital in Ireland. This gave me further insight into specialist equine practice and I really thrived in that environment, particularly enjoying foal medicine and reproduction.
"The idea of specialisation was something that evolved very gradually for me"
Two things happened during my internship that focused my ambitions. The first was getting to know a locum vet that worked at the practice and had spent a few years ‘hemisphere hoping’ as a stud vet. The second was the encouragement from a senior external colleague to write up a case report for publication, the process of which I thoroughly enjoyed.
When did you decide that you wanted to specialise?
The idea of specialisation was something that evolved very gradually for me. I was increasingly exposed to working with senior colleagues who were specialists in either equine medicine or reproduction. I became fascinated by their day-to-day work load and the intellectual discussion around each case.
How did you become a specialist?
A job was advertised to be part of a team setting up the first commercial equine ICSI centre in the UK, which included the opportunity to work with human IVF specialists. It later transpired that it would also give me the opportunity to enrol as an alternate route resident in equine reproduction, as I would be spending the majority of my time working with board certified specialists who were willing to support my programme. As there were no formal residency programmes for equine reproduction in the country, this presented a unique opportunity, which I embraced whole-heartedly.
After this, I went into a PhD programme which overlapped with my specialist training. As the topic was equine oocyte and embryo metabolism, it allowed me to apply my existing skill set and knowledge in equine reproductive physiology while gaining many more skills in other areas. I have definitely found my niche in this field and aim to secure an academic position in the near future that will allow me to combine my research interests with clinical assisted reproduction.
The alternate route programme took three years from registration to examination. I became a specialist six years after graduating.
Can you describe the commitment involved?
A lot of self-discipline is required, particularly for the alternate route system. All study and credential requirements are self-researched and self-directed. In my case, as I was taking the American board exams, which often included 3am Skype study groups! However, the benefits of studying in a group, an element missing in the alternate route, were invaluable.
Niamh with one of the foals produced from the ICSI technique
Financially, choosing to specialise decreased my income by approximately 70% compared to what I was earning as a stud vet, so this needs to be carefully considered and requires an adjustment in lifestyle. However, it is only for a short time and so for me it was worth it.
What have you been doing since specialising?
I have set up my own company, Equine Fertility Solutions, which offers independent consultancy on mare and stallion infertility cases and provides CPD.
My first conference is in October of this year - The Irish Equine Reproduction Symposium. I am also a module co-ordinator and examiner of the Equine Stud Medicine Cert AVP and co-train two alternate residents due to sit their exams in 2020.
Describe how you maintain a good work-life balance?
At the moment, I am very fortunate to have a very good work life balance. Working for myself allows me to fit consults and event organising around my two-year-old, which is something I now prioritise, having spent many years of placing my career first.
What advice would you give to vets considering becoming specialists?
Think outside the box! If specialisation is something you are interested in, look into the requirements closely. A formal residency programme, which often means uprooting to another city or country, is not the only option anymore and many of the colleges offer alternate route programmes.
Another piece of advice I have is to think carefully about the reasons you want to specialise. In equine reproduction and many other specialities, there is often little financial gain in the long run. However, the learning process is very satisfying and you will definitely be better equipped to deal with a wide range of cases in the future. Also, you never know where your speciality will lead you and you will be doing something you love in the meantime.
Finally, I believe that specialisation combined with doing a PhD presents flexibility in career choices and creates an opportunity to diversify within the profession. I love being very good at just one thing while being at the forefront of research in that area.