On-farm research can offer the best of both worlds

Mahendran 1

My parents tell me that from a very young age I said that I wanted to be either a vet or a hairdresser. When I realised that I could wield a pair of clippers as a vet, my career path was chosen!

I studied veterinary medicine at Nottingham – I was one of the second cohort to graduate from the vet school. University was great, but the biggest draw for me was the fact that I could take my pony with me to the university’s livery yard.

What did you do after qualifying? 

My decision to pursue farm animal work came quite late. It was during final-year rotations that I found out how much I enjoyed farm work. I became fascinated by the understated magnificence of cattle, discovering, for example, that each day that a cow produces milk is metabolically equivalent to a thoroughbred horse running in a race. Farm animal veterinary work then became my area of choice. After qualifying, I didn’t feel ready to head into farm practice, so I chose to do a supported internship programme at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), as I felt it would be a good fit for me.

Did you have a career plan? 

No. Throughout my internship, I was introduced to the academic side of teaching, as well as learning more about clinical research. The experience is shaping my future, having led me into a residency and now a PhD.

My initial attempt to find a PhD was something of a disaster. As the end of my residency approached, I was struggling to find a suitable topic and ended up applying for one that was not really suited to my clinical expertise. It involved designing a model for foot-and-mouth disease vaccine selection, and although I learnt a lot, I realised a technical and computer science-based PhD was a million miles away from the clinical work I loved. I made the tough decision to move back to academia, which would offer more clinical work.

'After qualifying, I didn’t feel ready to head into farm practice, so I chose to do a supported internship'

Route into research

Trying to find suitable routes for early career researchers or clinicians seeking research opportunities can be challenging. There are more grants becoming available and one of these is the MSD Animal Health Research Bursary. 

I was lucky enough to be awarded one in 2018, which allowed me to carry out some clinical research in calves and return to my love of clinical research. It was also instrumental in giving me the confidence to look for another PhD opportunity. I was fortunate to find one with the RVC in 2019. 

I am very keen to study clinically relevant topics that can help the animals on farms, with my aim being to try to improve their health and welfare through my studies. 

What important skills have you acquired? 

I think some of the most important skills I have acquired are not specifically vet related, but more to do with my growth as a person. I have become more confident, as well as acknowledging the skills I have and the areas of work that I know I am good at. 

I have learnt patience, and although I like to be organised and plan thoroughly, I am now better at taking my time to allow things to evolve rather than panicking about things I feel should have been done yesterday.

What does your current job involve? 

Splitting my time between teaching final-year vet students and undertaking my PhD is a good mix. I have fantastic supervisors and am fortunate to be based in the south west where our great local farmers allow me to carry out clinical research.

Teaching days involve helping students to hone their clinical skills. Being able to get out on farms to demonstrate how to deal with real-life problems is integral to their learning. It’s exciting to see them build on their knowledge and experiences, and give them the confidence to carry out Day 1 competences that will make a real difference, both to them and the animals under their care.

Having a dual role means keeping an eye on the balance between the two sides of my work, making sure one does not dominate the other. Keeping tabs on recent literature that isn’t directly related to my PhD is challenging, but chatting to colleagues can be useful for flagging new and exciting developments. I also work with a great bunch of people, which makes life enjoyable.

A lack of face-to-face contact with colleagues due to Covid-19 has been difficult but, as is the case for many others, the use of online meetings has become the new normal.

'Helping students with Day 1 competences helps them and the animals under their care'

What’s next? 

I’m aiming to keep my research on target and complete my PhD. Having done so, I hope to continue to help improve the health and welfare of dairy cattle.

How do you achieve work-life balance? 

The flexibility of my role means I can plan my research studies around a fixed teaching timetable. 

I don’t do out-of-hours clinical work and although I often do some work at weekends, this is through choice rather than necessity. 

A big bonus of working in academia is that we have much more sociable working hours.

My three ponies keep me pretty busy in my spare time, with lots of stable chores and poo-picking, and I play hockey too – it’s good for my fitness and great for socialising.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

I would tell myself to relax and have a bit more fun. I was quite studious at university and didn’t make as much of the social aspects of vet school as I could have done.

Sophie's CV 

2012: Qualified from Nottingham vet school

2012: Farm animal internship at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) 

2013: Farm animal residency at the RVC 

2015: Diploma of the European College of Bovine Health Management

2016: PhD Pirbright Institute 

2017: Farm animal teaching fellow at the University of Surrey 

2018: MSD Animal Health Research Bursary

2019–present: Part-time lecturer and PhD student at the RVC

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