How equine clinical practice led to a PhD in equine biomechanics

Amy Barstow
My story is a cliché in that I have always wanted to be a vet. I included it in every school essay I had to write about what I wanted to do, and friends and family often say: ‘Amy was always going to be a vet’. I was the first in my family to go to university and only the second student from my school to apply for the veterinary medicine course. To me and everyone I knew, being a vet was to be a clinician, in practice, like the ones who treated our pets. It was only when I arrived at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in September 2008 that I realised there might be more to being a vet; that there was a range of career options available for veterinary graduates. For the first time, scientific research actually became a tangible activity as opposed to an abstract idea.

Exploring alternative veterinary careers

I remained determined to be a clinician, but realising my own naivety spurred me on to find out more about alternative veterinary careers. I did a summer studentship funded by the Wellcome Trust and, while I quickly realised that wetlab work wasn't for me, I did find the questioning nature and satisfaction of getting results – often after many hours and much work – incredibly rewarding.

Research stayed in the background as I started EMS placements and rotations during my clinical years. Having grown up alongside horses, and experienced different lameness problems with my own animals, I became more and more interested in equine lameness: its diagnosis, treatment, management and prevention. This led me to carry out my undergraduate research project with Renate Weller and Thilo Pfau at the RVC. I think it's fair to say that I enjoyed my project significantly more than the majority of my fellow vet students.

"Being able to undertake research projects in my future career became very important to me"

Working with Renate and Thilo was great fun, and the opportunity to work alone and at my own pace meant I learned many new skills. I produced a computer-assisted teaching aid to introduce equine lameness recognition techniques to undergraduate vet students, which involved using cameras, film editing and recording software (which, being a technophobe, I never thought I would acquire, especially while studying for a veterinary degree). I still feel immensely proud of the teaching aid and being first author on the paper that resulted from it; it's a tangible accumulation of all my hard work. Being able to undertake research projects in my future career became very important to me.

Equine practice or academia? 

In a somewhat roundabout way, I decided that I wanted to do an equine internship. This would afford me the opportunity to develop my clinical skills while keeping a foot in research. The Animal Health Trust equine internship, with its history of research and orthopaedic focus, seemed to fit the bill and that is where I went after graduating in 2013. My internship was a bit of a rollercoaster and I spent most of the year yo-yoing between wanting to go into general equine practice and wanting to go into academia. At the time, the two seemed mutually exclusive to me, but now I'm not sure why I thought it had to be one or the other.

Embarking on a PhD

I'd kept in touch with Renate and she e-mailed me to ask if I would be interested in applying for a PhD. The project sounded right up my street; investigating the effect of different shoeing materials on distal limb shock absorption in horses. I mulled it over and chatted with Thilo and Renate: I was in an ‘I want to go into practice’ mood at the time and, although a PhD had been part of my plan, I was uneasy about leaving full-time clinical practice so soon after graduating. Eventually, I decided to go for it – after all, it did sound pretty much as if it were my dream PhD.

I interviewed successfully and was offered a full-time PhD studentship funded by the RVC's Mellon Trust. I started in January 2015, but initially struggled with not feeling like a ‘real’ vet anymore. However, I soon realised that investigating a topic that affects a large number of horses is a worthy use of my veterinary qualification. Now, I love it.

I don't have a typical day anymore, which is refreshing, since clinical work was never as varied as I'd anticipated. I value being in control of my plans and what I will be doing on a day-to-day basis, which is hard to achieve in the early stages of a clinical career. I miss interacting with clients and seeing cases through, but a great advantage of my research is that I get to work with happy healthy horses and I'm not doing anything that hurts them, so we get to stay friends.

Through my PhD, I have also travelled in the UK and abroad, and met some very special horses along the way. I spent last July at the Singapore Turf Club and attended the International Hoofcare Summit in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February this year, which also gave me a chance to visit the fantastic podiatry centre at the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Kentucky.

"Regular equine locum work helps to keep my hand and brain in clinical work, and ease any worries I had about leaving clinical practice so early in my career"

Doing a PhD is no walk in the park, but I love the challenge that I have been set. Aside from the travelling, the things I enjoy the most are getting stuck in with data collection, presenting at farriery CPD and public outreach events, and supporting undergraduate student projects. I am part of a fantastic team and working with Renate and Thilo is as much fun as it was at undergraduate level. On top of this, the farriery focus of my studies means I work closely with a number of highly skilled farriers – Peter Day, Haydn Price and Chris Pardoe – who are full of ideas and great characters.

As with my undergraduate project, I have gained a rather interesting set of skills, mostly pertaining towards DIY (apparently that's a fairly common outcome of working in the Structure and Motion lab). On a more serious note, I have also developed a deeper understanding of biomechanical concepts, accelerometer signal analysis and am getting to grips with MATLAB matrix laboratory software and coding.

In addition to my studies, I am an active part of the student body. As one of the student union postgraduate officers, I regularly attend meetings to help shape the RVC postgraduate (and undergraduate) experience. If all that weren't enough, regular equine locum work helps to keep my hand and brain in clinical work, and ease any worries I had about leaving clinical practice so early in my career. As much as I enjoy locum work, I'm always pleased to get back to my research on a Monday morning after a weekend on-call.

I'd like to say that this is all the result of hard work. Although I do work hard to keep all the balls in the air, keeping connections and communication lines open with mentors (as well as a bit of luck) also play their part.

If you are considering a PhD, the best advice I can give is to get an idea of what your prospective research group is like beforehand and speak to other students your potential supervisor has worked with. I would encourage anyone who is thinking of doing a PhD to go for it.

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