Pursuing an interest in research and one health
Is it a prerequisite for all veterinary students to enter the profession because of a love for animals? I don't think so. I believe that most people enjoy the company of animals. In fact, I know from the scientific literature that individuals who are cruel towards animals are often violent towards people as well.
The public's perception about what motivates veterinary students and the careers they will go into is often revealed when I meet people. It is usually assumed that, being solely motivated by a love for animals, there are only two career options open to me – large or small animal practice.
I have just spent the summer experiencing research, which is an area where vets make significant contributions that benefit animals, people and the environment. I was based at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), North Carolina. Under the guidance of Dave Malarkey, head of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Pathology Group, in the Cellular and Molecular Pathology Branch I learned first hand about the NTP's role in providing toxicological evaluations on substances of public health concern, especially synthetic industrial chemicals, pesticides, food additives, metals and pharmaceuticals.
Funding the externship
I was funded in part by a White Horse Travel Bursary from my university, which allowed me to take part in a research project of my own at the NIEHS and share the results. At the end of my externship, I gave an oral presentation to the department and presented a poster at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Summer Internship Program Seminar.
My project allowed me to explore the intricacies of the biological progression of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma and help to differentiate it from a preceding and often related lesion called cholangiofibrosis using immunohistochemistry. In people, cholangiocarcinoma is a rapidly progressive neoplasm of the biliary epithelium that carries a poor prognosis. Often diagnosed in advanced stages when therapeutic outcomes are poor, cholangiocarcinoma is the second most common primary liver tumour in humans.
Apart from conducting basic research in a multidisciplinary team of scientists and veterinarians, I ventured out of the lab to connect with others in Research Triangle Park (RTP). This is home to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Rollins State Diagnostic Laboratory, GlaxoSmithKline, North Carolina State University School of Veterinary Medicine, the Duke Lemur Center and many more institutes, and it offered me the chance to shadow a diverse group of veterinarians. I was able to gain both insight into various disciplines and practical career advice.
"I was fortunate to be able to join the Cornell Leadership Program"
I was also fortunate to be able to join the Cornell Leadership Program in visits to the NIH and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Bethesda, Maryland. The Cornell Leadership Program is a highly competitive, research-intensive summer programme that aims to introduce veterinary students from universities around the world to careers in biomedical research and public health.
Veterinary student research interns from the University of Pennsylvania accompanied us at the NIH for a full day of presentations by an impressive list of speakers. One of the highlights was a talk given by Victoria Hampshire, of the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, on preclinical animal studies. Another interesting presentation was given by Elaine Ostrander, head of the Comparative Genetics Section of the National Human Genome Research Institute, on her species-spanning work that aims to identify genes that relate to susceptibility to and progression and specific outcomes of canine and human diseases.
My behind-the-scenes tour of laboratories at the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research started with passing through a security checkpoint manned by military personnel. Once inside the high-security facility, one of the stops was at an insectary, which housed hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes used in malaria research.
Each of the veterinarians I spent time with in government, industry and non-profit conservation agencies offered me a glimpse into the exciting opportunities veterinarians have. This diverse group of veterinarians also encouraged me to pursue my own passions in this area.
A valuable opportunity
Through this opportunity, I have forged an extensive professional network of veterinarians, from those working behind the bench to understand mechanisms of disease, to those who help to make food safer through their efforts in developing public policy. I have shared stories, exchanged ideas and made lasting friendships with veterinary students from many different countries. Above all, I engaged in experimental learning that was challenging and rewarding.
"I engaged in experimental learning that was challenging and rewarding"
One of the greatest challenges presented by research comes from being on the edge of the known and not always being able to predict what comes next. This was particularly the case for me, as I explored a topic in pathology without having had a formal introduction to the subject in my studies. There were also some pitfalls: a failed experiment, a protocol that needed optimising, and an unexpected result that needed to be understood, are just some examples.
At the same time, the unknowns that surround basic research made the process of understanding a topic, even if it was just a small piece of a greater puzzle, much more rewarding. I enjoyed my summer in research tremendously and would strongly encourage other students to seek out similar opportunities. However, my involvement in research does not end here. My future career will demand that I am able to translate basic science, as well as communicate and apply the latest findings. My training in the scientific discovery process and ability to collaborate within a diverse team will serve me well as I enter the global arena, where issues span disciplines and national borders. We live in one world with one health and veterinarians serve as an important link in this global network. They are guardians of the environment and promote the wellbeing of all living creatures.