Supporting learning when the curriculum can’t cover everything

Early in my first year of veterinary school, I realised there were gaps in my training in subjects that the curriculum couldn’t cover thoroughly. Universities have only a few years in which to teach students the principles of diagnosing and treating disease in all animal species on earth, minus one. Topics outwith the Day 1 competencies or those considered specialist knowledge therefore require students to pursue training in their own time.

Veterinary nutrition was the first of these areas to come to my attention. Small animal lecturers mentioned specialty diets existed, but did not go into how these diets worked. Farm animal lecturers discussed matching food type and quantity with developmental stage, but not the macronutrient levels neonates needed for proper development. While I understood that the curriculum couldn’t hope to cover everything that a nutrition specialist would in four years of additional study, I recognised the opportunity to help by bringing in speakers to address these gaps in teaching.

Throughout my previous degrees at the University of California, Davis, I had gained experience planning events and organising speakers in both in academic and professional settings. This prior experience meant I understood the logistics that went into event planning, but I still faced a fairly steep learning curve in translating my skills to match with British culture as well as the veterinary profession and its expectations here. 

During my first year in veterinary school, I founded and organised the Dick Vet Behaviour and Nutrition Conference with another student. Both behaviour and nutrition are topics that veterinary schools tend to gloss over due to the compact curriculum. I sought to include speakers specialising in a range of species and topics to attract the widest breadth of students. 

Behaviour and nutrition conference

Students and staff attending the second Behaviour and Nutrition Conference in February 2018 

I learned a lot from that first conference: to build more time into the schedule for guiding people into and out of lectures; to buy extra lunches for people with special diets as there will always be someone who forgets to notify organisers in advance; and to have clear signposting to the conference building and rooms to stop those unfamiliar with the campus getting lost.

Following the success of this first conference, we ran it a second time. With earlier advertising, more prominent speakers and students from other universities invited, the turnout was incredible. We went from nearly 50 attendees the first year to over 130 the second. A huge boost to the numbers attending came from working with the university to accredit the conference for both CPD and EMS. This was achieved by bringing in only specialists recognised by the RCVS to speak and by providing signed conference certificates to attendees. The conference was so successful that we’ve now split it into two separate conferences, both of which are still well attended annually. I am currently working to transfer the role of conference organiser to younger students in the Nutrition Society who can continue the tradition after I graduate.

As I plan to work in wildlife conservation medicine when I qualify, I also recognised the need for far more wildlife training in the veterinary curriculum. More than once on EMS, I have seen a bat brought into a practice after a client’s cat caught it, and in each case, the attending veterinarian had no prior experience with bats. This meant they could not identify what behaviour and anatomy was normal for bats and were unable to determine from which injuries the bat could recover with proper rehabilitation, delaying the decision to euthanase. To me, this illustrated a need for all veterinary students to have some basic training with bats and so I formed a Bat Medicine and Rehabilitation Conference with another student.

This conference consisted of lectures by two licensed rehabilitators with the Bat Conservation Trust, a lecture by wildlife and exotics veterinarian Emma Keeble on medical interventions and when to euthanase, and a practical component demonstrating normal anatomy, handling and how to conduct a thorough physical exam. The conference was capped at 50 attendees to ensure the lecturers were able to provide individual training to all those able to handle the bats.

Bat medicine conference

Licensed bat rehabilitator Tracey Jolliffe demonstrating bat handling and physical examination to students at the first Bat Medicine and Rehabilitation Conference, November 2018

Organising this event was especially challenging for me: while all the conferences I have run have included liaising with health and safety officers, bringing live bats onto campus meant a lot of additional planning. This included verifying rabies vaccination records of all who were to handle the bats, getting consent forms signed, and establishing a protocol for assessing the bats’ stress levels to determine at what point the practical component had to end for their welfare. As the conference sold out the first year, I ran it single-handedly for a second year and have since passed on that responsibility to the Edinburgh Veterinary Zoological Society to run in future.

Bat handling

A bat wing, showing normal anatomy and handling

Organising these conferences, alongside completing my Associate Fellowship for the Higher Education Academy, has solidified my love for teaching and veterinary education. I hope to use these skills throughout my career, either by arranging CPD for my colleagues, informational evenings for the public, and perhaps even one day educating other veterinarians on wildlife medicine and surgery.

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