Ten-minute chat - equine clinical research
What do you do at Rossdales?
My job has two components. First, I work with the clinicians at Rossdales to produce equine clinical research. Secondly, I'm studying for the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) masters degree in veterinary epidemiology and public health by distance learning, which forms the basis of my residency programme for the European College of Veterinary Public Health.
How did you get to where you are today?
I began vet school assuming I would have a clinical career, hopefully as a horse vet. I'd fainted a couple of times at the sight of blood in my preclinical work experience sessions, but I was told I'd get used to it, and vet school was fairly plain sailing until morbid anatomy practicals at the end of my third year.
Qualifying with a degree in veterinary medicine, but a severe dislike of blood, I found it difficult to see other career opportunities so I undertook a part-time certificate in forensic medicine and science from Edinburgh university (shutting my eyes during the mortuary trip), while I decided what to do next. I decided on a split taught/research master's degree in equine science at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and contacted Professor Bruce McGorum at Edinburgh university who helped me set up a research project on my favourite disease, equine grass sickness (EGS). By coincidence, the opportunity to set up the nationwide EGS surveillance scheme arose near the end of my masters, so I began work with Dr Richard Newton and the Animal Health Trust's (AHT) epidemiology department in Newmarket.
Eighteen months later I began a joint AHT/RVC PhD on the epidemiology of equine laminitis, which finished in 2012. I moved to the RVC to work on a VetCompass pilot study; during this project I was asked to write a systematic review on canine leishmaniosis in Barcelona. My passion is horses though, so following this I moved back to Newmarket as the position at Rossdales is perfect for me.
What does your job involve?
To me, clinical research is the veterinary equivalent of being a forensic detective – gathering information, looking for clues, deciding which clues are relevant to each case, testing the evidence for flaws, making a decision and explaining to others what it is you've found.
A lot of my day is spent extracting data from clinical files, reading previous studies, and writing new information for magazines, websites, conferences or peer-reviewed journals. We've just published a study on supporting limb laminitis and a case report on a previously undescribed complication of endotracheal intubation. I'm also part of the ‘care about laminitis’ study team – a new PhD project following healthy horses and ponies to further identify risk factors for laminitis.
And this year I studied three MSc modules: epidemiology and animal health economics; statistical methods in veterinary epidemiology; and veterinary public health. In this pursuit, I've spent many hours reading about study design, data analysis, zoonoses, and even the complexities of cleaning and disinfecting slaughterhouse floors.
What do you like about it?
It's rewarding generating new information that clinical vets, other researchers, owners and others can use to improve the wellbeing of their animals. There is also a tangible sense of achievement, whether it's having a paper published or being invited to speak at a conference. Being a researcher doesn't mean that you are stuck at a desk all day (not all the time anyway), and I've been lucky enough to present my research in locations including Durban in South Africa and West Palm Beach in Florida.
What do you not like?
Part of the nature of the job is dealing with criticism of your work at every level, and you often feel like you've never done quite well enough.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?
Decide what species/diseases you are interested in and talk to people you respect about how you can be involved in studying them. My entire career has evolved through word of mouth opportunities, and sometimes you need other people to steer you down a track that you didn't know existed. A veterinary degree is a key to many doors, not just that of clinical practice, so focus on what you're good at and don't spend too much time trying to do things you're bad at.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
You only regret the things you don't do.
What was your proudest moment?
The first time someone requested a copy of my PhD thesis (as a student you're warned that only your supervisors and examiners will ever read it!).
Also, this year my 31-year-old pony, Shamrock, was awarded the British Horse Society Scotland's Tarragon Trophy for Equine Personality of the Year. He's been a member of my family for over 20 years, and features as the logo I designed for the AHT's nationwide EGS surveillance scheme. I feel proud spotting him in tack shops and car windows across the country.