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Ten-minute chat
  1. Dan Tucker

Abstract

Dan Tucker is a senior lecturer in veterinary public health and pig medicine at Cambridge. He recently won an international award for his work in developing an in vitro model that can be used for investigating infectious respiratory diseases of livestock.

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What made you go into veterinary research?

I firmly believe that we always have things to learn – how to detect disease and better control it, how to manage livestock and companion animals more humanely, etc. For me, being active in veterinary research is a natural way of following this philosophy.

How did you get to where you are today?

By being an opportunist! During a large animal studies internship at Cambridge in 1993, I came across a research programme at the medical school developing transgenic pigs as organ donors for people. That led me to a PhD developing an in vitro model of pig-to-human transplant rejection, and then to a veterinary and microbiological safety role at Imutran, a spin-out biotech company focused on xenotransplantation. All good things come to an end, and in 2001 the xeno-bubble burst.

I spent the next two years working part-time in pig practice in East Anglia, and providing pig-related advice to a number of different companies, but especially the pig breeding company PIC. With a strong background in zoonotic diseases, admittedly with a bias towards pigs, something about me must have appealed to the selection panel at Cambridge university when the role of lecturer in veterinary public health was created in 2003. With the university lectureship came a fellowship at Pembroke College, where I act as director of studies for its vet students and tutor (non-academic support) for undergraduate engineering and classics students.

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How do you spend a typical day?

It's unpredictable and varied. In term time a typical day will involve scurrying around finding and updating last year's notes on a lecture I am to deliver later that day. Aside from lectures, we run small group sessions and postmortem room sessions to tackle typical everyday state veterinary medicine and veterinary public health scenarios. On a couple of days a week I typically drive into college (feeling guilty that I did not cycle) for lunch, including a mandatory steamed pudding, before a slightly drowsy tutorial session where arising issues can be as diverse as they are challenging. Afternoons can be filled in a variety of ways, including marking student assessments, meeting veterinary students and PhD students, developing research grant proposals, and writing or reviewing scientific papers.

Outside terms, the emphasis switches to research and clinical pig work. We are refining our in vitro organ culture system for use with pig tissues as part of a new respiratory vaccine development initiative using high-throughput sequence-based screening of live vaccine candidates. I keep in close contact with the pig veterinary world, getting involved in second-opinion work, technical advice for vaccine companies and breeding companies, and some legal work.

What do you like about your job?

The people, the variety and the intellectual challenge of clinical work, teaching and research.

What do you not like?

Driving to Cambridge from our home near Newmarket in rush hour traffic.

Why is your job important?

The most important thing for me is the role I play in shaping the mind-set of our future veterinarians. They need to be able to communicate at all levels, and to have a science- and evidence-based approach to their profession that will allow them to contribute to policy and its delivery on local, national and global animal-human interface issues.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

Do it. I would go through all the training again if I had to.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Speak to people as you would expect to be spoken to. This has served me well in all sorts of places. I have come to realise that we make largely our own luck in life. The broader your network of contacts, the broader your opportunities. To me, luck is about recognising those opportunities and being prepared for change.

What was your proudest moment?

Admission to membership of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

The ones I can safely mention typically involve mistaking men for women and vice versa, when I used to locum in small animal practice. Eventually I learned to call clients in by their pets' names! Completely blanking out on names when thanking guest lecturers in front of students is another unfortunate habit.

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