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Opening the door to a new world of study
  1. Polly Compston


Volunteer veterinary work abroad stimulated Polly Compston to enrol on a Masters in epidemiology and public health while doing a residency in clinical research in Newmarket. Here, she shares some of the adventures that led her away from the career in mixed practice that she had envisaged

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I GRADUATED from Edinburgh in 2007, having decided to leave academia behind me, and took up a job in mixed practice in East Anglia, where I enjoyed meeting different people and their animals, and the variety of clinical work. After 18 months I decided to spread my wings and do some veterinary volunteer work abroad. This was a turning point for me and the next two years were spent intermittently travelling as a vet volunteer and working as a locum. I even spent some time as a scientific editor for Brain, a neurology journal.

My experiences abroad began in Marrakesh, at the SPANA hospital for working equids. The strong dependence between people and the animals that they used to sustain their livelihoods had a big impact on me – this is not a pet-owner relationship, the animals are essential to generate income and provide for their owners' families. I especially enjoyed working at veterinary clinics that took place alongside local markets in the Atlas Mountains, outside the busy city in a more rural environment.

My next adventure was in Trinidad, where I spent some time in a companion animal practice. This was followed by a longer trip through Latin America, where I participated in a wide range of urban and rural community-based clinics in a variety of places, from the centre of the old town in Panama city, overlooking container ships passing through the canal, to Isabella Island in the Galapagos where there are no metalled roads. Throughout all these experiences I welcomed the opportunity to share my education with, and, more often, to be educated by, the local vets and vet students.

Intellectual challenge

Although at the end of my vet school training I had envisaged becoming the archetypal mixed general practitioner, the reality was that I missed the intellectual challenge of learning. It is a stereotype to travel and ‘find yourself’, but spending time in different situations and with different people did give me the space to identify the factors that motivated me. I was struck by the close interrelation between animals and people in many of the countries that I visited, and how the nature of that reliance differed from the often more emotional connection seen in the UK.

Having identified that I wanted to learn more about international population health, I started researching how I could achieve this.


The opportunity to become the resident in clinical research at the Rossdales equine practice in Newmarket seemed to fulfil my aspirations: it included enrolment on the distance-learning Masters course in veterinary epidemiology and public health at the Royal Veterinary College in London, offered the opportunity to work alongside leading clinicians and researchers, and, as I was living in Cambridge already, seemed a perfect fit.

Luckily, they thought so too, and I started my new job in January 2011. It was a steep learning curve, having to brush up on a lot of equine surgery and medicine, not to mention the epidemiology and statistics that I had never anticipated having to relearn. But it was also very exciting to be part of such a vibrant veterinary community and to learn new skills.

Stitching a wound above a mule's eye at the SPANA hospital in Marrakesh in 2009 

Working in the Bahamas earlier this year with Operation Potcake, a large-scale sterilisation programme organised by the charity Animal Balance. Over 10 days a total of 2315 dogs were spayed or castrated

Children in north Peru listening to their puppy's heartbeat with a stethoscope

The residency is offered by the Beaufort Cottage Educational Trust, based at Rossdales Equine Hospital, and supported by the Margaret Giffen Trust. It was set up after a chance meeting between Richard Payne, one of the partners at Rossdales, and a trustee of the Margaret Giffen Trust, a charitable foundation which, among other aims, supports equine-related causes. One of the frustrations of private practice is the lack of time for clinicians to perform effective clinical research, despite the large amount of clinical data accumulated in the hospital.

The Masters programme has been thoroughly enjoyable. I have found studying topics like economics, which I had never even thought about previously, very interesting. Distance learning can be a challenge (especially when you can't make the statistical software package do what you want it to do) although I am lucky to have support from colleagues at the Animal Health Trust, and the RVC holds online tutorials and message boards. It requires considerable self-motivation, but this is helped by the stimulating course content. Overall, the learning experience has not been too painful, despite a month of panic at exam time every October. The main benefit over a traditional residential MSc has been the ability to apply my new knowledge as I go along, making the curriculum directly relevant.

When not working on the Masters course, my main role at the hospital is to design, execute and report on a variety of clinical studies. Peter Rossdale is a pioneer of quality investigation and evidence-based medicine within the equine profession, so the hospital has a strong history of producing sound research. One of the principal aims of my position is to publish and present the work produced, and I have really enjoyed being able to use my writing skills in this process. Although nervous at first about presenting my work in front of the scientific community, I was delighted to receive the Sam Hignett award at BEVA congress for my first effort in 2011, an abstract reporting on standing fracture repair in racehorses. Attending and presenting at a variety of international conferences is a great part of the job, and I always come back energised and enthused by the people I have met.

As the residency draws to a close at the end of 2013, I want to consolidate and build on the training I have received. I am currently exploring options to pursue a PhD in animal health economics and policy; my particular interest lies in the contribution that animals make to people's livelihoods in developing countries.

Gaining confidence; looking ahead

My time at Rossdales has definitely had a huge positive impact on my career; not only by increasing my professional portfolio, but also my confidence. Although occasionally I miss some elements of clinical practice, I enjoy greater all-round satisfaction from my work now, and feel that I am moving forward – the advantages of a veterinary qualification are that doors open in front of you but do not shut behind you. I am looking forward to moving on to the next challenges that my career in veterinary epidemiology will bring, and would recommend to anybody who is considering making a similar change in their career path to grab the opportunity when it arises.

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