Last summer Lauren Hamstead took part in the Leadership Program for Veterinary Students at Cornell University in the USA, funded by a Wellcome Trust scholarship. The experience is designed for students who want to pursue a career in research, rather than general practice
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AS vets, everything we do is underpinned by science and research, yet few veterinary students consider a career in research. The 2012 leadership programme brought together 27 students from across the world, including four from UK vet schools. The experience gave me the opportunity to do a research project, and participate in modules designed to improve skills such as critical thinking and careers counselling.
When I started veterinary school I was interested in research for two main reasons. Having done biology, chemistry and physics at A level I was interested in hypothesis- driven experiments and, in particular, how the pieces of a biological system fit together. Secondly, my father, a pharmacist, told me that research wasn't interesting, and that somehow made it more appealing. I really enjoyed the reproduction teaching of the veterinary course, so at the end of my first year I did a 10-week summer project at the Royal Veterinary College on dairy cow reproduction and genetics.
As a result, I decided that reproduction was what I was most interested in. Reading around the field of reproductive immunology, combined with my clinical interest in equine medicine led me to approach Mandi de Mestre to act as my supervisor, first in a lab-based project and then for my dissertation during my intercalated degree (a retrospective epidemiological study of pregnancy loss in thoroughbred mares in Newmarket). This was different from lab-based research and allowed me to interact with vets and stud farms to collect data. I found this experience equally rewarding and was able to present the results of the study at a conference.
Experiences at Cornell
While at Cornell, I undertook a research project at the Baker Institute for Animal Health, supervised by Scott Coonrod. Again, the subject was reproduction but this time studying the role of maternal effect genes in early embryo development. My project allowed me to learn new practical skills and understand a different area of reproduction, but also gave me invaluable experience of lab meetings and planning my time around other modules.
Having completed my intercalated degree in 2011, my questions about going into research with a veterinary degree were largely centred on the added value that clinical training would add to my basic science knowledge. The answer I found was ‘quite a lot actually’. The problem-solving skills and clinical reasoning taught in vet schools lends itself well to hypothesis-driven research. Vets have a holistic and practical understanding of problems that basic scientists may not. If your ambition is to make discoveries that will improve the health of animals, knowledge of the pathogenesis or treatment of conditions is an asset. Another thing that struck me was that a vet's unique perspective on comparative biology is a huge advantage, because disease research is often done in model organisms rather than the target species.
One of the best parts of the experience for me was meeting the other students. It was brilliant to be around people with similar ambitions and interests to myself; I learned as much from them as the programme itself. In our free time we went on trips to New York, Toronto and Washington DC; we also went paintballing and just spent time together in the evenings. We even took part in the local dragon-boat racing day. I've kept in touch with quite a few of them, sometimes just to ask for advice and plan to see them whenever I can.
An unexpected outcome of the experience for me was to become more interested in how science is communicated to the general public. Vets, who are trained to explain clinical findings to lay people, are well placed to do this, and it is something the science community as a whole could improve at. We discussed the role of creativity in science directly during a module, but my inspiration also came from exposure to all the other creative interests of my peers.
For my own efforts I started a blog, but quickly found that writing about science lends itself well to tackling all sorts of topical issues and this is something that I plan to continue and develop in the future.
I have strong memories of being a bit bewildered by all the career options I heard about at Cornell. Having decided research was for me, I was convinced I'd made the major decisions, but now I'm questioning whether I want to work in academia or industry, do specialist clinical training, move to human reproduction, study in the UK or abroad. These options might be a bit overwhelming initially, but the end result is being able to make an informed decision, and I am very grateful to everyone associated with the programme for facilitating that. Furthermore, I think that if more students aware of the range of careers that are available to them, many more would be inspired to explore them further.
My career plans at the moment are, broadly, to graduate, to do a PhD and work mostly in academia, because I really want to teach, but I would also like to work in industry. I have a pretty good idea of what subject I'd like to study, but I've learned that making detailed plans isn't important – I graduate in 2015 and may have a very different perspective by then. Wherever I end up, I am certain that my experiences on the Leadership Program will be of great value.