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Global knowledge for a global profession
  1. Elaine Watson

Abstract

In 2012, Elaine Watson moved from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh to take up the role of dean of the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. Explaining how the school is developing to meet the challenges facing veterinary education, she argues that ‘going global’ is essential to the future of veterinary medicine

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I LOOK out my office window on a November morning and see blue skies, a yacht bobbing on the aquamarine Caribbean Sea, and palm trees. The chatter of students outside is tempered by the drone of construction as buildings are torn down and, in their place, new versions erected to reflect veterinary educational demands of the mid-21st century.

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So how did I get here? How did a European specialist in veterinary reproduction wind up on a tropical island in the Caribbean? It started in 2011, when a well-known US recruitment agency contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in leading Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM), one of the largest AVMA-accredited schools in the world – and the only veterinary programme delivered by a publicly-held company, DeVry Education Group, one of the largest private providers of postsecondary education in the USA. Intrigued, I read the job description. It contained the phrase ‘can operate equally well in the world of business and of academia . . .’. I was hooked. I had broken the glass ceiling at Edinburgh being the first female veterinary professor, the first female head of the Dick Vet and the second at an AVMA-accredited school. A new challenge was just what I needed. Very quickly, I was whisked to an interview in New York, on a whirlwind visit to Miami and St Kitts, and then to a new life, leading a veterinary programme in the Caribbean – including the full range of infrastructure needed to operate a university campus, from gardeners, IT and security teams, to some of the world's top veterinary professors. This move took many of my peers by surprise; however, I had already worked internationally. I had been a professor in the USA and lectured all over the world. I was becoming progressively more involved in working with developing countries. I was ready for another global experience.

Like many of my students, I knew I wanted to be a vet from before the age of 10. While attending the University of Glasgow, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life; I wanted to work with horses. After I explored the opportunities that the veterinary world could offer, I realised I wanted to do more – research, gain global experience, influence the world around me and make a difference. So I needed to learn more. I completed a masters degree in reproduction and, after working for MAFF (now Defra) and the Agricultural and Food Research Council as a research scientist for four years, I was advised by one of the most famous Dick Vet alumni, Lord Soulsby, to earn a PhD, which I did, at the University of Bristol. I was now a bona fide academic.

Working in the USA

My international experience started in the USA, as assistant professor of equine reproduction and head of the endocrine laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. This move proved probably to be the most influential in shaping my career, giving me first-class clinical reproduction experience in an Ivy League environment, which nurtured and rewarded research and leadership skills. I was later persuaded to return to Scotland by Richard Halliwell, joining the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and leading in various capacities as head of reproduction, head of postgraduate studies, and then as dean in 2003. At Edinburgh, I was initially a teacher, clinician and researcher, working with residents and veterinary and postgraduate students to publish papers on endometritis, ovarian activity and oocyte maturation.

Leadership role

After becoming dean at the Dick Vet, life changed. I worked with the university leadership on a number of projects, including construction of a new teaching building and cancer centre; incorporation of the Roslin Institute with the vet school; formation of a research consortium, including Moredun and the Scottish Agricultural College, to transform the veterinary field station into the Easter Bush Campus; funding for the establishment of the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education, with its international partnerships in China, India, and Hong Kong; developing a strategic research and training relationship with Pfizer Animal Health; and the establishment of a number of international masters programmes, including a masters in One Health.

At RUSVM, all of my previous experience working with academics and corporate partners has come together. With the support of a strong top team – Daniel Hamburger, CEO of DeVry Education Group, other members of the leadership council of DeVry, and the RUSVM board – the school has transformed over the past two years, from a teaching-led school, to a school that is positioned to give students the widest possible education in a research-informed environment. While RUSVM still gives students excellent hands-on clinical experience, and acts as a leader in clinical skills and simulated patients (the 2014 INVEST [International Veterinary Simulation in Teaching] conference is being hosted here), within the RUSVM Center for Research and Innovation in Veterinary and Medical Education, RUSVM has invested significantly in developing its One Health and conservation research programmes.

Through targeted recruitment of leaders in their field, collaborations and partnerships with top universities, institutes and practices, faculty members participate in research projects totalling over US$21 million from grant-awarding bodies, industry, corporates and governments, and have authored almost 100 scientific papers in the past year. We have recruited faculty members from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the world's top universities to give students the opportunity to become deeply involved in research. I'm proud that around 400 of our students participate annually in research projects – in the knowledge that being a coauthor on a paper is prerequisite for acceptance onto a residency training programme – and all students receive a credit-bearing taught course taught on the principles of veterinary research.

Educational challenge

The big challenge for veterinary education is relevance, as societal needs change, with a looming global food security crisis by 2050. Tropical countries are particularly vulnerable to emerging and re-emerging infectious agents due to geographical position, increased international travel, drug resistance and climatic and environmental changes. RUSVM's location in the Caribbean, a region rich in contrasting ecosystems and socioeconomic situations, public health issues and close animal-human interactions, provides the perfect backdrop for conducting surveillance and research programmes of strategic importance to the developing world.

A One Health approach to tackling these problems is essential, as it facilitates the implementation of research across all facets of disease. Zoonoses still represent the most significant public health threat, but many of these diseases are neglected. They affect hundreds of thousands of people, especially in developing countries, although most of them can be prevented. RUSVM's One Health Center for Zoonoses and Tropical Veterinary Medicine has been created specifically to have impact on these issues. Conservation is another important theme in the school, and studies on artificial coral reefs, the endangered marine species that inhabit them, fish diseases, turtle conservation programmes and management of introduced species contribute significantly to preservation of ecosystems and the environment, and are supported within the RUSVM Centre for Conservation Medicine and Ecosystem Health. Student immersion in an environment that provides scope to develop and learn about issues that are only talked about in most classrooms is vital to the future of the veterinary profession if vets are going to seize the opportunity to become leaders in the global healthcare team. Today's world is no longer about the city you work in or the town you call home; it is a world of connectivity – a place where continents, countries and small towns collide. As veterinary educators we have a global market, and tomorrow's veterinarians need to be ready to practise in a global society, where human and animal health care providers are partners.

Doing more globally

The health and welfare of animals will always be the central mission of veterinarians, and the care of companion animals is the main activity in veterinary practice. Research has reinforced the importance of the human-animal bond and of our pets in our health and wellbeing. However, veterinary medicine has the scope to do so much more on a global scale. Encouraging others to do something non-traditional, going global, and being an impactful veterinarian and researcher are only highlighted through worldwide experiences. It is one thing to articulate the benefits of serving society through practising or undertaking research in a developing region, but it is another thing entirely to actively engage in this research.

Global trends will have profound effects on how the veterinary profession and researchers serve society and how veterinary professionals define their role in a rapidly changing world. Tomorrow's veterinarians will address challenges and embrace opportunities within a global context.

RUSVM's next top strategic goal is internationalisation of the student body. We aim to help students from around the world receive first-rate veterinary education and training in an environment where we live the school's motto: ‘Innovation. Opportunity. Now’. The RUSVM experience is definitely an alternative veterinary school environment, but a very powerful model in producing the veterinary leaders of the future.

Intake to the veterinary programme at RUSVM

Professor Watson explains: With an annual intake of well over 500 students, admitted in three semesters, RUSVM offers an accelerated programme, with course work totalling just three-and- a-third years. Approximately 95 per cent of our students are from the USA, and most will have already completed a three- or four- year science degree; however, the most talented students can join the programme after a two-year pre-vet training period. The first seven semesters are delivered on St Kitts, while the clinical year is undertaken at one of more than 20 North American affiliated vet schools or one of the newly affiliated Canadian schools.

The ethos of RUSVM has always been to give students a chance. A number of states in the USA do not have their own veterinary programme – and existing schools are oversubscribed. In the USA, 98 per cent of veterinary graduates are employed within one year of graduating, according to 2013 AAVMC Graduate Survey Report. There are significantly underserved sectors of society – a survey in 2012 revealed that millions of pets in the USA never see a vet, and between 10 and 30 per cent of cats and dogs see a vet only when they are ill (http://bit.ly/Rf8Zwc). Fewer than 1 per cent of USA pets are insured and, as in the UK, the profession still probably undercharges for its services. The formation of ‘Partners for Healthy Pets’, a committee of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, led by AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association and supported by corporates and industry, is making progress in promoting preventative healthcare, in parallel with economic recovery from the greatest recession since the great depression. Public health, agricultural practice, corporates, industry, government service and biomedical research still have shortages of trained veterinary surgeons. RUSVM aims to provide the education to allow more students to follow their dream.

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