Rejecting marine biology as a career, Mark Wessels did a veterinary degree. He moved from practice to diagnostic pathology and then to the State Veterinary Service. He now heads the histopathology team at Finn Pathologists, where he has gone almost full circle as he finds himself developing a large animal diagnostic and pathology service
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I GREW up surrounded by animals and was fascinated by the natural world. Like many teenage boys of my time I was under the influence of the Jacques Cousteau effect and thought marine biology would be the thing to do. As the reality grew that this might involve grubbing around in cold, dark seawater, I thought better of it and decided that a career in veterinary medicine would probably be just as interesting! And so I beat a path to the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). I enjoyed the learning experience the course brought and the range and diversity of subjects taught. Qualifying in 1986, I decided I needed to consolidate what I had learnt and went into practice. Over the following 12 years working in a number of different practices with different species, I built up my clinical knowledge and also got to understand people much more – something that is so important in practice and in management.
However, as I progressed I felt a growing sense of frustration – I was dealing with disease (and health) on a daily basis but didn't know enough about the underlying processes. At the age of 35 in the mid-1990s, opportunities to go back to college were limited. I knew that I wanted to continue with production animal work and so when the then Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) advertised for a veterinary investigation (VI) officer I took the opportunity to join and moved to the laboratory at Barton Hall, Preston. I was fortunate to work alongside knowledgeable and experienced staff at the start of my career with the VLA. The learning curve was steep, but the years in practice allowed me to relate what I saw in the postmortem room to the clinical picture, which is something that I feel needs to be emphasised more at an undergraduate level.
With encouragement and the support of others such as Ranald Munro, Sandra Scholes and the VLA itself, I embarked on training for Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists. This less conventional pathway (most undertake residency training in the diagnostic disciplines) brought me into contact with many other organisations, their staff and pathology residents, all of whom, because of the fundamental interest in trying to understand disease and its effects, were a pleasure to work alongside.
The theme of cooperation is important in pathology – without listening to others' thoughts and opinions and working collaboratively you will not enjoy the work as much – and definitely not achieve as much. In a world of ever-decreasing funding, developing close working relationships with other organisations and people is vital.
Diagnostic pathology is, perhaps, not perceived as a particularly glamorous side of veterinary work. It does, though, rely on a good grasp of the clinical aspects of disease and an understanding of the underlying disease processes. Knowledge of other testing modalities and their application is important, as is the ability to convey relevant information to clinicians. We learn much from those dealing directly with disease and it is important to build links so we can work alongside clinicians to resolve disease problems.
It should not be forgotten that diagnostic pathology will always be at the forefront of detecting new diseases. Developing closer clinical and pathology collaboration would be highly advantageous at all levels in veterinary science/practice. Unfortunately, pathology as a discipline in the UK has been somewhat neglected in recent years – and this may come back to haunt us in the future.
One aspect of my career that I have been privileged to be involved with is as an examiner for the Royal College of Pathologists. Training others, whether they are residents, colleagues or practitioners, is important. I recall Stephen May from the RVC saying that the situation of each generation having to re-learn knowledge acquired by but not transferred from the previous generation was simply not sustainable. This struck a chord with me with respect to pathology. Relaying information to others is as important as receiving it, and working with others to maintain and raise standards and to develop a future robust branch of the profession is vital for the future of disease investigation as a whole.
After nearly 13 years in what was by then the AHVLA, I was encouraged by Alasdair Cook, head of surveillance, to take on a management role looking after surveillance pathology. I saw this as an opportunity to get a better overview of how pathology fitted into the wider landscape of government and the livestock industry as a whole. With it came new challenges of personnel and resource management, but falling back on my years in practice and what I had learnt at the VLA allowed me to manage a diverse team spread over many different sites in the country. This was not an easy task due to ever-decreasing resources.
After a 16-year spell in the civil service, I moved to the commercial world joining Finn Pathologists in Norfolk in 2014. As head of histopathology, I have the opportunity to manage perhaps one of the largest groups of diagnostic pathologists in the UK, if not Europe, under one roof. Identifying the team's strengths and weaknesses, building resilience and developing new areas of work are as important in industry as in government or academia. Training staff is one way to develop individuals and we have strong ties with the RVC to facilitate this, playing on the themes of collaboration and education that I feel are important.
Yet I have not left my roots in large animal diagnostics and pathology. With changes in government thinking come new opportunities. Working with ex-VI colleagues both at Finn Pathologists and Axiom Laboratories, we are developing and rolling out a large animal diagnostic and pathology laboratory service for practitioners – a new challenge that I relish. Training staff and veterinary practitioners, as well as providing a sound laboratory service, allows me to continue my own development and that of others in this area. Working with other organisations in the future to ensure large animal practitioners can still help get good food on people's plates is as important to me as it is to our farmers.
So far, it probably has been more interesting than marine biology but I still enjoy the natural world and, although I don't dive, I enjoy being either on or near the sea!