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From practice to PhD: how a passion for cats led to ground-breaking research

Abstract

Vet Nathalie Dowgray graduated from Massey University in 2002 and came to the UK to work in practice. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Liverpool university looking at ageing in cats.

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According to family legend, at the age of six, while collecting the family cats from their holiday at the local boarding cattery, I announced that I would like to be a ‘cat house lady’ when I grew up. My school teachers and parents were quick to encourage me to think about being a vet instead and, unlike many of my childhood peers, my ambitions did not change.

It was my empathy for animals, coupled with my aptitude for science and maths that led me into the veterinary profession, although running a cattery was – and is still –my retirement dream.

I’ve never really had a career plan and I think like many young vets at the time, I assumed I would always stay in clinical practice.

At the start of the millennium, Massey University in New Zealand had a focus on producing mixed practice vets because they were most in demand. Like many in my graduating class, my first job was a 50:50 mixture of large animal and companion animal work. Having spent a good proportion of my training learning how to work with larger animals, it was nice to cement those skills, even though I knew I wouldn’t stay in mixed practice for a prolonged amount of time.

My CV

  • 2002: graduated from Massey University, New Zealand

  • 2002-2010: general practice in New Zealand and the UK

  • 2010-2014: Cats Protection

  • 2014-2016: Shelter Medicine Team, Royal Veterinary College

  • 2016-present: Liverpool university PhD student

I came to the UK in 2004 with a plan to travel and work to clear some of my student loan. I spent 18 months working in the Channel Islands and then did some locum work that allowed me to see a little more of the UK.

Locum work was challenging. It definitely made me an all-round vet, as it stopped me from getting stuck in my ways and contributed to me becoming more adaptable in my role. After a number of years though, I decided to accept a job in a larger hospital to improve my clinical skills.

Having always had an interest in cats, my CPD had a definite feline focus so, when a job came up with Cats Protection – to run the vet clinic at its National Cat Adoption Centre – I pounced on the opportunity and started working there in 2010. I was surprised to find how useful my herd management skills were – it just involved cats instead of cows – and my interest in epidemiology was fuelled as I needed to manage infectious diseases in the shelter on a day-to-day basis. During my time with the charity, I passed my feline membership exams for the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists.

The experience and knowledge I gained were ideal for my next role as a member of the Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC’s) developing shelter medicine team at the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital in Camden. I also enrolled to do a masters degree through Edinburgh university, studying international animal welfare, ethics and law.

It was fantastic being a student again although technology had advanced remarkably since I had graduated – it was a steep learning curve. At the same time it was interesting to be at the front line of teaching final-year vet students at the RVC and witnessing the diversity in their skills and career plans.

Today’s vet students are a different generation to mine. I admire their determination, focus and maturity, but it’s harder for them – the price they pay for their education means they do not seem to be able to have as much fun as we were able to as undergraduates.

Learning about myself

I learnt a lot about myself too. The exposure that I had to vets who had followed different careers out of practice made me start to think about my own career path for the first time.

Studying a new but related field as a mature student was exciting and I realised that PhDs were not just for super smart people, but for anyone with an interest, motivation and the ability to take a pay cut to achieve it.

I was considering doing a PhD once I had finished my masters, when I saw one advertised at Liverpool. Although it was starting about a year before my masters graduation date, I decided there’d be no harm in applying, as the experience would be useful. During the interview and a tour of the clinic I decided that if I was offered the position, I would accept it.

I was, and I did, which meant that I didn’t get to finish my masters (I graduated with a PGDip instead), which was unfortunate, but I have no regrets about embarking on my PhD.

My research project, which focuses on feline ageing, involves trying to understand what processes occur in middle-aged cats that eventually triggers and affects the ageing process in later life. The project is a nice blend of clinical and non-clinical work. I am also learning a lot of skills that I wouldn’t have learnt in the clinical veterinary world, including computer programming and biomechanics, while keeping my clinical skills up to date.

Nathalie measures cats’ blood pressure (above) and uses ultrasound to look at muscle mass (left) as part of her PhD at the University of Liverpool’s Feline Ageing Clinic, which is supported by Royal Canin

I think we forget that the skills that enabled us to be accepted into vet school, to graduate from vet school and successfully work in clinical practice are the same ones that can take us anywhere we choose to go.

There are advantages to being a mature student: life and work experiences enable you to cope well

There are advantages to being a ‘mature’ PhD student; life experience and work experience enable you to cope well with the pressure and time demands. Undertaking a clinical PhD with the benefit of my own experience and observations from over 10 years in practice have also helped shape my project.

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You are never too old for a career change

My take-home message to others is: don’t be afraid to step out of clinical practice, you are never too old for a career change and we have an extensive range of skills that make us employable. I don’t know what is next in my slightly meandering career path, but I am excited about what may appear on the horizon.

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