The next generation of veterinary research

Hundreds of student scholars spent their summer in the laboratory
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Dr. Peter C. Doherty (right) gave the keynote address at the 2015 Merial–National Institutes of Health National Veterinary Scholars Symposium, which took place July 30-Aug. 2 at the University of California-Davis. (Photos courtesy of Trina Wood/UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine)

Even though Dr. Peter C. Doherty is the only veterinarian to ever receive the Nobel Prize—sharing it with Swiss immunologist and pathologist Rolf Zinkernagel, MD, in 1996 in the category of physiology or medicine—Dr. Doherty said research veterinarians have long played a role in public health.

His remark may have been preaching to the choir as he was giving the keynote address at the 2015 Merial–National Institutes of Health National Veterinary Scholars Symposium, which took place July 30-Aug. 2 at the University of California-Davis.

The Nobel laureates received the honor for discovering in the early ’70s how T cells recognize virus-infected cells by looking for variants in certain molecules—histocompatibility antigens—on the surface of infected cells. But Dr. Doherty, a professor at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences and a member of the Department of Immunology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, since 1988, was quick to point out that their research was built on the work of others.

“I get a lot of credit for work a whole group of people do,” Dr. Doherty said. “The collaborative research happening now is really being driven by young people—old guys like me have to get out of the way.”

Judging by the work that was on display at the symposium, Dr. Doherty may have a point about young researchers. More than 400 veterinary student scholars from across the U.S. attended the conference, which drew more than 600 participants, including leading researchers and educators from around the world. “Solving Complex Challenges at the Interface of Humans, Animals, and their Environment” was this year’s theme.

Katti Horng of University of California-Davis presents research at the symposium on the use of fecal microbiota transplantation in dogs.

Since 1989, Merial has funded the Veterinary Scholars Program to provide an opportunity for first- and second-year U.S. veterinary students to participate in a biomedical research project in a laboratory or clinical setting during the summer. Doing so has allowed them to experience firsthand the process of research and help them understand potential pathways for establishing a research career.

Seminars and discussion groups on careers in science are part of the experience, which culminates with the symposium. The program works with the participating veterinary schools, Merial, the NIH, AVMA, and several other institutions to support a talented pool of veterinary students who are interested in biomedical research and comparative medicine.

Jessica Drakeford of Mississippi State University explains her research topic to a fellow student.

Winners of the 2015 Young Investigator Award, co-sponsored by the AVMA and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, were announced during the weekend. The Young Investigator Award is given to graduate veterinarians pursuing advanced research training through doctoral or postdoctoral programs who present their research at the symposium. The top three finalists were as follows:

  • Dr. Johanna Elfenbein of North Carolina State University took first place with “Multicopy single-stranded DNA directs intestinal colonization of enteric pathogens.” She received a $2,500 honorarium.
  • Dr. Greg Brennan of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle took second place with “Gene amplification provides a molecular foothold for viral transmission and adaptation to new species.” He received $1,000.
  • Dr. Annie Newell-Fugate of Texas A&M University took third place with “Virilizing concentrations of serum testosterone in females may affect insulin signaling in adipose tissue.” She received $500.
Dr. Johanna Elfenbein of North Carolina State University won the 2015 Young Investigator Award.

The 2015 Merial Veterinary Scholars Award went to Geoffrey Zann (Florida ’17) for his research project “Effect of tibial plateau leveling osteotomy on patellofemoral kinematics in dogs with cranial cruciate ligament insufficiency: an in-vivo study.”

The AVMA and AVMF also presented awards for excellence in research.

In addition to presenting their research, students heard from renowned scientists, including Dr. Brad Fenwick, a professor of pathobiology and microbiology at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, on “The big data future of biomedical research”; Richard P. Woychik, PhD, deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, on “Strategic priorities for environmental health science”; and Dr. Brian Bird, a veterinary medical officer in the viral special pathogens branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on “Synergies between the bench and the field: Rift Valley fever and Ebola.”

Next year’s symposium will be held July 29-Aug. 1 at The Ohio State University.

Related JAVMA content:

Veterinarian won Nobel for immunology research (Dec. 1, 2011)

Research symposium gets further AVMA, AVMF support (June 1, 2014)