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January 01, 2021

Pawsibilities aims to bring diversity to mentorship

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Pawsibilities Vet Med, a nonprofit platform dedicated to recruitment and retention of diverse students in veterinary medicine, is working to connect people from underrepresented backgrounds interested in the veterinary profession to opportunities and potential mentors and advisers within the field.

Dr. Valerie Marcano and Seth Andrews, PhD, are the married couple behind the company. Dr. Marcano is a poultry technical consultant at Elanco Animal Health and chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the American Association of Avian Pathologists. Dr. Andrews is a process engineer with Precision BioSciences.

The two met at Cornell University during undergrad, and later, the two attended the University of Georgia, where Dr. Marcano went to the College of Veterinary Medicine while Dr. Andrews studied biological engineering.

Dr. Marcano (left) and Seth Andrews (right)
Dr. Valerie Marcano and Seth Andrews, PhD, are the founders of Pawsibilities Vet Med, a nonprofit platform dedicated to recruitment and retention of diverse students in veterinary medicine. (Courtesy of Drs. Marcano and Andrews)

The idea for Pawsibilities first came about at UGA during an Animal Health Hackathon, an event focused on innovation in animal health. It developed further at Georgia’s National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program, which seeks to develop discoveries into technologies.

JAVMA News spoke with Drs. Marcano and Andrews about their goals and how the Pawsibilities platform works. Their answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Get more information about Pawsibilities Vet Med.

Q. Can you tell me your backgrounds?

Dr. Marcano: I grew up in the Dominican Republic, and my mom is a veterinarian there. So there were people who looked like me being veterinarians. I was around it. But when I moved to the U.S. and realized I also wanted to go into veterinary medicine, it was surprising to me that people didn’t look like me. I knew that not everyone would, but the lack of diversity was obvious, and it was shocking.

Dr. Andrews: I have been veterinary adjacent for a while because I was married to Valerie as she went through veterinary school, and I have done several research collaborations. During grad school, I realized how important mentorship is. I have had several mentors and mentees, and I have seen mentoring relationships play out around me. Regardless of whether they were good or bad, they had a huge impact on the mentee.

Q. Can you explain the platform and your goals for it?

Dr. Andrews: Our schooling got in the way for a year or two while I finished my PhD and Valerie finished veterinary school. But this past spring, especially the events of this summer including the murder of George Floyd, lit a fire under us to continue with this project again.

Dr. Marcano: With COVID, we got more time at home, and with all the events of this past spring and summer around systemic racism, it gave us the motivation we needed. We started asking: How can we contribute? What can we be doing?

Dr. Andrews: Pawsibilities has a few main pillars. It is a social network where you can connect with other people who are underrepresented in veterinary medicine. Our main focus is on mentoring. We have it set up so you can connect with individuals who are like you in veterinary medicine. There is an automated matching feature or a shopping interface that uses what you want in a mentor to search. For example, if you are a person with a disability and you are interested in learning about how other people with disabilities make it work in veterinary medicine, you can find that.

The other pillar is professional development, not only in veterinary medicine but also in diversity, equity, and inclusion and other professional skills that are broadly applicable.

Q. What’s the process like to sign up?

Dr. Marcano: Everyone is required to complete training on diversity, inclusion, and mentoring. It outlines what is expected of a mentor and a mentee and how to navigate that. The training is about an hour and a half, which is keeping people from joining, but we see it as this: If you are willing to mentor, you need to have the training. We want to provide good mentorship.

We have 80 people now, and 20 are completing the training. One or two people try to join every day.

We would like to see a more extensive list of mentors and mentees. We want to have full-time employees to monitor the platform and do outreach, but we both have full-time jobs, and because we want to provide this free of charge to overcome some socioeconomic barriers, we are actively searching for partnerships or funding so we can do that.