Women veterinarians discuss their mentors, inspiring next generation

Veterinarians talk about their sources of support and sisterhood during Women's History Month

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, AVMA News spoke to three women veterinarians from across the profession about the value of mentorship, how they overcame challenges and embraced their strengths, and what advice they would give to girls interested in veterinary medicine. The answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Dr. Rena Carlson, AVMA president, responds:

Dr. Rena Carlson
Dr. Rena Carlson

Q. Tell me about your job.

A: I have been in clinical practice pretty much my whole career. I started at a practice in Pocatello, Idaho. I worked at that practice as a receptionist and came back as a veterinarian. Within a couple of years, I was able to buy in and was the owner for 25 years.

I served in the AVMA House of Delegates for 10 years, then on the AVMA Board of Directors. I was fortunate enough to be elected as AVMA president for 2023-24. I also work with new graduates through National Veterinary Associates as a general practice mentor.

Q. Have you always wanted to be a veterinarian?

A: You know, I'm actually one of the minorities in our profession in that regard. I didn’t start thinking about going to veterinary school until I was in my third year of undergrad. I had a lot of influence as a child growing up on a farm—we had all kinds of animals. But it really wasn’t something I thought of as a career until later.

I've had a few people tell me that I was “just a farm kid.” That there wasn’t a good chance I was going to get into veterinary school. So I said, “I’ll show you!”

Q. Who has inspired you? Any specific women in the profession?

A: I would point to the owners of the practice that I bought, Drs. Linda Merry and Jeff Anderson, who were very involved in organized veterinary medicine. Dr. Merry was president of the American Animal Hospital Association during my first year out of veterinary school.

I look at the number of women who were presidents of the Idaho VMA who I was able to work with, and then getting involved with AVMA. I think there were 17 women at the time in the entire House of Delegates. And so again, I looked up to those women for help with leadership, how they got to be where they were, and how I could be more like them.

Becoming a veterinarian, I didn’t think about being a woman. All of the veterinarians who I met as a kid growing up were all men. I had never met a woman veterinarian until I started working at Alpine Animal Hospital in Pocatello. I just thought, if there's something I want to do, I’m going to do it.  

Many of my mentors in my early career were men. I had lots of colleagues and friends in the profession that really encouraged me and helped me along the way.

Q. What does mentorship mean to you?

A: I’m continuing to develop my skills as a mentor. I feel like there’s so much to mentorship. It’s helping transfer knowledge. It’s coaching, encouraging, and challenging mentees to do new things. There are so many layers, and there are also so many different kinds of mentors. Mentorship is a very complex component of our profession.

The new graduates who I get to work with inspire me the most. They’re smart. They’re enthusiastic. They want to do the right thing. They want to develop as professionals and that makes me want to work harder as well.

Q. What are your strengths and challenges at this time in your career?

A: Well, as a mentor, I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is to just listen. The only way I can be the best help is to truly understand where someone else is coming from. I can come in with all my ideas and all my experience, but if I don’t meet someone where they’re at, I’m not going to be much help.

Q. Do you have any advice for young women interested in veterinary medicine? Or is there anything you wish you knew before pursuing the career?

A: When I look back on my career, there are very few things that I would change. The biggest thing is that I wish I learned some of my lessons a little faster.

I also wish I had looked into some of the leadership training opportunities earlier to understand how much control I had. Looking at my attitude and how I could influence the (practice) culture every day, and how I can influence our delivery of care, you know, just with my attitude.

In my mentorship, I'm hoping to impart some of that knowledge a little earlier. My advice is, if you’re passionate about veterinary medicine, it’s an amazing career. I don’t know where else you get to go to work every day and truly love what you do.

Dr. Joya Griffin, veterinary dermatologist and star of National Geographic Wild’s “Pop Goes the Vet With Dr. Joya” responds:

Dr. Joya Griffin
Dr. Joya Griffin (courtesy of Joya Griffin)

Q. Tell me about your job.

A: I am a boarded veterinary dermatologist in Louisville, Kentucky, and I’ve been practicing with Animal Dermatology Clinic since 2010. I really enjoy my job. I’ve been fortunate to only have one job, which I think is somewhat rare among veterinarians.

Q. When did you want to become a veterinarian?

A: I mean, really forever. I think I was probably about 6 or 7 and, as a little girl, would take in strays, so we had a bunch of cats. I also had a snapping turtle. My dad found it on the side of the road and it ended up living in our bathtub upstairs.

I felt like I had a special connection with animals. I wanted to be like Dr. Dolittle where you speak to them, so that was my idea as a kid and I just kind of stuck with it.

Q. Who has inspired you?

A: My parents supported me with whatever I wanted to do. They pushed me academically and gave me experiences that they thought would help me get to where I needed to be.

I was extra fortunate because I lived across the street from a veterinarian, Dr. Walter Belue, who worked out of his house. He worked as an eighth-grade science teacher during the day. Then, on the evenings and weekends, he worked as a veterinarian in his own clinic. He was inspirational to me because it was my first look at a veterinarian. He ended up being my science teacher and gave me a little extra time and perspective when he was teaching me, because he knew I was interested in being a veterinarian.

There was another veterinarian in the city, Dr. Bell. He was a Black veterinarian, and he gave me old textbooks to learn from that I took with me all the way to veterinary school. 

Q. Who were your mentors?

A: As I went further on in my career, I spent a lot of time with the two dermatology chiefs at Cornell: Drs. Bill Miller and Danny Scott. They were great and gave me extra work to do. So, I ended up doing some dermatology research while I was in veterinary school that I went on to present as my senior seminar and published as a paper. They helped me pad my resume in my application when I was going to go forward with applying for residency, which was really helpful. My mentors never put any limitations on me, and I never felt like I was in an ‘old boys club.’

Q. What was your exposure to women veterinarians when you were growing up?

A: I didn’t see women veterinarians when I was young. In veterinary school, I ended up working at a multi-doctor general practice as a veterinary technician, and it was about 50% female doctors. They were great. They were all young, willing to teach me things, and take me under their wing. I felt really supported in that clinic.

Q. What are your strengths and challenges at this time in your career?

A: You have to be able to communicate and build a rapport with humans to be able to best treat pets. I have learned these soft skills over the years. Working with different types of people and learning those kinds of social skills helps in an examination room quite a bit.

I think one of the challenges that I faced early on as the newest person in the practice was trying to fit in with more senior doctors. That can be an intimidating spot when you’re young and trying to establish yourself.

It's a bit more challenging if you have a counterpart that may not be as accepting or supportive of you as they should be. When I first started in this practice, I worked with a male veterinarian who didn't seem supportive of women in general. It made me feel awful and self-conscious. Is he acting this way because I’m a woman or I’m not doing something right? Is it because I’m African American? It turned out his behavior had nothing to do with me. All the women in the clinic had this shared experience.

It was challenging in the beginning, and I think when you’re young it can be hard to navigate when and how to speak up. Sometimes as women, we’ve been taught not to speak up as much. 

Q. Who have you mentored and what does that mean?

A: I have kids as young as 3 years old come by the clinic to learn about veterinary medicine. Teens in high school and college students have shadowed and spent time with us in the summer. It’s been great to be a mentor for them. At this point in my career, it’s time for me to start helping the next generation in whatever way I can.

Q. What advice do you want to pass along to young women interested in veterinary medicine?

A: I’ve had so many moms and educators reach out and say, ‘You’ve really inspired our little ones to want to explore veterinary medicine.’

To think that I have some foothold in changing the face of veterinary medicine just by being a live example is amazing. Little girls see me and identify with that.

I think it’s great for them to see a woman in veterinary medicine because all my mentors were men, but how much more inspiring would it have been if I had seen a woman doing that?

Dr. Marie Bucko, chief of staff for the chief veterinary officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responds:

Dr. Marie Bucko
Dr. Marie Bucko (Courtesy Miriam Butcher)

Q. Tell me about your job.

A: It is a fun and challenging role that requires me to provide strategic direction on policy and program developments, connect the dots for executive leadership, and build relationships both internally to the federal government and externally with our valuable industry stakeholders. It’s exhilarating.

Q. When did you want to become a veterinarian?

A: Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin laid the foundation and inspiration to pursue veterinary medicine. I loved whenever our farm veterinarian came over to help our horses or during lambing and calving season and stitching up anything that needed it. The National FFA Organization and 4-H propelled me into opportunities that opened up the avenues for veterinarians working in policy, which was incredibly life changing.

Q. Who has inspired you? Any specific women in the profession?

A: Through every season in my life, women have shaped and impacted my personal and professional worlds. From my great-grandmother to my mother to my daughter to the women I’ve had the honor of working with and my best friends—there is an underlying theme among all of them. They are women who strike a balance of strength, resilience, empathy, unconditional love for those around them, and honor their values. I’m so blessed to have them in my life, and they continue to inspire me each day. I can only hope to be half the person these women are. They are truly the best.

Q. What are your strengths and challenges at this time in your career?

A: Strengths evolve and grow. Right now, I’d say it includes building relationships and bringing them to the table to accomplish a big-picture goal.

A challenge includes time management. There’s so much to be done at work and then so much to experience and enjoy in my personal life—there’s just not enough time in the day. When someone invents a machine to create more time, please let me know. I’ll be the first to invest.

Q. What advice do you want to pass along to young women interested in veterinary medicine?

A: Our profession is so dynamic and it’s proving to be more and more each year. Look at all of the avenues you can take: policy development, clinical practice, research, teaching, business management, Fortune 500 companies, etc. Change does not happen by following the same path. Change happens when we each pave our own paths and push the boundaries of the trail. Get uncomfortable, get dirty, help those next to you to do the same, and create the change you want to see.