When I tell my friends and family members what I would like to do when I graduate from Penn Vet, oftentimes I am met with the question, “Don’t you want to be a real vet?” What they are unaware of is that there are many veterinarians working within the public sector to protect animal and human health on the state, federal, and international playing fields.
Our clinical approach to problem solving, command of disease development and dynamics, and ability to visualize the many moving parts of the bigger picture, make veterinarians a huge asset to our government. It is for these reasons that veterinarians can be found in every department, from the more blatantly relevant USDA to the less obvious Department of Defense. The applications for veterinary medicine are boundless, and that idea excites me.
The Smith-Kilborne Program, hosted by USDA-APHIS, invites one student from every U.S. veterinary school to attend a one-week training on the major foreign animal diseases that threaten the domestic animal population. As an SK participant, I began my week in Washington, D.C and Riverdale, MD where I attended daily tutorials at the USDA headquarters.
I was continuously impressed and humbled by the opportunity to meet with the enthusiastic leaders of our profession. They made such a commitment to teach our classes amidst the eruption of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. This real-life foreign animal disease outbreak nearly threatened to cancel our program, but ended up serving as a real life example of what one does as a veterinarian in the public sector. We played out case scenarios in which we had to conduct epidemiological surveys and contact farmers regarding the outbreak- an exercise that not only tuned us into the idea of ‘how to stop the spread’, but also how to speak with the relevant interest groups to encourage a system of trust and respect.
The second half of the program was like taking part in a real-life science fiction movie. From D.C. we ventured northward to Connecticut, and it was from here that we would travel to the infamous Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
The island itself has an aura of mystique about it. Given the nature of the work conducted at the PIADC, entrance to the island is controlled and movement about it is restricted. The procedures for entering and exiting the infected animal containment areas were quite daunting for us visitors, but it was incredible to see intensive biosecurity measures in action – and for a very good reason!
The diseases studied at the PIADC have the potential to cause serious damage to American agriculture. It is estimated that if Foot and Mouth Disease were to be introduced to the U.S. it could have an astonishing economic impact of $60 billion.
Being acutely aware of this fact while examining the characteristics lesions on pigs and cattle was simultaneously terrifying, exciting, and humbling. It was in these moments, while standing in my Tyvek suit surrounded by my cohort of passionate, globally minded veterinary students, that I truly understood why I want to be a veterinarian and what a difference my veterinary degree can mean not only to myself but to my community.
I am so grateful for the unique learning opportunities awarded to me by Penn Vet and the Smith-Kilborne Program. It may have only been a week of my life, but the experiences I had and the people I met have so profoundly inspired me to continue on my path to the public sector. I hope that all students can benefit from programs like Smith-Kilborne, if only to become familiar with the many ways in which we can all ‘be real vets.’