A slice of life

A window into the world of a pathology graduate student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine

Slice. Click. Write, write, write. Double check the numbers. I'm in the trim room processing surgical biopsy samples for microscopic examination. And then I wait. It takes 24 hours to process thin tissue slices into microscope slides.

The next day, the slides arrive at 10:20 a.m. and the challenge begins. I run through a mental checklist as I look at the first biopsy. Where is it? Skin with hair. Benign? Yes. Is it totally removed? Yes. What cell type is involved in this growth? Sweat glands. Prognosis? Excellent.

As I report my findings, I'm struck by a sense that I'm actually helping people, a feeling I haven't had in a long time. I imagine the dog owner who is probably sick with worry about the results. Is it cancer? A benign cyst?

It feels good to be helping in this way even if my contribution is relatively small. I quickly type in the run-on sentences used to describe a benign tumour and finish the report.

I've come a long way in a year and a half. When I first began my graduate program, I was worried about actually finding the tumour. Now I can almost immediately recognize the cell type. And most of the time, it's just a matter of fitting it into a specific category, refining my written descriptions and delving further into textbook and research articles to learn more about prognosis and tumour biology.

I have set a goal to read a 1,200-page textbook on veterinary pathology by April 30. This task is daunting! Where to begin . . . from the beginning? Or with the most relevant, interesting chapters? As with most large tasks, the getting started is the hardest part. Liver it is.

I've prepared a lecture for the third-year wildlife elective course on rodent-borne zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from rodents to people).

In my post-secondary experience, I've attended lectures by no less than four 3M Teaching Fellows — not to mention those great instructors who have yet to receive this level of recognition. With these incredible lecturers in the back of my mind, I've attempted to move beyond a didactic lecture format. Easier said than done.

I'm using a new web site called Prezi to present my images and points. With the ability to zoom around, creating a visual presentation is incredibly fun and creative.

In the class, I'm scheduled to follow Dr. Marc Cattet, an incredible storyteller with very interesting research on animal welfare that strikes an obvious cord with the students. He also happens to study huge, photogenic bears.

Then it's my turn to talk about . . . rats.

I start by building a case for why people should care about rodents:
    • 40 per cent of mammals are rodents
    • They are survivors (zoom to an artistic depiction of the dinosaur extinction)
    • Rats are the most successful invasive species following humans
    • They're popular as pets and research subjects
    • They carry a number of important diseases than can be transmitted to people such as the plague which was responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century.
The students are incredibly easy going and play along when I pose questions.

Thinking critically
On Wednesday evening, I make my way over to the other side of campus to attend a graduate class on thinking critically. Every week, we sit in small groups and discuss interesting topics. There's some pre-class preparation that includes reading and watching the occasional TED Talk.

To quote the course material, "learning a field of study means developing the relevant filters or lens or sensitivities for discerning patterns that are often invisible to persons not in the field of study." This applies so well to pathology!

We have spent quite a bit of time on the topics of intelligence and talent. Is intelligence something people are born with or can it be a skill that's learned and developed?

During the break, I chat with a fellow student about her research.

"I'm going to finish my classes this year and I'm working on my literature review, which is pretty boring. My supervisor gave me a pile theses to read yesterday," she says.

"Wait until you get results," I say.

And I really mean it. Now that I have results and have generated more questions than answers about my subject — diseases of wild urban Vancouver rats — reading 10 papers on a weekday evening suddenly sounds like a good idea. I find my project immensely fulfilling, but there's not enough time for all of the work left to do.

This course encourages reflective writing, which is like journaling with a purpose. Rather than simply describe events, we're asked to explore and analyze the issue so we can learn from our experiences.

These articles about my experiences as a grad student are like a reflective journal for me — they give me time to think. And when I'm working on my latest installment, I feel a bit like Carry Bradshaw from Sex in the City — only my subject matter is far less risqué and I often find myself wearing rubber boots rather than Manolo Blahniks.

With the week's surgical biopsies taken care of, I have time to tie up loose ends on other projects. When Monday rolls around, the slicing will begin again.

Search "Rothenburger" to read more about Dr. Jamie Rothenburger's adventures as a graduate student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.
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