Caunce is one of four students at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) who has enrolled in the DVM-MSc program since it became an option a few years ago.
This spring Caunce earned a 2015 Merck Animal Health Veterinary Student scholarship — one of 34 award recipients out of a pool of 1,100 international applicants. The $5,000 prize is awarded on the basis of academic achievement, financial need, leadership experience and area of interest in veterinary medicine.
Despite her hectic schedule, Caunce insists she's not that driven. "My supervisor is the one who's ambitious. I just go along for the ride," she says, laughing.
A native of Langley, B.C., Caunce grew up on a hobby farm where her family raised sheep and cared for many other animals. In 2005 she completed a Bachelor of Science degree in biology at Simon Fraser University. She wasn't sure what path she wanted to take, but she was certain that animals would be part of her future.
A job at the Greater Vancouver Zoo convinced Caunce to apply for veterinary medicine. In addition to her position at the zoo, she volunteered at wildlife rescue organizations and with the zoo's veterinarian in his mixed animal practice. After earning another Bachelor of Science degree in zoology at the University of Calgary, she began studying at WCVM in 2012.
Years ago, Caunce remembers telling her friends that she wanted to help in the conservation of wildlife. In veterinary school, she became interested in reproduction and how it could be tied into aiding endangered species. In 2013 she spent a summer working with WCVM professor Dr. Jaswant Singh; he and his research team use cattle as models for human reproduction to determine what characteristics make a good quality egg.
When the opportunity to do concurrent degrees presented itself, Caunce seized it. Knowing her own work style, she recognized that the program would be a good fit for her.
"I get into a job and then it gets to a point where I feel like I'm not growing within the job. I always feel like I have to do more," explains Caunce. "I knew that even if I decided to go into [general veterinary] practice, I'd probably want to specialize anyway."
For her master's thesis, Caunce is focusing on reproduction in water buffalo and beef cattle. Her favourite part of the process is the hands-on work: collecting the data is more fun than analyzing it, she says.
While a master's degree usually takes two or three years, this new program allows students to complete their graduate studies in just one extra year by using the summers between school years for data collection and analysis. Caunce will take two graduate courses this summer and two more classes during the 2016-2017 school year.
Last summer, Caunce worked on a reproductive study that investigated the use of two different hormone protocols in water buffalo — a collaborative project with researchers at the Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in India. She also worked on a second study with WCVM graduate student Vanessa Cowan and veterinary student Alex Neumann. They investigated the effect of ergot toxicity on prolactin levels in cattle as well as its effect on vasculature using ultrasonography to collect images of their ovaries. She'll analyze data from both projects this summer.
So far, Caunce has only run into one conflict while working on both degrees. In January, she was invited to present her research abstract and poster at the International Embryo Transfer Society's annual conference in Versailles, France. But since a mandatory business class was being offered to third-year veterinary students during the same week, she opted to stay in Saskatoon.
"It meant missing a trip to France but my DVM is my priority. I couldn't risk failing the class," she says.
Would Caunce recommend the double degree DVM-MSc program for other veterinary students? Yes, but not to everyone.
"Most people are not interested in doing research, while others may go into general practice and only later realize they want to come back to do their master's degree for something related to their practice," she says.
As for Caunce, she's hoping that her advanced education and research experience will help her become a veterinary consultant who specializes in reproductive medicine.
"If I could have all the stars and planets aligned, what I would want is to gain skills in reproductive techniques that I could apply to endangered species — especially the wood bison or woodland caribou."
Shirley Byers is a writer and editor from Kelvington, Sask. She freelances for a variety of North American magazines and newspapers