Kathleen Roney spent last summer working with a group of tough research subjects. Submitted photo.

What I learned during my summer research

As a second-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), I found that I had quite a few options available in both clinical and research settings when it came time to search for summer employment.

I was drawn to research by the promises of a flexible schedule and a chance to broaden my large animal experience. Here are three things I learned during my summer as a research student at the WCVM: 

Anything that can go wrong, will (aka Murphy’s Law) – but it’s going to be okay!

When I started working with my team on our research project, I naively assumed that everything would go exactly as planned. However, when you work with animals, you are at their mercy.

Our problems started with the arrival of our research subjects. Our research focused on the effects of ergot toxicity on the reproductive soundness of adult bulls, and our animals turned out to be huge. They were two- to five-year-old mature bulls weighing upwards of 2,000 pounds, and they had been handled about as many times as their age. This first hurdle of handling the bulls was overcome after hours of hard — and, at times, terrifying — work before even starting our study. 

Our bulls were finally behaving, but the next monkey wrench that was thrown into our research project involved feed consumption – a pretty serious issue given that this was a feed trial. Typically ergot bodies, or sclerotia, are found in cereal grains such as rye, barley and wheat, which is how they end up being consumed by livestock. 

The ergot for our study had been processed into barley pellets. Previous studies had gone smoothly with no feed refusal issues, but our bulls were different. They readily consumed the control (containing no ergot) pellets, but when we introduced the ergot-laced pellets, our bulls quickly figured out what we were up to and refused to eat them. The result: we spent days creating an ergot pellet smorgasbord for our bulls – tasty treats that included molasses, silage and oats. 

Lesson learned: Adaptability, creativity and patience are important skills to manage the challenges of working with animals. But in the end, all of your efforts will pay off (hopefully). 

Research is a great way to make connections

“It’s not what you know but who you know” is great advice when it comes to research. Because research is so collaborative, there are tons of opportunities to meet new people in areas that interest you, and you can forge relationships that will benefit you in the future.

Jane Westendorf is a good example. While the second-year veterinary student was conducting research with WCVM veterinary pathologist Dr. Bruce Wobeser, she formed a connection that helped her decide on a career path. 

“I actually decided to do my master of science degree after this summer of research,” says Westendorf. “I asked Dr. Wobeser if he would sponsor me and be my supervisor for the next three years.”

As for me, I worked under the supervision of Drs. Jaswant Singh and Barry Blakley from the WCVM Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences. I also worked with their PhD student, Vanessa Cowan, as we studied the effects of ergot on the reproductive health of mature bulls.   

Since I have an interest in bovine reproductive health, this group was the perfect fit for me. However, many of the veterinary college’s professors accept summer research students, and that means there are an incredible variety of options available to suit the interests of everyone. 

You will also have the opportunity to connect with all of the people that you work with daily.  When I signed up to be a research student, I had no idea that I would become a part of a huge group of students working in the “reproductive lab.” On days that I wasn’t busy working on my own project, I got a chance to help all the other graduate students with their projects. 

Most importantly for me, my summer research position gave me the opportunity to grow so much closer to wonderful classmates in the WCVM’s veterinary medicine program. These friends will be my close colleagues that I can lean on for years to come.

Lesson learned: Take every opportunity to meet new people in your areas of interest because the connections you make now will make life easier down the road.

Skills to pay the bills

When I started my summer of research, I was told that, at the very least, I should walk away from my summer with a new skill that I could “take to the bank.” Obviously, every research position in the veterinary college is going to be different in terms of the skills you pick up, but I can guarantee that you’ll learn something new. 

One of my greatest opportunities for learning this summer was attending the week-long ultrasound and embryo transfer workshop that is presented bi-annually by the WCVM’s reproductive lab group. During the workshop, I learned the ins and out of ultrasonography as well as the equipment and techniques involved in embryo collection and transfer. 

These techniques are becoming increasingly popular for breeding animals because they allow for massive amounts of selectivity. I can’t wait to be able to use this knowledge and these skills in my veterinary career. 

My colleague Alix Nelson also had the opportunity to attend the ultrasound and embryo transfer workshop, and she spent the summer honing her ultrasound skills. 

“This summer I gained a lot of skills involving the ultrasound machine,” says Nelson. “In a clinic you might do it once or twice or watch it being done. But in research, you’re doing it every single day consistently, and you have to learn very fast.”

During my day-to-day work, I also had opportunities to practise a multitude of other skills that included blood collections (from tail and jugular), semen collection and preservation, ultrasonography, jugular catheter placement, thermographic imaging and animal handling. Let’s just say that I kept busy this summer. 

Although it’s important to become more capable of working with animals, research can also provide opportunities to practise communication skills with clients. That was the case for Nicole Sereda, who worked alongside large animal internal medicine specialist Dr. Julia Montgomery last summer. 

 “I learned a lot about dealing with clients because all the horses that we use [in our study] are client horses,” says Sereda. “My job was to phone and communicate with them. I feel like that will be a useful skill in the future.”

 But a summer research experience is much more than a chance for students to gain some skills, points out Singh — one of my supervisors. As he describes, research is “a slow process, it’s a difficult process. At times it’s a very boring process — it requires a lot of scrutiny. But at the end of the day, it is also very rewarding process”

 But that’s the natural process of discovery — something that Singh hopes all students will learn after spending a summer immersed in research.

 “I want them [my summer students] to get an appreciation of the scientific method for hypothesis testing,” says Singh.

 Lesson learned: All summer research experiences are different, but every opportunity will give you the chance to learn new skills and ways of thinking that will help you in your future veterinary career.

Kathleen Roney of Saskatoon, Sask., is a second-year veterinary student who was part of the WCVM’s Undergraduate Summer Research and Leadership program in 2017. Kathleen’s story is part of a series of articles written by WCVM summer research students.


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