First-year veterinary student Viviana Lee. Submitted photo.

B.C. vet student dives into new career

Growing up in Hong Kong, Viviana Lee lived with her family in a 500-square-foot apartment that had no room for pets. But working with animals was always part of the plan for Lee, now a first-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

By Lynne Gunville

When Lee’s family eventually moved to Vancouver, B.C., she graduated from high school and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in animal biology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). However, Lee’s career plans were temporarily sidetracked — thanks to her degree’s thesis project.

“I was examining the behaviour effects of culling pressure on invasive lionfish. To gather all my data on these underwater creatures, I had to learn to dive,” says Lee. “Learning a new skill, living on a boat in Cuba and gathering important data were a heady combination. I found my passion in scuba diving. I decided I wanted to go into diving as a career.”

Lee began her diving career by teaching summer scuba camps at UBC. She then worked at the Vancouver Aquarium where she was an exhibit husbandry diver charged with keeping the animals’ habitats clean as well as handling penguins and pinnipeds such as seals, walruses and sea lions.

“Working with marine mammals is a standout experience for me,” says Lee. “Just being able to interact with a 400-kilogram sea lion was indescribable. To interact with a species we normally don’t have interactions with — it was unreal and delightful.”

At the same time, she dedicated many volunteer hours to conservation projects aimed at protecting the local waters. Lee is proudest of her accomplishments as a board member of the Underwater Council of British Columbia. She was in charge of the mooring buoy maintenance project, and her volunteer dives aimed at collecting temperature data from the underwater sponge bioherms (glass sponge reefs) contributed to the development of eight new marine refuges in B.C.’s Howe Sound.

Lee also volunteered at the Marine Life Sanctuary Society where she participated in beach interpretation events that leveraged her biology knowledge to share facts and encounter stories with children.

Although Lee loved living out her passion for diving, she was still attracted to the idea of working with animals on land. After her job at the aquarium ended, she worked at the BC SPCA for a few months before moving to the VCA Canada Island Animal Hospital in Nanaimo, B.C., where she gained clinical experience in small animal practice while also learning to handle raptors.

Lee is grateful that she had the opportunity to work with WCVM alumnus Dr. Ken Langelier (DVM’81), whom she describes as one of her greatest influences. During her time at the clinic, Lee assisted Langelier and staff members as they dealt with a mass poisoning of the local bald eagle population. Having gorged themselves on an improperly disposed euthanized pig, the birds were literally falling out of the sky as the veterinary team raced to save them.

“I assisted the vet with running triage, clearing toxic meat out of the crops of the salvageable eagles and then providing fluids and support until the raptors were ready to be released again,” Lee recalls. “It was a very fulfilling day as we saved the majority of the eagles, and I loved every second of it.”

While these experiences prompted Lee to refocus on pursuing a veterinary career, she had the chance to combine her love for diving with her enjoyment of marine mammals when she took a position as animal trainer working mainly with sea lions and reptiles at West Edmonton Mall’s Marine Life Aquarium.

“Building the bond between the animals and myself was immensely rewarding,” says Lee. “Growing together, pacing a session, choosing a goal, planning intermediate training steps and providing much needed enrichment — it made both me and them very happy.”

Since Lee began her studies at the WCVM in August 2021, she has particularly enjoyed her animal welfare class and biomedical rounds – an opportunity to play detective as she asks questions and studies test results to determine a diagnosis. 

Although Lee is interested in working with exotic species and is intrigued by the idea of joining a mixed animal practice, she’s also looking forward to gaining some large animal experience — perhaps through a summer work experience.

“In university I used to have a five-year plan,” says Lee. “However, over the last few years, I’ve seen how changeable life can be. At the end of the day, I will go wherever my interests and this career take me.”

Lee appreciates all the support that she’s received from her friends and family and her partner Graham, and she’s thankful that her volunteer and work experiences enabled her to recognize that veterinary medicine is a good fit for her.

She’s also grateful for the many wonderful experiences that came her way through her diving.

“Just seeing the huge variety of underwater creatures, finding hard-to-find or rare individuals or just examining the density of life on a normal rock — it requires you to slow down and admire the world around you,” says Lee.

“As the seasons change, all your underwater friends come and go and proceed through their yearly cycles; you see something new every time you go out.”