First-year veterinary student Zihan Li.
First-year veterinary student Zihan Li. Photo: Christina Weese.

Creatures from land, sea and sky part of vet student’s adventures

Marine animals have always intrigued Zihan Li. While growing up in Bejing, China, she enjoyed numerous visits to aquariums and countless hours of watching marine life documentaries while caring for her collection of marine animal plushies.

By Lynne Gunville

With the goal of transforming her interest into a career in marine biology, Li moved to Canada after high school to seek a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Applied Animal Biology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, B.C.

But Li’s plans to be a marine biologist sunk after she took part in a research project investigating killer whale migration. What seemed to make a better fit was veterinary medicine, so she set out to gain a better understanding of the profession by reading, attending seminars and seeking first-hand experience.

“I cold-called basically all the clinics in Vancouver’s West Side and obtained a volunteer-turned-employment position at Burrard Animal Hospital,” says Li, now in her first year of studies at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

“I jumped into opportunities offered by the [UBC] Pre-Vet Club and labs to gain hands-on experience with different animals including rats, birds and salmon.”

Li volunteered at UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum where she worked in the Cowan Tetrapod Collection Lab dissecting wild water birds. And with the encouragement of museum curator Ildiko Szabo, she participated in a research project involving trematodes (parasitic flatworms).

In addition, Li’s undergraduate thesis requirements led to her volunteer work as a research assistant at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Enterprise Science Centre. While conducting research involving Chinook salmon, Li gained fish husbandry and handling skills as well as an understanding of fish welfare and regulations.

Li benefited greatly from all those experiences and particularly appreciated working with the staff at Burrard Animal Hospital and Emergency.

“My work at Burrard made me appreciate teamwork a lot more than before, as it was imperative for our safety and smooth operations,” says Li. “My experiences also helped me break out of my shell and gain more confidence in myself to meet the challenges ahead.”

While Li worked to gain more experience, she took time out for self care through involvement in physical activities such as running and Tae Kwon Do — she spent a year as club treasurer for UBC’s Tae Kwon Do Club.

“The most enjoyable part was forming bonds with the people I exercise with,” says Li. “And of course, kicking targets or jogging through streets and parks are great mental breaks from studying.”

Li also benefited from the support of her family — her parents have always been there for her with academic or life advice, and she loves spending time and having fun with her younger brother.

Now that Li is a WCVM student, she’s looking forward to gaining exposure to all aspects of veterinary medicine as well as having fun with her fellow students.

A self-described “introverted extrovert,” Li signed on as president of the WCVM’s first-year class, a position that requires her to be directly involved with non-academic issues raised by her classmates or by the administration, students’ association, and class committees. 

“I sought the position to push myself out there and meet people, with hopes that I could contribute more and help those around me,” says Li. “Though desired changes are sometimes not possible due to the complexity of the issue, I enjoy understanding different viewpoints and building relationships as we sort things out.”

Li expects to practise veterinary medicine in an urban or suburban setting — possibly back in B.C. — but for now, she’s keeping her options open. Potential interests include small animal/exotics practice, aquatic medicine, or specialized practice combined with a career in academia.

“For now, I’ll focus on keeping as many doors open as possible while I explore various potential areas of interest at the WCVM.”