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A Different Kind of Summer School

Nicole DeAngelis conducts research in the lab of Barbara Sherry, professor of virology at the College of Veterinary Medicine, as part of this summer’s Veterinary Scholars Program. The research focuses on how viruses cause damage to the heart and evade the host’s immune system, and the team is exploring the possibility of using stem cells to mediate cardiac repair in the context of viral infection. DeAngelis, a second-year student in the DVM/Ph.D. program, is interested in improving treatment of infectious diseases.

Most students arrive at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine with dreams of becoming private-practice veterinarians who provide outstanding primary care for animals – whether they be dogs, cats or something a bit more exotic.

But veterinary medicine needs researchers, too. It needs people who make discoveries that lead to new and better ways to treat animals and change the very way veterinarians think about and practice medicine. Some of these clinical and basic science leaders will work alongside their counterparts in human medicine to find solutions to shared health concerns.

Introductory research experience isn’t easy to come by, however. That’s where the Veterinary Scholars Program comes in.

Anchored by private financial support, the program provides the opportunity and means for students who have completed their first or second year at CVM to participate in mentored research activities in the college’s biomedical laboratories during the summer. The hands-on experience has shaped the future for participants like Jessica Romanet.

A few summers ago, Romanet spent her time in the Veterinary Scholars Program investigating pharmacokinetics and withdrawal times for meat goats for the antibiotic tulathromycin, which is used to combat shipping fever or other respiratory disease. Translated: The work helped the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank compile data for efforts to keep drug residues as low as possible in meat that people will eat.

The experience led Romanet to apply to the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Combined DVM/Ph.D. Program. In June, she defended her thesis identifying a link between a highly conserved gene and regulation of the immune system. Her goal is to become a veterinary clinician scientist whose work improves both human and animal health.

Jody Gookin, the college’s FluoroScience Distinguished Professor in Veterinary Scholars Research Education and a professor of internal medicine, oversees the summer program along with Sam Jones. Jones is Herbert Benjamin Distinguished Professor and professor of equine medicine as well as director of the Comparative Biomedical Sciences Program and the Combined DVM/Ph.D. Program.

“Approximately 40 percent of our veterinary students get research experience in the program, and 70 percent of these students go on to advanced clinical and research training,” Gookin said. “Several of our students have gone on to complete a Ph.D. after veterinary school, successfully compete for NIH Mentored Clinician Scientist Awards or be awarded with prestigious National Veterinary Clinician Scientist awards from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, and now hold research-intensive faculty positions as future leaders of our profession.”

The Veterinary Scholars Program began in 2002 with 19 participants. This summer, 33 students are involved.

Sometimes, the experience alters a participant’s career goals. Always, it provides him or her with a mentoring experience, a firsthand look at the scientific process and the responsible conduct of research, a chance to improve written and oral communication skills, and insight into available professional paths.

“Students gain a greater appreciation of the importance of veterinarians in the process of scientific discovery, recognize that they have it within themselves to contribute meaningfully to this effort and become more discerning of the science behind their clinical decisions,” Gookin said.

Program participants complete 10 weeks of full-time research under the direction of a CVM mentor. Their projects enable them to formulate a testable hypothesis, identify objectives, interpret data and present their findings.

An orientation session aims to clarify procedures and expectations of both faculty mentors and scholars; impart a global perspective on evidence-based inquiry and technical approaches to problem solving; and showcase the university’s overall research excellence. Students attend a half-day symposium at nearby sites such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences or the Wake Forest Primate Center to learn firsthand about the role of veterinarians engaged in industry and government research in areas including pathology, drug discovery and development, and laboratory animal medicine.

Scholars also participate in weekly seminars. Topics include the ethical and regulatory considerations of conducting studies with animals, effective grant usage and the development of hypothesis-driven research, essentials of manuscript preparation, and preparing and presenting scientific data as an oral abstract or poster. All summer research interns are expected to present results at a CVM Research Forum.

“One summer taught me a lot,” Romanet said. “For one, it demonstrated to me that scientific research can impact the well-being of both humans and animals in a very real way. I learned that having a hand in trying to help both was important to me. It also demystified the scientific research process and allowed me to envision myself in the role of clinician scientist.”

One of the program’s unique features is the diversity of research opportunities. Prospective projects on the list for 2017 ranged from investigation of novel anti-inflammatory therapies for treatment of equine lower-airway inflammation, to interdisciplinary development of systems for a computer interface providing remote communication, information and instructions between working dogs and their handlers.

“We have a strong cadre of basic scientists, clinical veterinarians and veterinarian clinician-scientists doing work that ranges from bench-top studies of how bacteria resist antibiotics to clinical trials of new drugs for treatment of dogs with epilepsy,” Gookin said. “Our faculty are huge proponents of the Veterinary Scholars Program – for the fulfillment of working with the students, for the help in getting projects moving forward in the lab and for their belief that veterinarians are uniquely qualified to generate insightful discoveries that impact both veterinary and human medicine.”

The Veterinary Scholars Program is completely dependent on private support, currently through Gookin’s and Jones’ distinguished professorship funds, with some additional sponsorships.

“This program would not be as large and successful as it is today without the dedication and passion of Deborah Resnick and her husband, Paul,” Gookin said. “They have endowed professorships held by Sam Jones and me that provide a nest egg to help sustain the program over many years to come. We aspire to find ways to enable the program to grow – to provide financial support that not only provides for the student but for advancement of the science as well.”

Students receive a stipend to offset living expenses during the summer of their Veterinary Scholars Program internship, although funding for the research itself is provided through the faculty mentor. Because of budget limitations, the program cannot accept every applicant.

Romanet said that beyond the technical knowledge she gained, the chance to learn alongside Geof Smith, professor of ruminant medicine, and Ronald Baynes, professor of pharmacology, made a tremendous impact. The experience also informed her selection of Jeff Yoder, associate professor of innate immunology, as her overall graduate mentor. Yoder, too, has been part of the summer program; Romanet mentored a participating DVM student last summer under his guidance.

“The most extraordinary aspect of the program was seeing that a kind and compassionate mentor who is willing to put the time in, and has the resources necessary, can make all the difference in the world,” she said. “My Veterinary Scholars Program mentors, Dr. Smith and Dr. Baynes, were amazing and are two very caring and student-centered professors, and that also led me to work with Dr. Yoder, who’s equally amazing. I am grateful to Dr. Jones and Dr. Gookin for putting so much energy and love into this program.”