Studying animals to save people

A new grant will pay veterinary students to do research rather than go directly into practice.

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

For third-year veterinary student Kari Ekenstedt, going into veterinary medicine was a natural choice.

She has always loved animals, and as she grew older, she said, she realized she loved science, too. These passions led to her decision to go into the molecular veterinary biosciences graduate program at the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine after she finishes her doctorate in veterinary medicine.

The graduate program focuses on animal research, not direct treatment of sick animals.

“I can help animals by learning new things,” Ekenstedt said of the research program.

Veterinary students such as Ekenstedt who are interested in graduate research work are the focus of a National Institutes of Health grant awarded to the veterinary college Thursday. The five-year, $1 million grant will pay for nine graduate students’ tuition, as well as a stipend.

The grant will help increase enrollment in the research program by taking away some of the financial burden that stops some veterinary students from pursuing graduate research work, said Cathy Carlson, professor of veterinary diagnostic medicine at the veterinary college.

The average debt for students coming out of veterinary school is about $75,000, said Larry Bjorklund, program director for the veterinary medicine student affairs office.

This debt makes some students want to go right into practice as they start paying it off, Carlson said.

Many students also get into veterinary medicine because of their love of animals and a desire to care for them directly rather than work in a lab, she said.

Some students made the decision to go into veterinary school in third or fourth grade, Carlson said, and they visualize themselves in veterinary practice.

Veterinary students’ reluctance to continue their education through graduate research has resulted in what Carlson called a serious nationwide shortage of veterinary researchers.

“It’s not so much that enrollment has declined as needs have increased,” Carlson said.

The veterinary college’s grant is one of 17 in the United States trying to entice students into veterinary research in medical and veterinary schools, she said.

Veterinary researchers’ work is essential for the health of animals and people, said Jim Collins, a professor of veterinary diagnostic medicine at the veterinary college.

“Vets take care of all animal species except humans, and those lines are getting increasingly blurred,” Collins said.

Veterinary researchers work on animal-borne diseases such as SARS that affect humans, he said.

Diabetes research in cats has led to treatments for humans that help control blood sugar levels, Collins said. A product based on that research is close to approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said.

Students in the graduate program will blend their understanding of veterinary medicine with researchers who specialize in fields such as molecular or neural biology, Collins said.

A shortage of veterinary researchers means a loss of knowledge, he said.

“This shortage slows down research, and these products can’t get to market as quickly as they should,” he said.

Ekenstedt said she likes the benefits veterinary research provides.

“In the end, the greater good is we’re trying to make things better for animals and humans,” she said.