Brian Leonard possesses many talents. He sings and plays guitar. But at the School of Veterinary Medicine, it's Leonard's ability to work in two scientific worlds that sets him apart. Scheduled to graduate with his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2010, Leonard is also working toward a doctorate in comparative pathology.
To prepare future faculty members and other researchers to fill a growing need in the workforce, the Veterinary Scientist Training Program provides financial support for up to seven years and a flexible course of study to students pursuing concurrent Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees.
Established in 2002 with four students, the program now has 12 veterinarian-scientists enrolled, including five new recruits in 2006. "We have a great pool of highly competitive applicants with a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds," states Fern Tablin, program director and a faculty mentor.
Funding comes from several sources, according to Kent Lloyd, associate dean for Research and Graduate Studies. "The school has been fortunate. We have been able to provide graduate support from government (NIH), industry and philanthropic individuals for veterinarians and veterinary students on the research path."
Students may enroll in any graduate group and find mentors in more than 25 departments and centers. Leonard's work involves studying viruses, specifically the herpes virus, in multiple animal species.
Regularly scheduled colloquia and retreats also promote interaction and insight, Leonard says. "The UC Davis collaborative environment provides a great opportunity to learn a tremendous amount just by knocking on someone’s door. I have gotten a chance to meet with emergency and critical care veterinarians, oncologists, pathologists, virologists, hematologists and wildlife veterinarians. All have provided unique and interesting points of view into my research in cats."
With their mentors' guidance, dual-degree students lay out their academic plans and switch their course schedules for selected years to concentrate on either the DVM program or their research.
As the program develops, Tablin notes that, besides identifying DVM candidates with research interests, program officials may recruit existing PhD students into the DVM program. "With their demonstrated academic orientation, these are logical people to fill faculty positions in veterinary schools in the basic sciences," she explains.
Several students have completed both degrees and moved on to clinical experience, research institutes and universities. For example, Cara Field, whose interest in marine mammals guided her research, is working at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Veterinarians Sarah Thomasy and Joyce Riehl, trained in pharmacology/toxicology, are seeking clinical experience and academic positions. Graduate Kristin Evans has worked in laboratory animal medicine for a biotechnology company.
VSTP graduates are entering the workforce at the right time, says Lloyd. "A wave of veterinary faculty is retiring across the country. Many are leaders in research fields related to diseases shared by animals and humans. With many societal needs for solutions to complex health problems of people and animals, veterinarians choosing research careers as an alternative to private practice are increasingly in demand."
The School of Veterinary Medicine is betting that dual-degree training will be a winning combination for both recruitment needs and job satisfaction.
Leonard agrees. "Through all of my education and experiences, becoming an academic veterinarian is the best career for me. I enjoy interacting with animals and their owners as well as investigating their ailments in a very involved fashion."