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STAR Students Exhibit a Galaxy of Science

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Friday, October 4, the Valley Hall teaching facility showcased a galaxy of scientific exhibits as students in the Students Training in Advanced Research program, or STAR, displayed the results of their summer research projects.

The STAR program provides 10-week fellowships that encourage veterinary students to explore research while they are in veterinary school.

Some of the students are pursuing concurrent DVM and PhD degrees or have previous exposure to laboratory science. For many of the 40 students, however, the STAR project is the students' first in-depth experience with the methods and goals of research.

School leaders hope that early exposure to research will persuaded some students to consider veterinary research as a career path. As Dean Bennie Osburn stated in his opening remarks, "We hope to see some of you on our faculty in a few years."


Although many STAR participants will go into private practice, learning the value and methods of research enhances students' understanding of the role of science-based practice. It also opens doors to other aspects of the profession.

"I learned a ton," says Theresa Keating, "I got a nice broad experience with science. [STAR] helps you figure out what kind of vet you want to be." Keating worked with Dr. Peter Dickinson to characterize stem cells of certain brain tumors in dogs.

Hot topics such as stem cells and alternative therapies such as acupuncture in horses were among the projects selected. Experiments ranged from studying the effects of pain medicines on rabbits and cats to examining reproductive hormones in American alligators, a threatened species. A few students performed experiments abroad or worked with data from locations outside California: Louisiana, Africa, and Japan, for example.  

Chris Wyckoff assisted with a study on aspergillosis and immunity in common murres and brown pelicans to gain insight into why murres undergoing rehabilitation are more susceptible to the infection than pelicans. The summer session provided time to gather data, while analysis will occur later in the year.  "I am still deciding on what path I want to pursue as a veterinarian, and a career in wildlife medicine is one of the options. Any wildlife career would likely include a significant amount of research...I chose to do the STAR project in hopes of getting a better perspective on this aspect of the field. it was a good learning experience as we had to deal with a number of problems, not uncommon for a field study, over the summer; and it certainly instilled in me the need for careful planning for a project of this scope. I also learned a lot about bird handling, restraint, husbandry, and treatment." 

In addition to clinical and field projects designed to advance animal care, students also worked on basic or "bench" science that can apply to both animal and human health. Alissa Blum worked with Michael Lamé and Dennis Wilson to investigate the effects of air pollution particles on the cardiovascular system, particularly changes in platelet function. "This [project] is part of my PhD research," she explains. "My project uses human cells in culture to look at the effect of particulate matter and find a mechanism to explain results our lab has seen in studies using animal models. The project has implications for human and animal health, as there is epidemiological evidence that links air pollution and cardiovascular events.

Jessica Levine applied a tool normally used in gene therapy to examine hantavirus pathogenesis at the cellular level. "It's a new application," she says, of  the system, which may help scientists explore the fundamental processes of hantaviral disease. "It is exciting to be able to work on a virus about which so much remains unclear. My first STAR project, two summers ago, served to introduce me to molecular research and cement my desire to pursue a joint DVM/PhD degree. This year, STAR funding provided critical support for my PhD work and allowed me to keep up the momentum on my project." 

Students receive guidance on their projects from faculty members, who also introduce STAR participants to the ambience of laboratory practice and the research network of scientists. Dr. [Nicole] Baumgarth is a real mentor," states Jennine Ochoa, a veterinary student interested in immunology. "She asks you hard questions. She makes you think. By the time you graduate, you really know what you're doing."
Ochoa's STAR project provided more than the results of an interesting experiment, she adds. The summer experience helped confirm her career path that "researching immunological responses to disease is what I really want to do. It's what I really love."