Shelter Medicine Inspires New DVM, Sabrina Wu

Dr. Sabrina Wu and family after commencement
Dr. Sabrina Wu and family following commencement.

When Dr. Sabrina Wu was a baby, one of her first words was ‘cat’—which is a little weird because she didn’t have any pets growing up in Southern California. But that didn’t stop her fascination with all things related to animals.

“I would pore through encyclopedias on birds, cats, horses, looking at pictures, memorizing scientific names, reading about how to take care of them,” said Wu, who recently graduated with the Class of 2019. “My parents were so confused. They didn’t know how to read those as bedtime stories so they just looked at the pictures with me. They thought it was something I would outgrow.”

In 6th grade, without telling her mom first, Wu arranged to volunteer at the local shelter in Pasadena as part of a class project. She was only 11 and needed to be 13 to volunteer, but after hanging around to socialize, pet the cats and being annoying enough, the shelter staff relented. Her parents figured the poop clean up and exposure to euthanasia would cure Wu, but it only intensified her desire to help animals. 

“That’s where I first met a real working veterinarian,” Wu said. “I was in awe and realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

While obtaining her undergraduate degrees in molecular and environmental biology with a minor in forestry at UC Berkeley, Wu worked at a few small animal clinics as a vet assistant to keep building experience. She also worked as teaching assistant at the Lawrence Hall of Science discovery room.

“Seeing how excited kids get at touching a snake for the first time—I loved that,” she said. 

Although Wu knew her career path would lead to veterinary school, she didn’t apply immediately. Instead, she took a year after her undergrad training to work full-time in a veterinary clinic in Boulder, Colorado—a great location given her love of the outdoors.

“That was honestly the best decision to remove myself from the pressure cooker of anxiety and competition to let myself really focus on the application process,” Wu said. 

A year later, Wu joined the Class of 2019 at her first-choice school, UC Davis, where she focused on shelter medicine and general practice. She threw herself into a number of student clubs and volunteered at the Mercer Clinic for Pets of the Homeless as well as the Knight’s Landing One Health Clinic. As one of the event coordinators for the shelter medicine club, Wu organized a wet lab for feline neuro exams. 

“Being in clubs so enriched my experience at UC Davis!” Wu said. “Seeing students have those experiences that you can’t get in lectures and don’t have specific labs for was probably my favorite part.”

And what could be more fun than Saturday night parties making neonatal kitten packages for the shelters?

“Getting involved is a great way for newly initiated first year students to build a network here,” she said.

Wu’s compassion and dedication to working with underserved populations and shelters led to several scholarships, including the Dr. Patricia Gilbert, RS Robertson, and Doris Day and Terry Melcher scholarships. 

“It was overwhelming emotionally to receive those particular scholarships—and they were very generous ones,” Wu said. “It made me realize that this work is such an important part of my life and gave me the encouragement to keep going.”

Of course, volunteering with clubs such as the Orphan Kitten Project does come with the risk of bringing home kittens that never leave. Wu kept her limit to four cats—one for every year of vet school. 

One Christmas, Wu said she wasn’t going home without the cats, so her parents agreed she should just bring them and they would have to stay in her room. Within 24 hours, the cats had free range of the house and Wu caught her mom cooing to them, asking if they wanted to join her for breakfast.

“I’d come back in the evening and the cats would be curled on their laps watching television,” Wu said “They send them gifts all the time now; it makes my heart melt.”

Just as she did following her undergraduate studies, Wu is taking her time to choose her next steps. She plans to spend the summer visiting national parks and getting some breathing room before applying for jobs at non-profits or shelters in underserved communities.

Outside of veterinary medicine and outdoor recreation, Wu’s greatest passions are reading and cooking. Her ultimate dream is to own a shelter and run a catfe/bookstore. 

“As much as I love the medicine, cool procedures and how rewarding it is to send an animal home, what drew me to this field wasn’t just the medicine, but the ability to help animals and the people attached to these animals,” Wu said. “At some point, I think I would really enjoy stepping back from hands-on medicine 24/7 into management and education.”

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