skip to main content

Veterinary students gain valuable experience through summer research program

August 19, 2016

Summer Veterinary Student Research Program participants
The 2016 Summer Veterinary Student Research Program offered nine weeks of hands-on laboratory experience with faculty mentors at the veterinary college.

For rising second- and third-year veterinary students looking to explore interests in biomedical research, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech provides a perfect introduction through the Summer Veterinary Student Research Program.

Held over an 11-week period in May, June, and July, the program offers one week of research-driven short courses, funded travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with doctor of veterinary medicine (D.V.M.) and Ph.D. professionals working in government organizations, and nine weeks of mentor-guided laboratory training in animal models of disease.

In addition, this year’s 12 participants attended weekly breakfast meetings, held most Wednesday mornings throughout the summer, which featured guest speakers who are D.V.M. scientists with varied backgrounds in the biomedical research field.

“I think all of the speakers offered great insight into tracking your advancement as you go into this career field and all of them really did a great job of showing their passion and excitement for their field of study,” said Vincent Tavella, of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a second-year Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine student.

Stephanie Folkerts, of Owings Mills, Maryland, a second-year North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine (NCSU CVM) student, added, “I really enjoyed all of the topics because I am a One Health nerd, but I especially enjoyed hearing from Dr. [Barry] Robert, the laboratory animal veterinarian. This program has given me a much better idea of what it means to be a laboratory animal veterinarian, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to better understand this field,” she said. Barry Robert is the university veterinarian and director of the Office of Animal Resources at Virginia Tech.

Folkerts spent her summer working in Nammalwar “Nathan” Sriranganathan’s laboratory, professor of bacteriology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

“I have been working on isolating bacteria which have antimicrobial activity from soil samples. These bacteria produce metabolites which could be used in the future development of antibiotics,” Folkerts explained.

Folkerts chose this program in particular because of its public health focus. "As the president of the NCSU CVM public health club, I plan to bring back my increased knowledge about public health careers and share this knowledge with my peers in North Carolina. I will also have greater appreciation for the medications we use in our profession because I have a better understanding of how much time, money, and energy goes into producing them.”

With a mixed practice focus, Folkerts hopes “to work in practice for a few years and then decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. and/or M.P.H. (master of public health). After that, I would like to work for the FDA or the CDC.”

‘Contributing to the forward progress of research’

Melissa Lopez, of Orlando, Florida, a second-year student at Tuskegee University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, worked in the laboratory of Michelle Theus, assistant professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

“During the program I have been working on a lot of immunohisto staining on canine brain tissue samples related to traumatic brain injuries, as well as getting a lot of experience on specific staining procedures and using the cryostat machine,” said Lopez. Through her research, Lopez hopes to aid future understanding of canine vascular response following a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

“The (Summer Veterinary Student Research Program) at our college has consistently recruited phenomenal D.V.M. students with very strong interests and backgrounds in research,” said Theus, Lopez’s advisor. “They bring a unique perspective to our basic science programs and have done an amazing job contributing to the forward progress of research in my lab.”

In addition, Lopez also valued the program’s diverse areas of emphasis, as she learned that pursuing a “D.V.M. gives you so many options, and that you are not necessarily ‘stuck’ in one specific part of the career.” She continued, “A majority of the speakers [at the breakfast meetings] had a different career path in the beginning and never would have thought that research would be incorporated and be a major part of their careers as D.V.M.s.”

Tavella completed his summer research with both Xin M. Luo, assistant professor of immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and S. Ansar Ahmed, associate dean of research and graduate studies and department head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. Ahmed is also the director of Summer Veterinary Student Research Program.

“Our lab looked at the effect that manipulating the intestinal microbiota in mice with active systemic lupus erythamotosus would have on disease severity,” Tavella said.

Tavella did this by treating the mice with vancomycin and Lactobacillus during active disease and, among other findings, discovered a decrease in lymph node and spleen weights, indicating less severe disease, and decreased kidney damage. Tavella, who is also pursuing a master of public health degree with a concentration in infectious disease, hopes to work in governmental disease regulation or epidemiology after graduation.

At the culmination of the program, participants presented their summer research both to fellow participants and faculty mentors at the veterinary college and at a poster presentation at the Merial-NIH Veterinary Scholars Symposium held at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

The summer program not only trains students to be future researchers, but also offers students an adaptable skill set that can be applied across a multitude of career options. Caitlin Mason, of Woodbine, Maryland, a second-year student at the veterinary college, said, “I hope that this experience this summer has made me more well-rounded to various laboratory techniques, so I have a better understanding as a veterinarian of the work of principal investigators and laboratory workers in research.”

Tavella echoed her sentiments. “I hope that this experience will help to open doors into opportunities that I had not been able to consider before,” he said. “This summer has given me a lot of very good laboratory and research skills that I hope to be able to apply to future experiences.”

Written by Kelsey Foster, a master’s degree student in the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Contact: