“It almost seemed too obvious,” said Andrea Oliver of her decision to be an equine veterinarian. “Oh, horse girl goes for being a horse vet — what a boring story.”

A doctor of veterinary medicine candidate and this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Graduating Student Award from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, Oliver made great efforts during her undergraduate coursework and even the early stages of her veterinary education to “be a contrarian and try all sorts of veterinary medicine.” She even pursued engineering in an attempt to stall what she later realized was her calling.

“Spending my time in aquariums and studying different medicine was all really fun,” said Oliver, who earned a B.S. in animal and poultry science in 2015 from Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "But it made me kind of sad that there was going to be someone else out there who knew more about horses than I did.”

Oliver’s initial fascination with horses was born of happenstance: She enrolled in horseback riding lessons as a kid. “Neither of my parents are horse people,” she said, “but they were so wonderfully supportive. They found a 4-H group, and I got to participate in all the non-mounted equine activities, the horse-judging, the horse-knowledge competitions, all around the country. It was a litany of equine factoids for years.”

By the time Oliver began her coursework at Virginia Tech, she had decided to “kick that part of life aside” and focus on biomechanical engineering. “The goal was to make prosthetics for animals,” she said. “An interesting angle to take, but it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole because, realistically, all I wanted to do was work with the animals.”

Then, working on computer-aided drafting of saddles with a U.S. Equestrian Team Olympic gold medalist solidified her move away from engineering and kick-started her interest in sports medicine. “We’d make the saddles in his shop, put leather on them, and just watch the horses go in the afternoon,” she said. “And that’s when I transitioned to pure veterinary work.”

As she completes her final clinical rotation — at the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, one of the veterinary college’s teaching hospitals — Oliver is preparing for a yearlong internship at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

Farther down the road, she hopes to attain board certification with the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and to pursue doctoral work in equine biomechanics, an interest fueled most recently in Associate Professor of Large Animal Surgery Linda Dahlgren’s musculoskeletal lab. There, Oliver contributed to research on equine osteoarthritis, the results of which will be presented to the Orthopedic Research Society and will appear in several publications.

“Especially in sports medicine, there’s such a void,” Oliver said. “There’s a lot we do know, but the problem is that sports medicine is a relatively new field that’s still developing and growing. There’s a lot of room to improve.”

Oliver aims to be on the front line of those improvements, preferably in academia, teaching and mentoring students. Even while in vet school, she has continued to volunteer with 4-H, giving riding lessons and serving as a role model for the group’s youngsters.

“As a kid, I wanted to be just like the adults I knew in the horse industry,” she said. “Now, as an adult on the other side of the fence, I find it both humbling and a little terrifying to know that there are kids who want to be like me when they grow up. I hope I can provide the young people I mentor with the same support that I was offered growing up.”

Despite a healthy uncertainty, Oliver is grateful that her own mentors, particularly those in the college’s Equine Field Service, Large Animal Medicine Service, and Large Animal Surgery Service, have shown her how to guide others and enabled her to explore and identify her deepest interests.

“Mentorship is so important,” she said. “I have a lot of intrinsic curiosity. It’s nice that [faculty members will] stand in the hallways and let you pepper them with questions and then work to help you figure them out or point you in the direction of research. I’m really impressed with the people here who help me pursue those curiosities.”

An important part of what Oliver calls her “40-year plan,” her goal as an educator — whether teaching future veterinarians or leading educational workshops for a 4-H group — is to make material more accessible for people of all ages and backgrounds, including other health care professionals.

“Eventually, the two branches of medical doctors and veterinarians will figure out how to educate people on things like zoonotic diseases, a concern that the vet school really presses us to consider,” she said. “Eventually, this knowledge will come full circle.”

In her efforts to facilitate sharing knowledge, Oliver has won a couple of the college’s talent shows for her “Dr. Seuss-style poetry,” which strips down science concepts into fun and easily digestible wordplay. Some of her poetry, such as “Integumentary Song,” continues to be used by 4-H members — and passed on to the next generation.

Although Oliver admits that “the internship [at Rood and Roodle] is as far as my crystal ball can see right now,” her future of working with horses is finally clear. “It seems to make sense looking back on it,” she said, “but before, I felt like I was just groping around blindly. I’m much happier doing equine than I have been in any other part of veterinary medicine — not that I haven’t been enjoying all of it.”

– Written by Leslie Jernegan (M.F.A. ’19)