The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine's Summer Veterinary Student Research Program (SVSRP), now in its 13th year, continues to address the high demand for veterinarians with biomedical research backgrounds and to inspire career reconsiderations in the process.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Boehringer Ingelheim Veterinary Scholars Program, and the veterinary college, the program provides hands-on, mentor-guided biomedical and translational research experiences and builds opportunities for the 12 selected students by orienting them with adaptable skills applicable across numerous career options.

In keeping with the college’s expansive One Health approach, the program’s research experiences highlight the dynamic interdependence of animal, human, and environmental health as a crucial aspect of veterinary medicine and biomedical research.

“The program is the only one of its kind to provide valuable research experience during the students’ doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) program,” said professor of immunology Ansar Ahmed, the program’s director and the college’s associate dean of research and graduate studies. “In the program’s 13 years, more than 175 DVM students have had opportunities to gain One Health-focused research experience.”

As part of the 11-week program this past summer, students participated in short courses, ranging from humane care and the use of laboratory animals to proposal writing and research ethics. With the help of funded travel, students also met with professionals in research and policy positions at the NIH, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in addition to attending weekly breakfast seminars with DVM scientists who chose to pursue biomedical research careers in federal governmental agencies, academia, and industry.

Perhaps the pinnacle — and, for many applicants, the main attraction — of the program’s curriculum is the nine weeks of mentor-guided laboratory training in animal models of disease.

VMCVM Summer Veterinary Student Research Program: Nicholas Pietrobono and Professor Nisha Duggal
Class of 2022 DVM student Nicholas Pietrobono was mentored by Nisha Duggal, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology.

That experience is what specifically attracted Alex Safian, a second-year student from Thousand Oaks, California, who was mentored by professor of parasitology Anne Zajac in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

“Boy, did this program really open up the scope of veterinary medicine,” said Safian, who studied anthelmintic resistance in parasites. “Seeing the full scale of what veterinarians can really do is something special that this program offers.”

Safian said that he envisions his career moving him into a small animal internal medicine residency program, particularly one with a research component. “I think it’s wise to research something in the specialization of the field I would be going into,” he said, “just because of my zeal for it.” 

For Kate Bukovec, a second-year student and Virginia Tech alumna from Robbinsville, New Jersey, the exposure to career options outside of private practice was eye-opening.

“I’ve always loved the combination of animals and science, so veterinary medicine seemed like the most obvious career choice,” she said. “I was never crazy about the idea of working in private practice, though, and I didn’t know what other career options existed.”

Because of the program, Bukovec, who helped develop a novel ex vivo protocol in mouse muscle that mimics the length-change and force produced by human muscle during gait, said her desire to pursue a residency in comparative animal medicine has been solidified. She was mentored by Robert Grange, associate professor of molecular and cellular science in the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise.

“This program exposed me to the wide array of diverse jobs and careers for DVMs, which was instrumental to my making this decision,” she said. “Thanks to the program and Dr. Ahmed, I’ve already started networking with a number of comparative animal medicine programs across the country.”

Besides the program’s off-campus networking opportunities, students similarly appreciated the exposure to communities and opportunities found right within the college.

“I really enjoyed working closely with my mentor and her lab members,” said Pennsylvania native Nick Pietrobono, who completed his first year of veterinary school and spent the summer working with Usutu virus. “They were all very helpful when I ran into any errors, as well as great at teaching me new techniques and introducing me to different labs in the building and to people they knew outside of the lab.” Pietrobono was mentored by assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology Nisha Duggal in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

The culmination of the program allowed students to present their work to fellow participants and faculty members, both at the college and at the National Veterinary Scholars Symposium, a gathering solely for DVM summer research scholars. This year, the symposium was held in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Taschua Jeboda, of Delaware, said that she was proud to show off her research, both to her peers on campus and in Massachusetts. “I had a very positive experience presenting,” she said. “It was wonderful to be able to learn about research projects from other researchers and to bond with students from other veterinary schools.”

With plans to graduate next spring, Jeboda, who was mentored by Ahmed, said that it was her goal to explore and understand the pathophysiology of a disease — in this instance, lupus. “I learned how to work toward a goal with the understanding that my results may not reflect my expectations,” she said. “But I also learned that the work I put into my pursuits is still valuable, even if mistakes occur or results are inconclusive.”

Because of its strong follow-up program, which ensures research options for program alumni, many former trainees have entered advanced training programs, such as residencies or doctoral study. In fact, in a recent poll, 66 percent of program alumni, Ahmed said, reported going on to choose a career path other than private practice after graduating with a DVM.

“Even though the program has ended, I’m still going into my mentor’s lab,” said Bukovec, who is now writing a manuscript with the lab. “The summer program provided me with the opportunity to perform research, collect data, network within other professions, and write a scientific paper. I could not have imagined a more professionally fulfilling summer.”

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