Questions for a Skidmore Alum on her Veterinary Pursuits
Did you know what you wanted to do upon entering Skidmore?
Yes, 100%, although I was probably the only one in my friend group who could say that--— being undecided is much more common than not, I think. I tell this story a lot, when people ask how I decided to be a vet. I've always loved Biology--— my dad took me to the Natural History Museum in NYC every weekend when I was little--— but why animal medicine? Both of my parents are organic chemists. My dad does research for a pharmaceutical company. One day during my junior year of high school while my dad was on a business trip, my mom took me out to brunch. After we ordered, it kind of just hit me, and I said, "Mom...I don't think I can do what daddy does for the rest of my life." What I meant was that I couldn’t come up with all these amazing projects, write grants and papers, and essentially conduct research. Pushing that boundary of human knowledge seemed daunting, but not impossible; mostly, I just wanted to be able to do something more immediately hands-on. I thought to myself, "what does one do with a Biology degree that isn't research?" I really had no clue, so it was a bit of process of elimination. I said, "well when I was little, I wanted to be a vet. Let's see what that's all about." The most important thing I did was volunteer at a shelter and eventually work at an animal hospital, to make sure it was what I wanted to do. And in the end, something about the work just resonated with me.
Obviously there are a whole gamut of classes to take — did you go the ``cookie-cutter route’’ and take all sciences, whenever possible? Can you list a general layout of the classes you’ve taken?
Right, so going into my first year I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'd be crunched for time and plagued by scheduling conflicts (though I even underestimated those). Before I even registered, I had a list going of the classes I'd need toward my major, and along with the GenEd requirements. My first semester was Bio-105, Chem-105, Spanish-206, and my seminar, Care of the Heart. Next was Bio-106, Chem-106, Calc-113, and my EN-105 requirement. The goal was to knock out as many introductory classes in my first year as possible, so I had much more flexibility with my 200- and 300-level scheduling. Especially at a small college like Skidmore, most of the interesting classes only have 1 or 2 sections by virtue of there only being one professor who teaches them. It's great because you get such a hands-on and unique experience, but you have to plan for when classes don't fit. In the end it paid off--— I had to wrestle to fit Physics into my schedule later, but I had the leeway to do so because I was so pragmatic my first year.
So that's kind of a long-winded answer about my first year. For the rest of my Skidmore career, I focused on cell and molecular biology, within the department: some highlights were Cell Biology and Microbiology, followed by Bacterial Pathogenesis. Comparative Vertebrate and Mammalian Physiology were pretty critical into showing that I was prepared for a veterinary degree. But I have a pretty wide range of interests, so I made sure to take at least one elective class each term. I tried Voice and Speech for Theater, and even had a go at CompSci my senior year. That's kind of the trick to the GenEd requirements, too--— you use them as an opportunity to integrate your area of knowledge with other subjects. A prime example of this is Science and Nature in the Renaissance for my social science. Not everyone gets so lucky, but if you can find classes you enjoy within those subjects peripheral to your discipline, you learn a whole lot more. The point of a liberal arts degree is to broaden our horizons, and we should really take advantage of that.
How has Skidmore itself helped you in your journey to vet school?
The professors, hands down, have been the most important part of my academic career. I'm realizing that even more as I type this from my flat in London, where a degree is merely practical and gets you to someplace better. I don't want to make it sound bad—the staff here are incredibly knowledgeable and committed, but the personal connection just isn't the same. Professors at Skidmore are happy to chat after class, answer questions so patiently and thoroughly, and often love to meet up for coffee. Professors are so willing to bring students into the fold when it comes to their research, and if a student has an idea that no one's working on, someone steps up to help make it happen. Beyond the classroom, there are departmental parties to welcome the freshmen and congratulate the seniors. Some people think the departments feel isolated from one another, but I also feel an immense sense of community. I can point to the third floor of Dana and say, "That's where I belong." There's a difference between having systems in place to help students succeed, and supporting students every step of the way and making them feel really at home. That community is so special, and I'm not sure I'll find it anywhere else.
What extracurriculars were you involved with, on and off campus? (Along the same vein, what were you generally involved with on campus — jobs, (media prep, etc))?
HUMANS VERSUS ZOMBIES was . Yyet another amazing community that I was so lucky to help run and moderate during my senior year. I started playing during my first few months on campus, before HvZ was even a club. It was a great way to meet friends and relieve stress. Going into our senior year, a few friends and I were lucky enough to take over the club. We organized week-long games and shorter weekend missions. For someone who isn't sports-oriented, it felt wonderful to have such a close-knit community that really emphasized teamwork, strategy, and sportsmanship. For anyone who isn't familiar, HvZ is basically tag with nerf guns: zombies are "it" and try to tag the humans, while humans defend themselves with nerf guns. Meanwhile, there's usually some objective, like "escort the scientist to a safe location" or "find the weapons locker" or "defend your position". This was really the only extracurricular club I was involved with, and honestly I wouldn't have had it any other way.
A bit closer to the classroom, I was one of two Academic Council representatives for Biology for 2 1/2 two and a half years. AC is basically a pseudo-governing body that meets once a week to work on projects that will improve the academic atmosphere on campus. We can raise concerns from our respective departments, but we also pushed through a lot of interdisciplinary events. Then, within our own departments, the two reps sit in on department meetings and contribute a student perspective. I'm quite proud to say that we helped draft a new curriculum for Biology during my time as a rep. It really was quite a special experience.
I did also have a few small paying jobs on and off campus. At home, I worked at an animal hospital during my breaks. This is pretty crucial for someone interested in a veterinary degree: I learned how to draw blood, how to run lab tests on serum and microscopy samples, and generally how to conduct myself safely around patients. On campus, I worked as a tutor for the different Biology classes I'd taken; I was a student assistant for Physiology and Cell Biology; I worked as a tutor for Bio-105/106 for two years, and helped with media prep for one. It sounds like an immense amount now that I type it all out, but I think the important bit is that these jobs mostly let me choose my hours. If I had a light week, I did more prep work and tutored all weekend; if I had a busy week, I put those things on hold and focused on my work. Plus, ...I really enjoyed them all. That's really important--— having a steady source of income is helpful, but I would have quit any one of those jobs if I didn't actually like being there. The other important thing is that this didn't all happen overnight. My freshman year, I worked for a physiologist named Roy Meyers, who's now retired. The following year, I signed up as a tutor. The year after, I joined Academic Council and started as a student assistant for Cell Biology. The year after that is when I started media prep. I took these things on as I felt I could handle them, so I wasn't suddenly overwhelmed with a mass of responsibilities.
You were involved with research quite often, weren’t you? Did you stick with one professor, or did you work with many? Do you think research helped you develop yourself as a student of the sciences, and do you think it’s important for a student who wants to attend vet school?
I was lucky enough to do research with two professors (David Domozych and Jason Breves), as well as finish my own independent project that was supervised by Abby Drake. I got quite busy after only a semester of algae work with David, so I took a break to focus on classes for a while. I have to say, it's quite an intimidating position to be in as a sophomore, with only the knowledge of BI-105/106 behind you. There's just so much you don't know, and you're suddenly thrown to the very edge of human knowledge. There are so many pressures—you don't want to mess up, don't want to look like a fool, don't want to make the professor think their faith in you was misplaced. Sometimes you feel like you're pretending, like you don't actually know what you're doing, and you're just following instructions. The great thing is that you can just ask. It's not a job position you have to keep, and our professors are fully aware of what's taught in the curriculum. The point is that it's an introduction to the kind of independent study that's expected in the field. As a scientist, you kind of have to grow comfortable with not knowing everything; you'll always be learning.
Then my senior year, Jason invited me into his physiology lab to join his work on Atlantic salmon and seawater tolerance. We made enough progress in the Fall to attend the Experimental Biology conference in the Spring with three posters—one each for Jason and his two students. Even now that I've graduated, Jason and his students are working on a paper with the results and some additional work they've done, and he still emails me for contributions and proof-reading. A lab community is something quite unlike any other, and I'm so happy to still be a part of it. Even if lab work isn't your thing (as I've clearly decided I don't want to make a career out of it), I would highly recommend that everyone in the sciences do at least one term of research. You learn so much more than just the topic you're tackling—things like working as a member of a team, division of labor, lab etiquette, and even library research. You look up to more senior lab members, and help mentor newer ones. You grow comfortable around people with different academic backgrounds, and learn how to make use of everyone's strengths. If anything will teach you that you're not the smartest one in the room, it's working in a research lab.
Now, I say that I think "everyone" in the sciences should do research—and I do mean it. That doesn't exclude those interested in policy or medicine. Research gives such a unique perspective on experimental design and trouble-shooting, which really make up the bulk of the process that is "science." I hold pretty firmly to the belief that I had such success with my vet school applications because I was so involved with research and with other academic work outside the clinic. I was actually told by an interviewer to not be ashamed of my lack of large animal experience, and that my microscopy skills are what gave me an edge and that I should play those up. They're not looking for candidates who know everything—they want students that are moral, trainable team players with transferable skills. This is something you'll find in research that's just so hard to replicate in a classroom setting.
What would you have done differently during your time here?
Honestly, I'm staring at this question and trying to hard to come up with a good answer for you, but I just don't have one. I'm so satisfied with my time at Skidmore; I'm proud of how pragmatic I was during my freshman year to allow me to enjoy my classes and jobs in the following years. I took a wide variety of classes both in my department and out; I managed Ceramics, Computer Science, Electron Microscopy, and a whole host of classes I wouldn't have been able to take anywhere else. Even with the two classes I might say I "regret" taking, only because I didn't enjoy them...well,, I still got something out of them. I still learned about the subject matter and a bit about myself and my perspective on the world. Even if I didn't like those classes, they helped me grow as a person, and I wouldn't give that up for anything. I had a nice balance of work and hanging out with friends, so I don't have that classic regret of wishing I'd gone out more or wishing I'd studied harder. All in all, Skidmore has been the best four years of my life, and maybe the only four years in which I don't regret or have doubts about anything I did.
What advice can you give to a budding freshman who is interested in the same career as you?
Plan your classes, but do what you love. If you're determined to get into veterinary school, you have to stay on top of that schedule. All the schools have different requirements, so make sure you know what you need to take. Figure out if you have to take summer classes at another institution, or if the school will accept online ones. Your HPAC adviser is the best person to talk to about this, so keep in touch with them, beyond just the required meeting times. That said, I'm currently a veterinary student with a proud background in cell and molecular biology, and an extracurricular love for writing, pottery, film photography, and chasing my friends around with nerf guns. I spent as much time in the microscopy lab as the clinic; I rounded out my senior year with Biochemistry instead of something that might have been more pragmatic like Evolution or Behavior, and I hadn't set foot on a farm in my life until four months ago. Know what you have to do to succeed in your chosen career path, but stick to your guns when it comes to your interests, and don't let your career remold you into doing something you dislike. Maybe a vet with more molecular interests sounds a bit dissonant, but like I said, I think it's actually what got me my place here. Frankly I don't want to be a farm animal vet; I intend to work at a small animal clinic as an exotic species specialist, and I want to teach lab skills at a university level. Those are the interests I let drive me, while still completing my chemistry and physics requirements, while still learning about ruminant digestion and equine tendon injuries. It's really easy to doubt yourself on this path, and I think your biggest assets are a balance of confidence and humility: confidence in your abilities and interests, and the humility to admit when you're wrong.
If you're looking for more specific advice, anatomy will kick your ass. I know everyone says it, but it's true—there’s just so much of it. As soon as I finish typing this, I'll be going back to memorizing cranial nerve fiber makeup and innervation. So, be prepared to study harder than you ever have in your life. But if you want it, it's worth it.