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Research as a veterinary career

Most students enter vet school wanting to do clinical work after graduation – to diagnose and cure ill-health, prevent disease and improve animal welfare. However, as Sandy Trees explains, all of these can be achieved through a career in research

Research underpins pretty much everything we do as vets – the diagnostic tests, therapeutic drugs and vaccines we use, the knowledge of aetiology or epidemiology, which informs management approaches to disease control, even the way we communicate with clients and conduct clinical examinations – these are all the products of research. Moreover, our training provides not only a broad-based knowledge of comparative biology but also, through the acquisition of diagnostic and client consultation abilities, the analytical, deductive and advocacy skills that are central to research and, indeed, any problem-solving. And if you really want to do some good in the world, research offers the possibility of benefiting millions of animals, and humans, globally.

Just a few weeks ago the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that an official announcement of the global eradication of rinderpest was imminent (VR, October  23, 2010, vol 167, p 633). Historically, this disease decimated cattle herds throughout Africa, Asia and Europe (including Britain). Its eradication is a major step in improving food supplies to some of the most impoverished communities on earth as well as removing a major cause of ill-health in animals, and was in no small measure enabled by the research (both laboratory and applied) of British veterinary scientists.

What does research offer?

First of all, let’s be clear what research doesn’t offer. It doesn’t offer vast riches – but then that isn’t why you wanted to be a vet anyway. It doesn’t offer an easy life either – in fact, it demands hard work, commitment, resolve and a thick skin. In that way, it’s a bit like general practice! What it does offer is the chance to indulge your own curiosity, to find things out and to set your own agenda. There will be repetitive, even boring times, but as data accumulate, as results become known, there can be moments of great excitement as you shed light on some hitherto unknown process. Not many of us will win a Nobel Prize (one vet to date), but most researchers get plenty of kicks from adding a few bricks to the wall of knowledge. Seeing your own work being published after rigorous peer review is immensely satisfying

Plenty of hard work is involved, but you will actually want to do it, and for much of it, you can do it when you decide. That might be at night, but at least you can collect the kids from school. By and large, the research community is friendly and supportive, and you will strike up friendships all over the world.

A characteristic of universities is that they tend to be in interesting and attractive cities. Currently, I am involved in an EU funded research consortium with partners in Tubingen and Bonn in Germany, in Paris and Edinburgh, and in Cameroon, Ghana and Togo.  

Opportunities Despite the difficult current financial environment, there are still funded opportunities for research training.

One important initiative is the Wellcome Trust funded Clinical Veterinary Research Training scheme (CVRT), which is now halfway through its original five-year programme. This £10 million award to the UK vet schools recognises the particular need to encourage vets into research careers. It offers research experience and support for vets or vet students at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

It is important to stress two things: first, this programme offers particular research training opportunities for vets, but other Wellcome Trust research training opportunities are also open to veterinary applicants (such as the Wellcome Trust Research Training Fellowships); secondly, the scheme is not confined to those seeking a career exclusively in clinical research – it is designed to offer vets the opportunity of research training in any area relevant to a subsequent veterinary research career, for example, pathology, epidemiology, molecular biology, infectious and parasitic diseases, and so on.  

Undergraduate support

The CVRT supports vacation scholarships, which can be done in any appropriate university or institute; intercalated degree study at BSc, MSc or even PhD level, in any relevant subject at any university or institute; and   support for attendance at summer schools at Cambridge (www.vet.cam.ac.uk/summerschool) and Cornell (www.vet.cornell.edu/ oge/leadership). The key requirement for a vacation project or intercalated programme is that it should provide good quality research training. All these awards are administered by the University of Liverpool on behalf of all the UK vet schools.

Postgraduate support

Three categories of veterinary dedicated fellowships are administered by the Wellcome Trust and involve peer review of veterinary school sponsored projects and candidates.  The Veterinary Research Entry fellowship is particularly designed to attract vets in practice or after a career break to do research. It offers a one-year fellowship leading to a Masters degree by research, to give a ‘taster’ that will provide a platform for an application for longer-term research training support.

The Integrated Training Fellowship for veterinarians provides up to six years’ support for PhD research and a residency programme for a relevant diploma (eg, RCVS/European College, or MRCPath, or similar). The Veterinary Postdoctoral Fellowship provides three years’ postdoctoral research support. These fellowship awards offer good levels of financial support, but are very competitive. It is essential that candidates seek good advice and the best possible relevant research environment for their chosen research.  

Further details

More information about the CVRT initiative is available at www.liv.ac.uk/wellcomevets/ index.htm. This website gives information about the CVRT in general, summarising the awards and discussing management of the scheme, as well as providing links to the Wellcome Trust awards, the participating vet schools and the summer schools at Cornell and Cambridge. It also gives information and application forms for the undergraduate awards administered through the University of Liverpool (email: welcome.vets@liv.ac.uk).

For more information about the postgraduate awards under the CVRT and other awards open to vets from the Wellcome Trust, visit www.wellcome.ac.uk/funding/Biomedical-science/index.htm.

For general advice for vets about research, sources of funding, an illustrated brochure on the impact of veterinary research and much more visit www.rcvs.org.uk/research

Case history 1

Mandy Peffers (pictured on page i) is a 1995 graduate of the Royal Veterinary College. She came to research via a first degree in animal science. I knew I wanted to undertake research at some point so I applied for numerous PhDs while also applying to vet schools. was fortunate enough to be offered a place at the RVC. My thoughts then were that once I qualified as a vet I could still follow a path into veterinary research.

‘Well, 12 years after qualifying, via an internship at Glasgow, time with a large cattle breeding company (where I did a small amount of research) and two children, I approached an acquaintance whom I knew to be research active in my area of interest) at Leahurst, about the possibility of undertaking a PhD there.

‘At the time Wellcome had started its initiative to get vets into research. The ‘gold standard’ scheme is an integrated veterinary research training fellowship, involving six years’ funding; three for a PhD and three for a residency. However, as I had been out of the university system for some time I decided to go for an entry level fellowship first. This really helped give me grounding in some basic laboratory techniques and scientific writing but, most of all, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

‘I love the challenge of research, plus working to my own agenda with exciting knowledgeable people. I also like finding ways to answer questions that, as a clinician, you don’t have the opportunity to investigate. In fact, biased though I am, I cannot find any down sides. I think this really helped at interview to obtain my current Wellcome integrated fellowship.’

Case history 2

Lizzie Slack graduated from Edinburgh earlier this year. ‘I first became interested in research during my intercalated year. I undertook a project investigating BVDV. Looking at a well-known clinical problem from a scientific perspective showed me that contributing to building knowledge could be exciting and fulfilling.

‘The Cornell Leadership Program provided a great opportunity to get involved with high-quality science, and to develop valuable skills and contacts for embarking on a research career. I returned from my summer at Cornell inspired to apply my veterinary training in the context of basic science and a Wellcome integrated fellowship seemed the perfect option. As well as cultivating my skills as a researcher, the fellowship will enable me to further my clinical understanding. Ultimately, I hope to combine these aspects to add value to my work.’