The University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine is bolstering the veterinary clinician-scientist workforce through a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Clinician scientists are those with training in clinical care (through their DVM degree, in the case of veterinarians) who are also engaged in biomedical research. An NIH report describes the need to train more veterinary clinician-scientists, citing the small relative size of the workforce and their important contributions to the advancement of clinical practice for both people and animals.
“The overarching goal of the grant is to train veterinarians to join translational research teams in an effort to advance animal and human health, translating scientific research into advancements for diseases common to both veterinary and human patients,” explains Lauren Trepanier, professor and assistant dean for clinical and translational research at the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Spearheaded by Trepanier, the NIH grant funds three opportunities for veterinarians at various stages in their careers.
Twelve funded two-year research fellowships allow residency-trained veterinarians to join interdisciplinary research groups with MDs, PhDs, and other DVMs, bringing their clinical experience to a project spanning human and animal health.
This piece of the program aims to bridge the gap between a residency and faculty position, where conducting independent research is expected.
Elizabeth Rose, a veterinarian and second-year graduate student at North Carolina State University, applied for the two-year fellowship program as she was finishing up her residency training in anatomic pathology and preparing to pursue her PhD.
“I knew that I wanted to incorporate translational medicine into my graduate research,” Rose says. “My undergraduate and veterinary school research endeavors were all human-focused and allowed me to appreciate the immense impact of animal models on human medicine.”
This principle is evident in her fellowship research: Rose studies intestinal ischemia, a common cause of illness and death in newborns. Using a pig model of the condition, she aims to inform potential treatments for patients in the human neonatal intensive care unit.
Through the fellowship, Rose gained access to cutting-edge laboratory techniques and incorporated her background in veterinary medicine to investigate the relationships between animal and human health.
“The process of applying to the fellowship also prepared me to apply for additional grant opportunities,” she adds.
Six fellows have been appointed to the program so far, with a total of 12 fellowships funded through the grant. Participants come from locations as far and wide as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.
The second opportunity supported by the NIH grant is the Translational Research Immersion Program, described by Trepanier as a “bootcamp” for conducting research as an early-career veterinary faculty member.
This program includes mentorship in applying for research grants during a 2.5 day-long workshop, along with optional grant coaching over the next year to provide faculty with direct feedback while they work on grant applications. Following the initial conference, participants are placed into small groups based on the funding organizations and deadlines of their upcoming grant proposal submissions.
“Participating in the Translational Research Immersion Program was one of the best professional development moves I’ve made in my career so far,” says Laura Van Vertloo, an assistant professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Iowa State University.
Since taking part in the training in 2020, Van Vertloo has had several grant proposals make it to final review or be funded — an accomplishment she credits to her mentorship during and after the program.
Grant writing is a crucial skill in academia and one that many early-career faculty members lack in confidence and training.
“I have done a lot to try to turn myself into a mature, self-sustaining faculty member, and this program has given me a tremendous boost of confidence in grant writing,” Van Vertloo says.
Finally, the grant funds a series of Translational Summits designed to encourage mid-career veterinary faculty members to expand their research endeavors and collaborate with human physicians as a part of their work.
These 1.5-day, focused workshops invite MDs, PhDs, and DVMs working on diseases shared by people and companion animals to learn about translational medicine across disciplines. To encourage attendance from physicians, the summits are affiliated with national meetings held by groups that attract MDs and PhDs, including the American Kidney Foundation and Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.
Several research presentations during each workshop compare diseases in people versus companion animals. Additionally, during breakout sessions, participants can discuss their research priorities and coordinate collaborations moving forward.
“Participating in the Translational Research Immersion Program was one of the best professional development moves I’ve made in my career so far.”
“The goal is to open the eyes of physicians to the spontaneous animal models that veterinarians are very familiar with,” Trepanier describes. “The summits explain how physicians can shift or supplement the research they’re doing, where they induce disease in lab animals, by also utilizing spontaneous disease in pets.”
Two summits have taken place so far, with a total of 10 planned throughout the five-year grant. Three summits are scheduled in 2022, with topics ranging from inherited retinal diseases to protein-losing kidney disease to aging-related sarcopenia, a syndrome of progressive loss of muscle mass that is prevalent in people and companion animals.
“Seeing the lightbulb go off in a physician’s head during these events makes me really proud as a vet,” says Trepanier, who is also the Melita Grunow Family Professor in Companion Animal Health. “Veterinarians have a lot to offer in terms of comparative skills that enhance the medical profession.”
Providing up-and-coming faculty members and recent graduates opportunities to be involved in research is imperative to advancing veterinary medicine as a whole.
“While going into private practice serves the public on a case-by-case basis, translational research serves a critical role in providing specialists and independent clinics with new techniques, drugs, or approaches to problems,” says Trepanier.
The veterinary medicine curriculum does not typically offer clinician-scientist training, according to the NIH. The UW School of Veterinary Medicine is a leader in this field, providing students with a multitude of opportunities to pursue research during their time at the school.
“We are one of only three vet schools in the country that allow students to declare a clinician-researcher emphasis,” Trepanier says.
To receive this designation, students must participate in an Introduction to Veterinary Research course as a first- or second-year student, complete a selective course in clinical study design, and participate in a summer research program.
Since its launch in 2018, 10 students have completed the DVM Clinician Research Emphasis, with even more students participating in various aspects of the program.
The school expects four students to graduate with the emphasis in 2022.
In conjunction with the programs funded by the NIH grant, this curriculum is a testament to the integral work happening at the school to support veterinarian-scientist training and advance the veterinary profession and public health.
Student Perspective: Research Inspiration
The UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) provides many opportunities for students to gain valuable research experience with broad and significant benefits for animal and human health. These include dual degree and certificate programs, graduate research training, lab research openings, fellowships, and the SVM Summer Scholars program.
Summer Scholars, specifically, allows veterinary medical students to engage in a summer research training program with mentors, including weekly seminars and discussion groups, to enhance their appreciation, interest, and knowledge of future career opportunities in biomedical research.
Amongst a critical need to train more clinician-scientists and future leaders to conduct biomedical and veterinary research, you can find an inspiring array of budding scientists throughout the school. Here, five of these individuals share their perspectives.
Tyler Alvarez, UW–Madison undergraduate alumnus; lab manager and research intern in the lab of Xuan Pan, associate professor of oncology
“I was born with a couple serious medical issues, which caused me to have long stays in hospitals growing up. My family and I were always looking for new and improved treatment options, so we met with many of the top doctors in the world. From a young age, these doctors showed me that anything is possible with a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work. I want to dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowledge in the hopes that my work will lead to a better future for current and subsequent generations. I plan on going to graduate school and using knowledge from my current position to help me along my journey.”
Ashley Kuehnl, DVM/PhD candidate and research assistant in the Pan lab
“Since starting in the lab as an hourly worker as a second-year undergraduate, I’ve worked on multiple independent projects studying adult hematopoiesis (the production of blood cells), including a summer scholars internship last summer. Now, I’m a combined DVM/PhD graduate student in the first year of my PhD training. After I graduate, I hope to use my training as a veterinary scientist to perform comparative oncology research in an academic setting.”
Keegan Lim DVMx’24, 2022 Summer Scholars participant in the lab of Rob Lipinski, associate professor of comparative biosciences
“As an undergraduate, I participated in several ecological studies, which fueled my interest in research. Now, as a second-year veterinary student with growing interests in ecology, pathology, and One Health, I am eager to explore how I can conduct and incorporate research in my future career as a community leader for both human and animal welfare. I can think of no better place than the SVM to leverage such training, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn directly from leaders in the field.”
Emma Sweet DVMx’22, former Summer Scholars participant in the Lipinski lab
“When I started veterinary school, I wasn’t sure what kind of veterinarian I wanted to be – a specialist, researcher, public health vet, or clinician. I had a background in research and was interested in strengthening my skills and learning more while in school. Though I ultimately fell in love with clinical practice, research will always be a part of my practice as I will have to interpret and utilize new findings throughout my entire career. And someday, I may find myself running research on my own!”
Yinghua Wang, PhD candidate and research assistant in the Pan lab
“Growing up, I always loved science, and in college, I found my interest in biomedical science. My current research focuses on hematopoietic stem cells: stem cells that give rise to mature blood cells in the bone marrow. After I graduate, I want to use my research skills to improve the health and life span of the human population.”