From veterinary medicine to the MRC WIMM
21 January 2019
Student Matt Dickinson discusses how he took the unusual decision to do a PhD in medical research following a degree (and practice) in veterinary medicine- and discusses the unexpected benefits of career changes.
At 15 years old, I undertook a week of work experience at a veterinary surgery. By the end of the week I was certain that this was the career for me. I had a lifelong love of animals and a keen interest in science – it felt like the natural choice.
Fast forward many years, I took my first job as a veterinarian in practice. The work was busy, dynamic, and provided adversity and reward in equal measure. But something felt not-quite-right. One frustration for me was the frequent inability to get to the bottom of why an animal was sick. In veterinary medicine, the length of the diagnostic road is often limited by factors such as financial constraints and, rightly, owner wishes. However, even when a diagnosis is achieved, treating common conditions on a routine basis had me craving to look deeper into something novel and unanswered.
I wondered if I would be better suited to a research career and applied for PhDs. During my undergraduate veterinary degree, I had undertaken an intercalated degree in viral immunology, a field which still interested me. Despite not expecting to succeed, given my non-standard background, I was lucky enough to be accepted for a DPhil position in HIV-1 immunology in Persephone Borrow’s group at the NDM, co-supervised by Hal Drakesmith in the MRC HIU (MRC WIMM).
As HIV immunology is obviously a human field, this may seem a slightly unusual choice for a vet. Aside from the obvious truth that good quality research skills hold their value regardless of where they are later re-applied, there are also some other perhaps more subtle reasons why a vet would take an interest in the immunology of HIV. During my veterinary studies I was particularly interested in feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), a leukotropic lentivirus with many parallels to HIV, capable of causing similar pathology to that seen in HIV-infected people. While working as a vet in practice, I had seen cases of feline AIDs in chronically infected cats.
© Randeep Singh
In addition to being of interest to veterinary scientists, some researchers assert the value of FIV as a comparative HIV model, as the virology and immunology are considerably similar.1 HIV was itself once an animal-derived emergent infectious disease, believed to have arisen through several cross-species transmissions and subsequent adaptation of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) from non-human primates (NHPs) to people, at some point in the early 20th century. The possibility of the future emergence of other NHP-derived human lentiviral epidemics is not beyond the imagination.2 Finally, there is also a growing global interest in the “One Health” movement, a concept which acknowledges the interdependent link between human, animal and environmental health, and promotes interdisciplinary training and collaboration between people working in these respective fields.3,4
Although as a vet my undertaking a PhD in a non-veterinary field is unusual, it is far from unique. There are many other vets in the UK doing the same thing, and several within Oxford alone. In the MRC WIMM, DPhil student and vet David Cain (Ogg lab) is researching atopic dermatitis in people, a disease which also commonly affects dogs and occasionally domestic cats. There are other vets at various stages of their research careers across Oxford, in research areas from fundamental/basic science to translational (human) medical research, some of whom attend our twice-termly veterinary journal club, discussing papers on clinical veterinary medicine and surgery.
The unexpected by-products of career diversity
When I started my DPhil in Oxford two years ago there were moments of self-doubt. I sometimes could not believe I had spent six years qualifying for a very specific vocation, only to pursue another. I knew this would be a completely new (and steep) learning curve, and four more years at the bottom of another training ladder. However, my decision to follow a new path yielded some unexpected reflections. I realised I could still fulfil my previous role as an occasional weekend vet. Punctuating one job with other contrasting type of work created an insightful juxtaposition. I discovered there were aspects of my “old” career that I loved and missed, namely, the daily use of interpersonal communication as a tool to make a difference, something which is absent from my DPhil, where progress is achieved at the bench.
Being a good vet is all about being good with people. Most animals come with a person attached to them who governs every decision in their treatment. Succinctly explaining a complex disease pathogenesis to animal owners in a 15-minute consultation window is frontline science communication at its best and the nuances of conversation can radically alter the outcome of a case. In newly identifying my passion for communication through writing – in both general science communication as well as veterinary publications –
I found myself reading and writing in as many new contexts as possible, beyond my usual comfort zones.
The most unexpected benefits of my journey so far however, extend beyond the specifics of particular vocations. “Starting again” has broadened my interests in a way I could never have predicted: I’ve developed a greater appreciation of topics way beyond science. I began attending diverse events, caring about new causes, looking at cross-disciplinary training opportunities and even considering future careers with elements of humanities and social sciences.
I don’t regret my change of career direction, and the option to return to veterinary medicine as a full time job will always be there. Distance and clear headspace has allowed me to rediscover aspects of my previous career which were overshadowed by long working hours with minimal downtime, and to appreciate areas of overlap between my previous and current career, and discover new interests. For anyone thinking of diversifying their career, I can highly recommend doing so – what you initially stand to gain may just be the tip of the iceberg.
- Bienzle D. FIV in cats – a useful model of HIV in people? Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology 2014, 159:171-179.
- Hahn BH, Shaw GM, De Cock KM, Sharp PM. AIDS as a zoonosis: scientific and public health implications. Science 2000, 287:607-614.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One Health [Internet]. Accessed: Dec 2018. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/index.html
- Dickinson M. One Health and its applications, in Phenotype MT18, pp 19-20 [Internet]. Accessed: Dec 2018. Available at: https://issuu.com/phenotypejournal/docs/mt18