TVMDL offers students the opportunity to explore diagnostic services, knowledge of immense benefit in clinical practice as well as opening the door for future employment opportunities.
While there is an academic framework to teach the fundamentals of veterinary diagnostic testing, the classroom alone cannot completely prepare professionals to succeed in a high volume, multidisciplinary lab like the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL). Through a third-year veterinary student elective course and a pathology residency program, TVMDL offers the hands-on experience required to properly train the diagnosticians of tomorrow.
In the fall of 2009, TVMDL first offered third-year veterinary students at the Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVM) the opportunity to experience how a diagnostic laboratory works, from the inside out. The purpose of the elective is threefold: first, learning more about the technicalities of laboratory testing will make then better clinicians. Secondly, when these students graduate, TVMDL hopes to be the lab of choice for testing services to support their future veterinary practice. And thirdly, TVMDL hopes to spark an interest in these students so they will pursue a career in veterinary diagnostic science.
Amy Swinford, DVM, MS, microbiology branch chief at TVMDL, coordinates the elective course and knows firsthand of the experience and education needed in this career field.
“It has always been difficult to find people with the interest and exact skill set needed to work in a diagnostic lab,” said Dr. Swinford. “Most of it is on the job training. There are few [students] that consciously pick to work in a diagnostic lab. Personally, when choosing a career after vet school, I realized I could factor in veterinary medicine, microbiology and problem solving into one career field by working in diagnostics.”
Dr. Swinford and the other TVMDL professionals that give of their time to the elective course have a similar goal in mind: to spark interest in the students to work in a diagnostic lab.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think many vets or veterinary students are exposed to [veterinary diagnostics] as an option,” Dr. Swinford said. “With this course, we want to show [the students] this is a viable career path, even if they go into private practice. After a few years [in practice] they may seek specialty training and become one of us.”
The diagnostic medicine elective is available to third-year vet students and meets twice a week for four weeks. There are only six slots open each semester. Students are given an overview of the lab, work with sections like serology, bacteriology, histopathology and more, and are taught how to select the appropriate diagnostic tests.
“Students are assigned actual cases we’ve worked and paired with a mentor to give them one-on-one guidance as the student works through the case,” said Dr. Swinford. “We put the student in the veterinarian’s shoes and that helps teach them how we work a case when it is submitted.”
The students gravitate toward the hands-on training in the course. Alex Myers, a student taking the course this spring, says the diagnostic medicine elective was first on her elective list.
“TVMDL’s whole operation is much larger than I expected—high volume but efficient,” she said. “I would like to be a pathologist, so I [hope] to work somewhere like this. This elective allows me to see what the environment is like and how the pathologists work together and work with clients.”
According to Sandra Lovering, DVM, pathology branch chief, while there is not a shortage of pathologists graduating from vet schools around the country, few have the diversified training required in a diagnostic laboratory.
“TVMDL employs mostly anatomic pathologists—they do necropsies and look at tissues under the microscope—and clinical pathologists that do blood work,” said Dr. Lovering. “While each of our pathologists focus on a specialty, such as large animal work, all are expected to work on cases representing a wide variety of species, from reptiles to equine and everything in between. To find the perfect employee, we need to train our own to be able to handle a variety of cases.”
With the goal of training the future diagnostic workforce, Dr. Lovering and TVMDL Director Tammy R. Beckham, DVM, Ph.D., developed a pathology residency program for recent DVM graduates. The TVMDL residency is a joint position with CVM.
“The residency program is not a way for us to compete against private or commercial labs, with which many pathologists obtain jobs after graduation, but rather a way to show the benefit of working for a diagnostic lab,” Dr. Lovering said. “We can offer a full-service lab, where you can follow and look at a whole case. In a private lab—and I’ve worked in private labs—you may just see the pathology and not the other test results from the case. So, if you like putting together the entire case then this is the perfect place for that.”
While a relatively new residency program, the three-year, joint position provides expanded learning opportunities for pathologists by way of necropsy experience and work on a variety of cases. Carolyn Hodo, DVM, will be the first to complete the three-year pathology residency; she graduates this summer.
“I was excited to learn about the TVMDL part of the residency program,” said Dr. Hodo. “It is a good way to get exposed to a greater diversity of cases. At the vet school, we only get referral cases because it is a teaching hospital. So a [private] vet has seen it, and only if it dies at [the CVM] do we see it. At TVMDL, I see a lot more cases and it better represents what vets are dealing with every day. Depending on what type of position I go into, if I went to another diagnostic lab, I would see more of what I see now at TVMDL.”
The pathology residency offered Dr. Hodo hands-on learning opportunities with a diverse caseload. She’s worked on cases for wildlife species and was invited to assist on a sea turtle case.
“I’ve gotten some cool cases shared with me by pathologists here,” she said. “I now know the other pathologists; I have the opportunity to ask more questions. TVMDL has made me think more along the lines of working for a diagnostic lab. I am glad that I had this opportunity.”
Large gaps exist in today’s veterinary diagnostic workforce but TVMDL is dedicated to training the next generation of diagnosticians. Programs such as the joint residency and diagnostic elective are just a few ways for the agency to contribute to creating the pipeline of trained veterinary diagnosticians who will carry on the work of the agency in generations to come.
“It really takes a unique skill set for people to succeed in a diagnostic lab,” Swinford said. “You have to be somebody that loves science, loves animals and wants to work in a veterinary-related field. It is hard to find those special people and get the word to them that a diagnostic lab is a great place to work. Getting the word out about our work to [students] is the important thing.”
For more information about the diagnostic medicine elective available to CVM third-year students, contact Dr. Amy Swinford. For information on the pathology residency program can be obtained from Dr. Sandra Lovering. The laboratory can be reached toll free at 1-888-646-5623.
The Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory was established by the Texas Legislature in 1969, and today continues its work to protect animal and human health through diagnostics. For more information, visit TVMDL.tamu.edu.
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