From investigating new cancer treatments, to gaining a better understanding of Zika virus, to learning about the roles that veterinarians play in government and industry, veterinary students have gained invaluable experiences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech this summer.

Thirteen second- and third-year veterinary students recently completed the Summer Veterinary Student Research Program (SVSRP). Held over an 11-week period in May, June, and July, the program offers one week of research-driven short courses, funded travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with doctor of veterinary medicine and Ph.D. professionals working in government, and nine weeks of mentor-guided laboratory training in animal models of disease.

Plus, the 2017 participants attended weekly breakfast meetings featuring guest speakers with varied backgrounds in the biomedical research field.

“The summer research experience for DVM students not only provides an experiential opportunity to connect research in the laboratories of strong mentors, but also connects them with DVM scientists in diverse workplaces, such as government, academia, and industry,” said S. Ansar Ahmed, associate dean for research and graduate studies and SVSRP director.

Meghan Dau, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a third-year veterinary student in the summer research program, explained that that her time conducting research in the laboratory and learning about research opportunities for veterinarians “exemplifies the concept of One Health.”

“I plan to take the knowledge I’ve learned this summer and apply it in the future by utilizing the information available at the interface of animal and human infectious disease, where the two worlds of research and clinical practice meet,” Dau said.

Dau spent the summer in the laboratory of Clay Caswell, assistant professor of bacteriology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. She focused on Brucella, a bacterium that causes spontaneous abortions in cattle and an inconsistent and sometimes fatal fever in humans. In particular, her research involved characterizing two traits of hypothetical genes in this bacterium and finding out how they react in a controlled bile acid environment.

“The best part of the experience with SVSRP has been the people, not only in the lab, but the lecturers and administrators too,” Dau added. “Everyone has been super-supportive and encouraging, helping me to truly understand not only the research, but the broad range of opportunities available to veterinarians in the research and government worlds.”

Chelsea Pollak, of Lake Ridge, Virginia, a second-year veterinary student, agreed that the encouragement and support from her mentors made the summer project enjoyable. After working in the laboratory of Irvin Coy Allen, assistant professor of inflammatory disease, Pollak plans to continue her research project in the coming years and pursue a pathology residency and potentially a Ph.D. after finishing her doctor of veterinary medicine.

“We have been working on treating triple negative breast cancer and pancreatic cancer with a novel form of ablation therapy known as ‘irreversible electroporation,’ where an electric current is applied to the primary tumor through the insertion of electrodes,” Pollak said. “This therapy is highly specific for cancer cells, leaving healthy tissue and blood vessels unharmed following treatment, while significantly decreasing the size of the primary tumor and appearing to remove distant metastases by activating the immune system.”

She added, “It is an exciting new treatment currently in clinical trials in both veterinary and human patients, being used to treat previously incurable cancers.”

Ashley Saver, of Weirton, West Virginia, a third-year veterinary student, also conducted research with human health implications. She worked with Andrea Bertke, assistant professor of infectious diseases in the Department of Population Health Sciences, to better understand Zika virus, which entered into the public consciousness during an epidemic in 2015 and 2016.

“Zika virus is an emerging infectious disease that normally causes mild illness but has also been associated with neurological disorders. The aim of this project was to investigate how Zika virus causes these neurological problems,” said Saver, who explained that the summer research program introduced her to non-traditional career paths for veterinarians, such as working for the Food and Drug Administration. “We infected different types of neurons with Zika virus and assessed the level of infectivity to determine if Zika virus has a preference for certain types of neurons.”

The research program also created opportunities for participating faculty mentors. “The Summer Veterinary Student Research Program offers an excellent opportunity for veterinary students with strong research interests to participate in the college’s basic and applied research with a One Health focus,” said Bertke, Saver’s advisor. “Ashley not only brought her unique perspective as a veterinary student to my laboratory, but also contributed to our understanding of Zika virus pathogenesis, which has significant public health implications.”

In addition to students from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the summer research program participants included a veterinary student from Tuskegee University. The program not only gives veterinary students the chance to gain first-hand experience with research, but also opens doors for those who want to pursue other biomedical research opportunities. Many former trainees in the program have used this summer research opportunity to launch their careers in research and government.

Now in its 11th year, SVSRP is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Boehringer Ingelheim (formerly Merial), and the veterinary college.

Written by Michael Sutphin

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