Catharine Cowan, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)/Ph.D. dual degree student, has received the 2018 Outstanding Graduating Student Award for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

From her summers running barefoot and catching snakes and frogs on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Cowan knew she loved studying and caring for animals. Her career path has not been the straight-shot into life as a veterinarian she had envisioned. In fact, she now does not plan on being a practicing veterinarian at all.

Cowan earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological and physical sciences from the University of Virginia in 2002 and 2010, respectively.  Through hands-on work in a biology research lab at UVA, Cowan got into what she called “the hard science Ph.D. research world.”

Now, as a student in the DVM/Ph.D. dual degree program, Cowan has spent seven years at the veterinary college, conducting research and taking classes in her first three years as a Ph.D. student in the Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences graduate program, and attending classes, labs, and clinical rotations as a veterinary student afterwards.

During her graduate studies at Virginia Tech, Cowan earned her Preparing the Future Professoriate certificate, as well as completed the Global Perspectives Program—a program through which she travelled to Switzerland, France, and Italy to learn about systems of higher education abroad.

When she graduates with her DVM degree in May, Cowan will have completed the public corporate track of the program, which she described as “the track that gives you the most flexibility. For someone interested in research, the field of pathology and diagnostic medicine is really an interesting bridge between research and veterinary medicine, and I knew this track would give me the flexibility to pursue what I wanted to pursue,” she said.

Cowan's fourth-year rotations included observing and working with veterinary pathologists who are employed in teaching hospitals, diagnostic labs and industry, and who work in government organizations, like the CDC, where she completed a rotation. “I’ve gotten some experiences that have really opened my eyes… I want to be in a place where I’m working with a good team of people and with groups of people who are passionate about helping better human and animal health, regardless of what format that happens to be in,” she said.

Splitting her time between the two programs, Cowan embraced opportunities to connect and create a shared experience among peers with different focuses and areas of research within the college. She excelled in leadership positions and worked towards building a close-knit community with a strong sense of collaboration.

Among these roles, Cowan led the Research in Progress seminar series, developing the series for the entire college community; served as president of the college’s Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association (SCAVMA); represented the graduate student body to the Virginia Tech Beyond Boundaries Visioning Initiative Steering Committee; and participated in a week-long training program, Veterinary Leadership Experience, which focuses on leadership growth within the veterinary professional community.

Cowan said awards like the Outstanding Graduating Student Award remind her of all the support she has received along the way.

“While we have some great formal mentoring programs in our college, I’ve been consistently amazed at the willingness of faculty members to step in and offer students help whenever they see a need,” Cowan said. “From leadership tips, life advice, networking help, and support for some wacky ideas, both my ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ mentors have shaped my educational experience in a truly transformative way.”

Among the scholarship support Cowan received for her work was funding from the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation, an organization that collaborates with universities in an effort to create programs that provide enriched educational experiences for high-achieving graduate students. “My experiences and education at Virginia Tech frankly wouldn’t be possible without scholarship support,” she said. “I am so deeply grateful for the financial support…and I hope I can give back to students in the same way one day.”

Cowan credits the support from personal and professional relationships, as well as scholarships, for helping her to be fully engaged in her studies, and that has motivated her to return the favor.

“It definitely made it easier for me to not have other instabilities in my life,” Cowan said. “For me to come to this experience of school and be like, ‘I’m embracing this wholeheartedly,’ and try to learn and take away as much as I can, but hopefully also give back and build community.”

After finishing her Ph.D. within the next year, Cowan plans on doing a residency in anatomic pathology, and becoming a veterinary pathologist.

Written by Leslie Jernegan, a master’s degree student in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

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