The past four weeks flew by. As the days grew longer and stickier with sweat, Lucy and I continued to meet more incredible members of the “Vet Mafia,” as they call themselves. Although the term “Mafia” may invoke visions of harsh negotiators or ruthless leaders, the “Vet Mafia” is actually a group of amicable altruists. Every single member of this community, when meeting with Lucy and I, offered their advice, encouragement, and continued contact in the future to ensure success. I was honored to even receive a meeting with many of these individuals, whose busy schedules barely allow many of them time to breathe and eat. Not only were we offered their time, we were bought coffee and lunch, were given brochures, and more business cards than I can possibly count.
We were told to keep in touch, and to update our potential mentors on our progress throughout the years. Members of the mafia work for every agency imaginable, advice politicians, staff non-profits and still find time to volunteer their weekends to staff wildlife centers and take the occasional emergency shift.
My last day at the GRD, Friday June 28th, was a truly historic day in DC. The supreme court ruled to essentially legalize gay marriage in all 50 states. As I read about the ruling on my phone on my return trip from visiting the National Science Foundation in Arlington, I knew I had to continue onto the courthouse on the orange line. As I arrived at the Supreme Court, the celebration and success of many years of hard work was incredibly palpable. The sheer humanity and happiness present left an inspiring imprint of DC in my mind as I flew out on Saturday afternoon. Although DC may be a place where change is cumbersome and slow, when that change does occur, its impact is potentially global and incredible. Though I sensed from many members of the Mafia that their day to day jobs could tend towards frustration in regards to the slow process of change, the possibility of this incredible change continually offers encouragement. The externship at the GRD proved to me that the veterinary degree is one of amazing flexibility. We met Mafia members who studied human disease and some who advocated for those with life threatening diseases. We met others who work hard to ensure science funding and food safety nationally and internationally, and veterinarians who work to protect national security and ensure animal welfare of all species. When I enter my third year of school in the fall, I will do so with a renewed vitality and desire to serve the veterinary community. Although it is sad to leave the externship and DC, I am hopeful that my path will cross again with the Mafia, and with DC.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
6:30am- Woke up, got dressed, had breakfast while reviewing issue briefs
7:30- Left home (Falls Church) and headed to Dunn Loring Metro Station
8:30- Arrived at Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill for the American Horse Council’s Annual Conference
9:00- Met with Dr. Rachel Cezar (USDA APHIS Animal Care, Horse Protection Act) prior to her presentation on behalf of USDA APHIS at the conference; Breakfast provided
12:00pm- Headed to AVMA’s headquarter office in DuPont Circle; Ate lunch and started on weekly blog post
3:00pm- Headed to Capitol Hill for a meeting with legislative director in the Office Representative Morgan Griffith (VA-9th district); lobbied for bills H.R. 1285 and H.R. 649 within the Higher Education Act, S. 440 Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (VMLRPEA)—soon to be introduced in the House by Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb), and S. 1200 Fairness to Pet Owners Act—soon to be introduced in the House.
5:30- Attended the AVMA’s Presidential Reception at St. Gregory Hotel in DuPont Circle
7:30- Attended a pre-release screening of the movie ‘Max’ at the U.S. Navy Heritage Center
10:30- Headed home!
Following the movie premiere, Lucy and I continued our streak of glamour by attending the only black tie event in DC that allows those in attendance to rub elbows with well dressed K-9s, the Bark Ball. The Ball supports the Washington Humane Society, which provides a whole host of services to animals in the DC area, including a low cost spay-neuter clinic and wildlife support. The event tugged at the heart strings, as adorable, adoptable dogs pranced down the catwalk.
Dogs of all sizes wore ties, suits, tutus, and bedazzled halters. I was very impressed by the dogs’ calm demeanor during the whole event, although we guessed there was a good deal of self selection for those in attendance. Lucy and I also interacted with AVMA fellows new and old, and even reconnected with some members of ASPCA’s governmental relations division that we had met with earlier that week.
The next day, I continued my string of alliterative animal events, by visiting DC’s newly opened cat cafe, Crumbs and Whiskers. Crumbs and Whiskers houses friendly felines from the Washington Humane Society, allowing visitors to sit on a cushion near a cat while sipping coffee. By the time my friends and I arrived at 6 PM, many of the cats had tired of petting, and were content to snooze in a box, on a shelf , or in a cushy chair. I think many of the humans at the cafe wished the cats were a little more interactive, but I was content to just chill for a moment in my busy DC externship and enjoy the company of a cute cat.
Many of the leaders in the horse industry gathered in Washington this week for the American Horse Council’s Annual Meeting and National Issues Forum, “Promoting and Protecting the Horse. Scarlett and I was invited to attend day two of the nearly week-long conference ” courtesy of Dr. Rachel Cezar, a USDA APHIS Animal Care veterinarian. With our coffee and complimentary breakfast at hand, we listened to the morning’s scheduled speakers, consisting of mostly USDA APHIS staff including a presentation by Dr. Rachel Cezar on the continuing problem of soring. Representatives from various units of APHIS that work with equine related issues provided their mission statements, goals, and updates from their continuing work to promote the health and welfare of America’s horses. We heard from one speaker, Army Capt. Rory Carolan, lead veterinarian of the Equine Health Team. The team’s main focus includes disease surveillance as well as emergency preparedness and response. Together with the American Horse Council, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), and the National and State Animal Health Officials, they created the National Equine Health Plan that will help coordinate and streamline information and support surrounding issues related to the prevention, diagnosis and control of equine diseases throughout the U.S. Unbeknownst to us, Dr. Carolan provided examples of ‘behind the scenes’ efforts to make this happen. The Center for Veterinary Biologics, also a branch of USDA APHIS, approves test kits for use in diagnostics for many of the equine diseases like equine infectious anemia (EIA). Among many other things, USDA conducts investigations and enforcement services to ensure that policies and regulations are being followed. Other speakers included Josie Traub-Dargats from the Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health (CEAH), Joyce Bowing Heyward from the Import/Export Unit (NIES) as well as Dr. Ellen Buck, an Equine Import Specialist, and Dr. Chris Messer from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
But a special shout out goes to Dr. Rachel Cezar, the USDA APHIS National Horse Protection Coordinator and Policy Staff, who has been an inspiration to many and serves as a mentor for veterinary students. She received her DVM degree from Michigan State University in 2002 and her love of horses led her down a clinical path starting with a fellowship in Lexington, KY and an even a one year internship at the Dubai Equine Hospital in the United Arab Emirates. Faced with a decision whether to return to private practice or to pursue other facets of veterinary medicine, her experience serving in the Air National Guard persuaded her to explore careers in government. She joined USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer in 2007 and has been at USDA ever since. She has now become part of the National Policy Staff of the USDA APHIS Animal Care Unit where she is responsible for enforcing the Horse Protection Act, eliminating the cruel and inhumane practice of soring horses (yes, it still happens today). But in the few minutes I spoke with her, it was apparent to me that her passion as a veterinarian goes beyond the medicine and policies. She spends her spare time engaging in discussions about the current state of the profession—diversity and women’s leadership are her biggest priorities—and sharing her own testimonies that could potentially have an impact on current and future veterinarians. In the remaining minutes with her, I asked about what she hopes to accomplish in the future. She said she hopes to become more involved in the efforts to improve diversity within the profession, starting with her role in organized medicine. But she stresses that more importantly, as a woman of color herself, she hopes to make a positive impression on the next generation of veterinarians and offering students mentorship and advice. So if you ever in Washington DC or in Maryland, don’t be afraid to look her up!
Thanks to the American Humane Association, Lucy and I were treated to a unique pre-release screening of “Max” last night. Since they work to certify the humane treatment of animals on set,
and work to ensure the humane treatment of working dogs, they worked closely on the production of the new film “Max.” “Max,” a Belgian Malinois, stars in the film as a working dog in the Marines whose handler dies in a battle in Afghanistan. “Max” returns
to the US to be raised by the handler’s family. Max, or rather one of the dogs who played Max, even attended the screening! Several of the human actors also made an appearance. The movie was a touching portrayal of the human-animal bond.
Those in attendance of the screening were an interesting mix of Hollywood and animal lovers. Lucy and I also had the opportunity to meet Dan Glickman, a former secretary of agriculture and former chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. Members of congress also attended the event, including several members of the new Caucus for the Humane Bond. The Caucus hopes to highlight the unique relationship between animals and humans, a relationship that the veterinary community also works hard to cultivate. Who knew the AVMA externs would have the opportunity to brush with fame!
On Thursday night, we attended the One Health Academy’s dinner meeting at the Capital Yacht Club located just on the waterfront along the Washington Channel of the Potomac River. Based in Washington DC, the One Health Academy holds monthly gatherings as part of their mission to promote interdisciplinary collaboration across numerous and diverse agencies and organizations that in some way, shape, or form influence the health of people, animals, and the environment. We met folks from non-profit organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, scientific consulting groups, private health practitioners, and a fair number from federal agencies, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We even met a local dentist who had recently earned his Master of Public Health from George Washington University after seven years of private practice. This, in my view, was truly a One Health event!
We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Karen Becker, a veterinarian and Director of Applied Epidemiology at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), who not only chatted with us over a cocktail, but later offered us an invitation to visit with her at USDA FSIS headquarters! The atmosphere was classy yet casual (they had a grill and served picnic-style burgers and hotdogs), and everybody was there on their own free will, ready to mingle and perhaps exchange an idea or two. Following dinner was our keynote speaker, an internationally recognized Professor Ade Ojeniyi, who held doctoral degrees in both veterinary and human medicine. He was once the Chief Physician and Government Medical Advisor to the Ministry of Health in Greenland and is currently, a Visiting Professor at the University of Texas, School of Public Health in Houston, Texas. During his speech, he touched on the history of veterinary public health and how his experiences across the globe– Nigeria, Denmark, Greenland, and the U.S.– have reflected the need to use an integrated approach to solve problems, like reducing the prevalence and incidence of HPV, which he did in Greenland or irradiating food to reduce contamination. During his speech, he even called into question the term ‘zoonoses’, a term he says is a misnomer and offered a list of possible substitutes– my favorite being “amphi-xenoses”, which means the exchange of foreign diseases between two living entities. Afterwards, we spoke with Dr. Ojeniyi about how he came to earn two degrees, his current training in Chinese acupuncture, and how he calls Texas his second home (he currently resides in Denmark). Following the event, both Scarlet and I were inspired and hopeful for the movement towards One Health. It was such an honor to have been invited and to have been a part of this unique group, thanks to AVMA’s externship program!
On Tuesday, we had lunch with some of the most diverse and interesting veterinarians currently working at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That’s right—veterinarians. Dr. Michelle Colby is the Agriculture Defense Branch Chief in the Chemical and Biological Division of the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). Among her diverse portfolio of responsibilities, she is currently funding the development of an app that would allow veterinarians to use their smart phones in the field for disease surveillance (pretty cool, right?). In addition, she has a large portfolio focused on the development and licensing of vaccines for multiple foreign animal diseases, including foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). In May 2012, a public private partnership led by DHS S&T obtained a conditional license for the first FMD vaccine ever licensed in the United States.
Under her mentorship, we also met AAAS Fellow Roxann B. Montroni, who not only has one, but two, doctorate degrees (DVM/PhD). If you are not familiar, every year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the same folks that bring you the journal Science) selects an elite group of scientists, among other related professions (i.e. engineers), to learn first-hand about policymaking at the Federal level, working at various agencies like DHS, or within the Congressional branch. Just this past year, among 401 fellows selected, three were veterinarians. At the other end of the table was Dr. Hailey Harroun, a recent graduate of Colorado State University’s veterinary school and a captain in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. She was spending a few weeks at DHS as part of her rotating First Year Graduate Veterinary Education Program (FYGVE), an opportunity for select newly commissioned Veterinary Corps officers (VCOs) that would help prepare them for the wide variety of technical and leadership challenges they will face upon arrival at their first military duty location.
We laughed, chuckled and graciously stuffed our bellies with delicious food at the classy, upscale Lincoln restaurant while talking about a variety of topics in veterinary medicine—from how everyone entered the veterinary profession to what it’s like to be a veterinarian staffed in the White House. Realizing just the sheer achievement all these women at the table, we asked what it was like to be a female veterinarian in the Federal workplace, and furthermore, how veterinary students can best plan a career in government and policy. According to Dr. Colby, internships and externships are rare at DHS simply because the high level of clearance one would need before, during, and after working at DHS. Still, she encouraged us by providing great advice about what it takes to work in government, a new and historically non-traditional area for veterinarians. As such, she emphasized that veterinarians who work in government have to ‘think outside the box’ and if necessary, create your own job description and insist that veterinarians can outperform, yes, even our physician friends in certain positions. All three veterinarians we met with had very different paths but all agreed that while networking might be key in this business, sometimes being open-minded and a little serendipity can still go a long way. So to all those veterinary students interested, finish veterinary school and get out those business cards!
Earlier this week, Lucy and I had the privilege of sitting in on the joint American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) and American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) legislative fly-in. The first day was jam-packed with briefing sessions with a diverse set of groups, ranging from government executive agencies to industry groups. The executive committees, composed of a mixture of private practitioners and vets working in industry and academia, from both organizations attended the fly-in. The perspectives of vets in a variety of roles shed light on issues ranging from animal health laboratory funding to foreign animal disease prevention and trade policies on animal products. Those in attendance were extremely interested in representing the issues important to their sector of the veterinary profession, as well as the profession as a whole. The fly-in really emphasized that no matter what sector of veterinary medicine you choose to work in, you can continue to play a role in the legislative process.
The fly-in also introduced me to an animal welfare group previously unbeknownst to me, the American Humane Association (AHA). The AHA works on issues of farm animal welfare, as well as that of working animals. They are also the organization responsible for the “No Animals were Harmed” statement at the end of movies and TV shows; there is actually a AHA veterinarian in Hollywood who provides this certification! Dr. Marion Garcia, a former turkey vet, spoke to the groups about reaching a middle ground in between public opinion on animal welfare and veterinary and economic concerns. Walking the line between these different interest groups seems occasionally precarious, but definitely worthwhile to affect real change. Dr. Garcia works to certify farms as humane, providing an alternative to the organic certification, which does not allow sick animals to be treated with antibiotics and sold with the organic label.
We also heard from several veterinarians who work as lobbyists for industry organizations, including vets from the National Pork Producers Council, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Although we did not get to talk to each vet individually, their wealth of knowledge on a diverse set of issues affecting their industries and animal health was very impressive. On a daily basis in this externship, I am in awe of each veterinarian’s ability to apply their skill set to successfully complete a diverse array of nontraditional jobs, giving me hope that one day I can do the same.
One of the goals as a policy extern, especially during the first week, is to “Become familiar with the issues of importance being tracked by the GRD office” as stated in our program description. With the beginning of the 114th Legislative Congress in January, there have been some new additions to AVMA’s portfolio such as the “Fairness to Pet Owners Act”, introduced in the Senate last month and a number of other issues like the “Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act” (VMLRPEA) rolling over from previous legislative agendas.
Education related issues such as the VMLRPEA, have become a hot topic in both the House and the Senate as budget cuts continue and the lack of funding particularly from state and local governments remain a persistent thorn in the sides of many public colleges and universities, including veterinary schools. This week, I attended 2 committee hearings—one in House and the other in the Senate—on 2 very different but related issues in education. And, if you have never physically been to a committee hearing (like me), it is a policy experience that is worthwhile.
The first hearing was in the Judiciary House Committee entitled “First Amendment Protections on Public College and University Campuses”. And one might ask: how does this relate to veterinary medicine? But, I would argue: how does it not? The hearing was about protecting student’s first amendment rights on public colleges and university campuses. Not only are public academic institutions an extension of the governmental entity obligated to uphold the Constitution which includes 1st amendment, it is considered vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life. Colleges and universities should vigorously support the exchange of different ideas and beliefs seen as a hallmark of higher education.
Unfortunately, recent evidence suggests this hasn’t been the case. According to the Association of National Colleges and Universities, a 2010 survey found that of 24,000 college students only 36% of students and 19% of faculty strongly believed that it was safe to hold unpopular views on campus. At the same time, a 2015 report put out by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, 55% of the 437 colleges and universities they examined maintained policies that seriously infringed upon the free-speech rights of students. And in schools with less diversity, the more students feel discriminated. What this suggests to me is that the students are clearly the victims, and whose educational experiences are being threatened. In 2013, the veterinary profession was named the “whitest” profession by The Atlantic and one journal states is the “most segregated for all the health professions”. But it was these sobering truths that have revitalized diversity efforts at many of our nation’s veterinary schools. In doing so, schools like North Carolina State University, has increasingly accepted incoming first year students that identify as under-represented minority. My biggest worry is that as diversity increases in schools, the need for assurances of tolerance and freedom will be most essential to ensure students a quality education. Furthermore, this hearing reminded me that students DO have a voice—not just in our own club meetings and private platforms on campus—but, in society as a whole wherein “students take what they have experienced in school and pursue their dreams in a world that consist of people of different views, perspectives, philosophies and beliefs”.
The second hearing on college affordability entitled, “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Ensuring College Affordability” took place in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Though the hearing was primarily focused on the affordability of undergraduate education, I couldn’t help but think that many of the same issues applies to graduate education—cost of tuition, student perceptions of affordability, locating sources of aid as well as accessing it. And at the end of the day, the question came down to: what information, how and when it’s presented is actually useful in helping students choose the right school and at what cost? As a student paying out-of-state tuition for a veterinary school, which can reach up to about $60,000 per year, I can totally relate. I am one of the 88% of veterinary students who finance their four-year professional degree programs with student loans and very little scholarship aid. This increasing trend reflects the subsequent rise in student debt following graduation, which was an estimated $135,283 in 2014. I acknowledge that this is an extremely complex and multi-faceted issue; its solution does not and cannot solely rest in the hands of Congress or at the Federal level, but it needs to start somewhere. Not only did these hearings strike conversations among lawmakers regarding the cost of education and its impact down the road, it left audience members like me feeling empowered and some food for thought: as a student, what can I do to help change the future course of my life upon graduation as a result of my financial decisions and how do I help future students make better financial choices when choosing to pursue veterinary school? Either way, it would require exercising my first amendment right– yeah, students have this too.
Although I had to arrive two days late to the AVMA-GRD externship, participating in the 2015 Smith-Kilborne (SK) Program was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience public veterinary medicine in full force and to visit both the USDA’s facilities in Riverdale, Maryland, and in Plum Island, NY. The program selects one veterinary student from each school in the US and one student from Mexico each year to learn about Foreign Animal Diseases (FADs), opportunities in government work, and communication skills. SK fields amazing staff, with vast experience in international work and all realms of the government, including a former Chief Veterinary Officer, well renowned pathologists, and an FBI veterinarian. Conversing and connecting with veterinary students from across the country with similar interests in non-traditional veterinary medicine was refreshing and inspiring. We bonded over our mutual love of public health, as well as pandas and Ethiopian food on our free day in DC.
In 1954, USDA established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to conduct research on foreign animal disease that would threaten America’s domestic animal stock and potentially devastate the US economy. Visiting this unique island required lots of enhanced biosecurity, including many showers and donning Tyvek suits. Coming face to face with these diseases, and learning about their economic importance, provided important context outside of the normal veterinary curriculum. I left the program incredibly excited about a career in public veterinary medicine. I felt particularly energized to return to DC for the AVMA externship to learn more about the roles veterinarians play in policy and the government.
I flew back early (6 AM) to DC to begin my internship to find that my fellow extern-mate, Lucy, had set up more meetings with many veterinarians at the USDA-APHIS offices in Riverdale. At first, I thought the meetings may have been redundant, but we learned about more ways the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) protects animal agriculture than simply preventing disease spread, and met with many veterinarians who work on import-export policy on species ranging from exotic ruminants to chickens to fish, as well as vets focusing on animal welfare. The entire organization has been very focused recently on the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak in the US, and we heard many perspectives on emergency preparedness, even discussing how to safe-guard animals in the event of a bomb threat.
The USDA vets took unique paths to end up at their current positions. Many of the vets had additional degrees or experience in the field. All emphasized the importance of developing soft skills, including networking, management, and conflict resolution. When negotiating a hard trade deal, or diplomatically dealing with farmers during a disease outbreak, these skills can offer more of a benefit than technical knowledge. This externship offers me a unique chance as a vet student to hone these skills, and I am very excited for the breadth of opportunities over the next three weeks.