After being here for two weeks, I finally went to the National Zoo. There are two things you should know right off the bat. The park opens at 8 AM while the exhibit houses open at 9 AM. I recommend getting there at 8 AM so you can get a head start on seeing the animals that are not in exhibit houses, especially since the animals are more active in the morning when the weather is hot. Also, the crowds start to get heavy at 11 AM, so the earlier, the better. Make sure you get dropped off at the Connecticut Avenue side of the park which is at the top of the hill that the zoo is built on. This will mean that you are walking downhill most of the day. If you like a workout, then start at the Harvard Avenue side and walk up. The National Zoo is very large and even though the website says it takes 3 hours, I stayed for 5 hours and did not see everything. The chicken tenders are okay, the fries were soggy. You can pack a lunch and bring it with you. Just donate to the zoo in some fashion (if you can afford it). You can even text a donation.
The pandas were amazing of course. This is the third time I have seen pandas in a zoo (Atlanta, Memphis, and now D.C.) and they never disappoint. The female, Mei Xiang was in estrus and was scent marking the trees. The male, Tian Tian was pacing his enclosure trying to figure out how to get to Mei Xiang. The staff monitor Mei Xiang’s uterine cells to make sure they breed her at the best time at which point they try to allow natural mating, but if that does not take, they do IVF. The baby panda, Bei Bei which is old enough to be on his own now, spent most of his time napping in the trees. The sea lions were not to be missed. They put on a show for the crowd (without prompting); swimming, waving, and putting their noses on the glass. Under the water, their hair appears a beautiful silver on their head and blue on their flippers. The golden lion tamarin (marmoset), lemurs, and apes were fun to watch. They watched the crowd and jumped from enclosure to enclosure with excitement. The orangutans have a series of towers with ropes between them that they can use to travel across the zoo from one pen to another. I will be attending zoo rounds the last week of my externship and hope to learn even more. Definitely make time for the zoo when you visit.
I had my first meetings this week to discuss the Fairness to Pet Owners Act. In case you are not familiar with it, the Fairness to Pet Owners Act would make it mandatory for veterinarians to write a prescription every time they are recommending a medication to a client unless it is an emergency situation and the animal is receiving the medication immediately. This would add extra time and steps to the appointment process and may increase costs to the consumer. Clients are already able to receive a prescription in lieu of buying medication from their veterinarian to try to get the medication for a lower cost. You are probably familiar with the 1-800-Pet-Meds commercials. Veterinarians are not really allowed to deny this request since many states have laws against it or the veterinary medical board for the state considers it a violation and therefore the veterinarian could be disciplined or lose their license. It is for these reasons that the AVMA does not support the Fairness to Pet Owners Act.
I met with Senator Lamar Alexander’s office (TN) in the Hart office on the Senate side. Everyone I will meet with during my time in D.C. will be from Tennessee since that is my hometown. The staff member was very nice and listened to me, even though I was probably talking too quickly. He asked a few questions about how an interaction would change between a veterinarian and a client should the bill pass and I gave him an example. “You bring your dog in for a rash, I recommend an antibiotic to clear it up, I then write you a prescription for that antibiotic. At that point, I let you know, I can fill this prescription for you, or you can take it somewhere else to get it filled, but they may not have the correct dose you need since your dog is little.” The staffer let me know that we did not have anything to worry about; he did not think his office would be supporting a bill if it came to the Senate. We then met with Senator Bob Corker’s office. His staff member was also extremely friendly. My friend, Caroline Sosebee who was in for the Legislative Advisory Committee as the SAVMA representative and is also a third year at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (Go Vols!), took point on this meeting. She was so well spoken and explained why we were opposed to the bill. We asked that if a companion Senate bill were put forward that Senator Corker not support it. The staffer also assured us that they were not interested in this bill. Our last meeting was with Representative Jimmy Duncan’s office on the House side. The staff member gave no indication which way they might lean on the bill, but she was still very welcoming to us and listened to our side. I hope Rep. Duncan will not support the bill. We also asked her to thank Rep. Duncan for being a member of the veterinary caucus. He is the only member from Tennessee that is on it.
My advice for meetings: read through the information a few times, think about the points that resonate with you the most, and feel free to include your own experiences if they apply. Since these are veterinary or animal issues, we frequently have more experience than the people we are talking to. Then take a deep breath and just start a conversation!
I attended my first bill markup with the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which three bills were passed. The first was S. 139 the Rapid DNA Act which would allow DNA results to come back on suspects in about 30 minutes aiding law enforcement in connecting people in their custody to other previous crimes. The second was S. 534, Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act which will make reporting of sexual abuse toward a minor in any amateur sporting group mandatory. The third was S. 583, the American Law Enforcement Heroes Act which allows for the prioritizing of hiring veterans in law enforcement. The markup was remarkable since the Judiciary Committee is currently calling for an investigation into President Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Most of the meeting was spent discussing why Senator Feinstein and Senator Grassley thought there should be an investigation. The other interesting part was how Senators would show up and ask to be put on a bill as a cosponsor right before it is about to make it through the committee; they don’t want to pass up the opportunity for a slam dunk piece of legislation.
I also attended a One Health Academy Meeting which asked the question “Is fracking this generation’s big tobacco?” The talk was very interesting and drew many parallels between the loss of life and health effects of tobacco and fracking, but better than the talk was the networking opportunity. There were many veterinarians in the room; we outnumbered all the other professions combined. Before the talk, we all introduced ourselves and I was so nervous since I was the only student in the room. After the talk, many veterinarians came up to introduce themselves to me. They gave me their cards and asked about my professional interests. They also asked if my calendar was full during my time here and made suggestions on how to fill it. Finally, they asked me what food and activities I enjoyed and made recommendations. I love gardening and I was told that USDA manages a US National Arboretum which has the original White House columns that could not be used again after the fire and an extensive bonsai exhibit. There are several great theaters in the area; Folgers has an original theater in the round and does Shakespearean plays. And D.C. has a large Ethiopian restaurant scene and a Salvadorian scene. If you come to D.C. and want to network, I definitely recommend the One Health Academy Meeting.
Today was my first full day on the Hill and it was better than I could have expected. My first word of advice is start the day with a good breakfast, you have no idea how long it might be until you get to eat again. After eating a vegan protein shake, I headed to Dirksen (by Uber because in my case it is a lot faster than the metro), which is on the Senate side, and watched a hearing on the modernization of the Endangered Species Act. My second piece of advice, especially to the ladies, is wear comfortable shoes and bring a nice pair of shoes in your bag. If you are dead set on wearing your pretty flats (notice I did not say heels), then definitely pick up some mole skin. Attending the hearing was amazing. It was interesting to hear the testimony from experts on the subject, the format of the proceedings, and to see how little time the Senators remain in the room. They mostly ask their questions and leave. It makes me wish I could follow them around for a little and see how many hearings they enter a day. After the hearing, I went to Rayburn on the House side to get gallery passes from my Congressman. Then I enjoyed a shrimp Po-boy at Sonoma which is just a few blocks down on the Hill side. I had about thirty minutes to kill until my next meeting, so I went to the Jefferson Library of Congress and took in a little of the architecture.
My second hearing of the day was in the Capitol in the Senate meeting rooms and it was on “Trumpcare and the High Cost to Families” and was televised on C-SPAN. Since I am a dual DVM and MPH student, I also have interests in the current discussions around reforming the ACA, so I am pumped to be in Washington during this time. The panel of experts were so moving and it was amazing to see every Senator I admire gathered into one place. My third piece of advice is get good at going through security check points. If you are going into the Hill buildings (Dirksen, Cannon, etc.) then you can put everything in a purse and put it on the belt to be scanned. Men, you may want to consider getting a satchel so you can load everything up too. If you are going into the Capitol building, then they will also ask you to dump all your liquids outside. Also, the entrance to the Capitol building is actually below ground. There are police officers everywhere and they are very friendly if you have any questions about getting around. After the hearing, I Ubered home, planned my schedule for my next day of visits, and tried to get in bed early for the next full day of events.
Our fourth and last week of the AVMA GRD externship program has been scary in that I feel like there is so much more for me to learn, but it has also been marked by some great personal achievements. While I have really enjoyed learning more about the executive offices in our government, it was really the legislative process and our role in it that attracted me to this externship. During last year’s Fly-In, I realized that I really enjoyed learning about the issues and teaching staffers about our profession so that they could better understand how legislation impacted veterinarians. This year, I was able to accompany one of our students to the New York offices. She did an excellent job; the staffers were very responsive to her points. Nevertheless, I realized that four weeks of working with these topics and my background as an upstate New Yorker has made me a lot more knowledgeable and familiar with the agricultural fabric of our state economy, and I was able to supply more detailed answers if they were needed. It really was eye opening how much I have learned in these four weeks, and I’m really appreciative to have had this experience.
The legislative process is by no means limited to topic meetings. This week I was able to participate in some other key events. On Monday, I went to my senator’s office and obtained a gallery pass. With that, I was able to observe the Senate Floor and see Governor Sonny Perdue confirmed as our Secretary of Agriculture. Additionally, one night this week, I attended a PAC dinner on behalf of the AVMA for Representative David Young from Iowa. Not only was the food amazing, but also I learned about how PAC events can give organizations better visibility. I met a lot of other interesting people and learned about their backgrounds, and after the meeting, I was able to talk with the Congressman one-on-one. We discussed how, earlier that day, several veterinary students from ISU had met with him through our Fly-In program. He really enjoyed the visit, and he was able to better see how our organization impacted him at home as some of them were his constituents. Furthermore, we were able to thank him in person for cosponsoring the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act.
Finally, this week, Patricia and I were able to meet with two of our congressional veterinarians: Drs. Kurt Schrader and Ted Yoho. Dr. Yoho even asked us what we would like to see the federal government offer to the American people! It was a couple of wonderful visits and a really good way to close the legislative experience of this externship.
I can’t believe that this is the final day of my externship. I have learned so much in these past four weeks – I just want the experience to continue. I am incredibly grateful for all the connections I have made while I have been here. The variety of positions veterinarians can thrive in is honestly astounding. It has taught me that our skillset is incredibly marketable to a variety of positions, which has filled me with pride for our profession. Though, I must admit, I may be slightly confused as to my exact career pathway, I am more excited than ever as to what my future holds.
On Tuesday I went to visit US Fish and Wildlife Service, where I met with a variety of veterinarians in the International Affairs division for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. I didn’t realize just how globally involved the Fish and Wildlife Service is, particularly in Africa and Asia. It was definitely an eye opening experience.
Wednesday was exciting as we met with Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon. A fellow veterinarian, it was great to speak with him about how he uses his veterinary experience in his current position. We had a similar meeting today with Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, where he explained how he made the transition from veterinarian to congressman. It was an incredible opportunity to speak with them both – one that I will not likely forget any time soon.
As the week wraps up, I must say that I highly recommend this externship to any veterinary student, regardless of their plans for the future. Being able to understand the wide scope of veterinary medicine is invaluable and I had the opportunity to meet truly amazing people along the way. It is with this that I sign off with a ‘see you later’ rather than a ‘goodbye.’ I have so enjoyed my time here and I hope that I will be back soon.
As this externship comes to a close, I am amazed by what I have been able to learn in four weeks. It is not quite what I expected in that meeting with executive offices has comprised a much bigger part of the experience than I would have guessed coming in. However, I have learned so much about the various agencies and departments, and I am very appreciative that we have been able to do that.
On the last day of the externship I was able to drive up to Fort Detrick in Frederick, MD to tour USAMRIID. It is an Army medical research facility that studies infectious diseases, particularly for medical biological defense. While there, I got to meet with multiple individuals in the Veterinary Corps and learn about what it meant to be a veterinarian in the Army. They helped me understand the typical career timeline of a veterinarian and how we can use our profession to serve our nation.
Additionally, I got to tour the facility, which was really amazing because I just love science. Many of the agents on their research list require work to be done in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL 4) facilities, so I was only able to peer in through windows at what was happening inside. However, after the tour, I was taken to the BSL 4 training area, and I was shown some of the equipment and the process for entering and exiting. Then, I got to get all suited up in BSL 4 attire, which basically consists of one full body (including the head) suit. The suit is made of an opaque plastic material except for the head, which is a clear material attached to the suit, and hands, which has removal gloves that are taped on and changed weekly (or more frequently if needed). Traditional suits are blue with PJ onesie feet, and a newer, lighter-weight suit is white with boots already attached. I tried on a blue one, and it was even more difficult than I expected to get into. First I had to place my left leg in from a zipper opening on the right side of the suit. Next, the other leg and then left arm are dressed. Finally, you slip your head into the suit and your right arm last. The zipper is closed (not so easy), and you have to attach yourself to an air line (it’s airtight!). I felt like a super awesome astronaut-scientist in 20 lb XXL onesie that was slowly suffocating me, but I was so excited. It was quite the experience, and definitely will be memorable for many moons to come.
I am excited to say that we have a Secretary of Agriculture! After a busy day at the National Institutes of Health, I hurried to the Hill to watch the vote, which was scheduled for 5:30PM in the Senate gallery. In order to get into the gallery, I had to grab a pass from one of my Pennsylvania Senators. I then ran across the street to the Capitol and managed to get into the gallery around 4:45PM. There are rows of seats above the Senate floor that look down onto the Senators – similar to amphitheater seating. Several senators announced their nomination and support for Dr. Perdue, and the vote began. Senators casually wandered in and out of the chamber, announcing their vote as they did so. I expected the voting process to be much more formal, with all members present at once and seated in their respective chairs. At 6:00PM they announced the vote results and the secretary was confirmed.
The beginning of my day was filled with a tour of the NIH facilities. I met several veterinarians from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which provides guidance on policies related to humane uses for laboratory animals, educational outreach and investigates complaints. From there I went to the main NIH campus, which actually looks much like a college campus with large green expanses and lots of trees. I met a veterinarian involved with NIH’s governmental affairs, an animal program director for a laboratory, and a veterinary surgeon. I was also able to tour the NIH veterinary facilities, where surgeries are performed, as well as the primate facility. Overall it was a great introduction to the various roles that veterinarians can play in the NIH, as well as the incredibly large scope of their research.
Tomorrow I will be heading to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to their offices of International Affairs. I am excited to see what their division does, and understand the roles veterinarians play.
Today was a marathon. It started with a phone call with APHIS International Services. This is an opportunity for veterinarians to get involved at the international level by serving as diplomats and a resource to Ambassadors overseas. With my interest in moving abroad, I was curious to find out more details about the program. After you are accepted, there is a formal training program where veterinarians are exposed to all sectors of APHIS to ensure they understand the missions and goals of each department. After training, you are assigned to a post where you work alongside other diplomats, as well as those hired from the local country. It is definitely something I am considering, and I am glad I had the opportunity to learn more about it.
I then went to the USDA building on the Mall for a meeting with FSIS veterinarians. It was fascinating to understand their role in food safety and public health. On an international level, they work with other countries in order to ensure our exports and imports meet the regulatory requirements. I also learned about their involvement in food recalls, as they are the agency involved for any meat or meat product related outbreak.
From there I took the metro up to FDA to learn about food outbreak and response – this time with non-meat items. The FDA is involved with traceability once an outbreak occurs, working alongside other agencies such as the CDC to determine the source. As a fan of epidemiology, I find the tracing process to be fascinating.
I’m looking forward to another weekend to explore D.C.!
Our tea is restocked. The schedule is finalized. And the folders are stuffed. Next week about a hundred veterinary students and veterinarians will come to our nation’s capital. They will discuss with their representatives the two issues that Patricia and I have been advocating for these past three weeks: reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act. The AVMA Legislative Fly-In is a two-day affair that trains participants to effectively convey the issues selected. On the first day, a series of programs are set-up to teach participants about the issues and to familiarize them with etiquette on the Hill. They are given issue briefs as well as some additional guidelines to help educate them on the two topics. Then, on the second day, participants dress-up and go to meet with their Congressional offices.
Last year, both Patricia and I participated in the Fly-In. It was a whirlwind of running from one office to another, but it was so much fun. Actually discussing issues with staffers made the legislative process a lot clearer to me. While I could have drawn diagrams or rattled off facts about the process, actually partaking in it was a very educational experience. And, I learned a lot about the issues. Ultimately, the experience led me to apply to this externship.
This year, participants will be discussing topics that I have grown quite familiar with. I have really enjoyed this externship, but over the past couple weeks it has become increasingly obvious to me that, away from vet school, veterinarians are not a popular breed. In fact, here in DC, even having a first-hand understanding of agriculture is very rare. Thus, I am very excited to be joined on the Hill with so many students and veterinarians who do have that background. Hopefully, next week we will be able help others understand the importance of agriculture and attracting veterinarians to underserved areas as well as our tremendous debt burden.