There are things that define the veterinary student and, by extension, the veterinarian. We are women (nearly 80%, one of the most female-dominated professions in the world). We are almost invariably Type A overachievers. We love animals. We take a certain (possibly twisted) satisfaction from draining and flushing a good abscess. We would rather go without sleep than take a slightly lower (but passing) grade. We are perfectionists.
This is, of course, in part because we all had to get into vet school. One of the things our profession has going for it is that it is so small, and can therefore be very selective. With only 28 (now 29- welcome, Utah!) schools in the United States, and only 2,500 veterinarians graduating every year, every vet student can tell you how hard we all had to work to get in. Top ten percent of our undergraduate classes, multiple majors, research projects, work experience, letters of recommendation from veterinarians we’ve worked for, GRE scores, MCAT scores, VMCAS applications… the amount of work it takes just to get in and outcompete the hundreds of people vying for a spot in the school is mind-boggling. And then once we got in, we were each one of a hundred Type A overachievers all trying to impress the professors and understand the deluge of information thrown at us.
At the University of Georgia, our orientation includes a personality assessment. It tells you whether you’re introverted or extroverted, if you’re a list-maker or a procrastinator. This is generally not news to the person being told what they are, but it gives us a framework to talk to each other about it. I am a procrastinator. It’s not because I’m lazy or because I don’t care, but because over the years I have learned that I am more focused and do better work under the gun on deadline than when I have forever to do it. This ability came in very handy during second year, when we had two and three tests a week for weeks on end. There was never enough time to do things early or study a little bit at a time, but because being under pressure and short on time brings out the best in me, my grades actually went up.
I also get bored easily. I like to have a huge variety of things to do, and if two days are the same, I don’t like it at all. I love the challenge of coming up with creative, different solutions- give me a goal and tell me the rules, and I love coming up with an answer. There are two specific areas of veterinary medicine that I know fit my personality well- emergency medicine (nothing says deadline like an HBC) and non-traditional veterinary medicine, this nebulous, strange heading we give to veterinarians who don’t work in a clinic. And the funny thing to me is, the rewards of each are so very different. In emergency medicine, your result is tangible and immediate: this animal was dying, and now it’s not, because you were there and you and your team intervened. In policy or lobbying or regulatory medicine, you don’t get to touch the animals and your results come to you in the form of statistics, in analyst reports. For this “non-traditional” veterinary medicine, you need to be imaginative and be able to see and understand the big picture and take the long view, while in emergency medicine, you need to be focused and deal with this problem right now.
I write all of this because I have been thinking about diversity a lot. It’s something we hear a lot- we need diversity in our profession. And we do. But something that I heard at a briefing yesterday made me think about diversity in a whole new light.
Diversity is one of those buzzwords that I’ve really not thought a whole lot about in a long time. Scholarships that talk about encouraging diversity in our profession tend to focus specifically on the most visible forms of diversity: race and gender. But sitting in the USDA Farm Bill briefing yesterday, hearing Secretary Vilsack talk about the need of diversity in farming, I heard a new definition of diversity that made me reconsider our profession of female Type A overachievers.
Secretary Vilsack was laying out the plan to encourage rural communities to continue growing crops and feeding our country and planet. He was talking about how important it is to keep the large commercial farms profitable, and also how important it is to encourage small-scale farmers to sell not only to the local farmers’ markets, but also to consider export of their goods and how we can help them with that. How to encourage people to raise livestock, and how important it is to make sure that those affected by the storms that wiped out much of the livestock in the Midwest this year are able to continue to raise livestock and feed their families and us.
It’s important, in part, because as Secretary Vilsack pointed out, “we have delegated the responsibility of feeding our families to someone else,” and because we have done that, “the rest of us are free to do whatever we want.” In other words, if we didn’t have such efficient, productive farmers and ranchers, we would all be farmers and ranchers, and the diversity of professions in our country (and world) would simply not exist. It is a fundamental truth that all the freedom that we have to choose our profession depends entirely on those who choose to farm, and as such, it is our responsibility to support them. And then Secretary Vilsack said the thing that blew my mind.
It can’t all be the same.
It can’t be one size.
It can’t be one crop.
It can’t be one race.
It’s got to be across the board.
It’s got to be diverse.
The Secretary’s definition of diverse didn’t begin with race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation. His definition of diverse boils down to something much more fundamental. It can’t all be the same. And that made me reconsider our profession in light of this new definition of diversity, and made me think about all the experiences I’ve had so far.
We need veterinarians who do lab animal medicine, who do zoo and wildlife medicine, who do food inspection and customs inspection, who do small animal medicine and equine medicine and production medicine and shelter medicine. We need pathologists and radiologists and oncologists and nutritionists and orthopedists. We need generalists and specialists. And suddenly it hit me. Our entire profession is diverse. I think of my classmates, who are doing all of these different things, and I realize that while it is important to promote ethnic and gender diversity, that just because we are a bunch of mostly female Type A overachievers, that doesn’t mean we are an indistinguishable sea of identical robots in scrubs and ponytails. If I can find myself suited to two such different things as policy and emergency medicine, imagine the diversity of talents and abilities present in my class of 102. Imagine in the school of 408. In the 2,500 that graduate across the country every year.
We work in an enormously diverse profession.
Your mission, should you be accepted as an AVMA Extern: learn as much as possible about being a non-traditional veterinarian and how veterinarians can work in developing and impacting public policy. You have four weeks and the backing and resources of the AVMA, and the freedom to explore any and all aspects of non-traditional veterinary medicine that you possibly can, and you are limited only by your time and imagination.
My first day as an extern started off with lots of quick meetings with the Director and Assistant Directors at the AVMA, and there was a common theme in these meetings. Where in veterinary medicine do I see myself going? What, precisely, is my goal for these four weeks? And what do I hope to get out of it?
My answer was laconic. Yes. But that’s the truth. I told Dr. Whitney Miller, one of the Assistant Directors, that all I know is that I don’t know what I don’t know. Therefore, I am going to try my utmost to simply say yes to every opportunity and meeting and lunch and dinner and coffee. I am going to ask as many questions as I can. I am going to explore and see what I can do with my career and listen to the advice of other veterinarians and try to get as much out of this experience as I can.
For the rest of the day: I sat in on a meeting of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and listened to their plans for dealing with common diseases and how to conduct their upcoming studies, and then I sat in on a conference call about the Fairness to Pet Owners Act, and then (highlight of the day, perhaps) I went over to the USDA’s Witten Building and listened to Secretary Vilsack outline the USDA FY15 Budget, including plans to help American farmers and plans to improve poultry research facilities in the southeast. My first day was incredible and I can’t wait to get started on my second.
Day One: A Georgia Dawg Does A DC Tradition
They say no day at the AVMA is the same, and I think my first day is certainly no exception. I got to DC on Saturday, so excited to check in to my hotel, settle in, and get ready for my first day. Of course, I hadn’t exactly counted on the 6 inches of snow falling, shutting down all the government offices, including the AVMA’s office. I’m staying at the Adams Inn, a beautiful little boutique hotel in the Adams Morgan neighborhood about a mile from the office. For future externs who might be curious, they’re awesome. They even put a garment rack in my room when it became evident that I had over packed for the closet space, and helped me move my things in from the car.
So the snow. I woke up to beautiful, fluffy, white snow drifting to the ground. If it seems like I’m waxing a bit poetic, I’m originally from the California coast and have lived in Georgia for almost ten years. Despite the recent snows in Georgia, I’m a snow neophyte, and I decided not to spend an entire day cooped up in my hotel. The hotel concierge told me about a DC tradition- on snow days, people gather in DuPont Circle at 2pm for a snowball fight. This all apparently started after a monster snowstorm hit in 2009 (or maybe 2010, different people have told me different things). At any rate, since the office is near DuPont Circle, I decided to find my way there and see what it was all about.
It was there I discovered a second DC tradition: Bigfoot. This tradition apparently comes from someone who dressed up in shorts and the infamous horse head mask during Hurricane Sandy and ran through the streets. This time, it was Bigfoot, and he was walking around DuPont Circle and having a great time by the look of it.
The participants in the snowball fight were young and old, American and foreigner- I heard Spanish, French, and a couple other languages I didn’t recognize. Everyone was laughing and smiling, throwing snowballs or taking pictures. Eventually, two camps formed. Those that gathered in the fountain, and those that gathered behind the benches and shrubs- and an epic battle was fought, with incursions into the no man’s land, and even dashes into enemy camps. It was one of those great experiences that defines a day or a week or even a whole trip.
My first day may not have been quite what we’d planned (World Wildlife Awareness Day, USDA Stakeholders Briefing), but I got to learn more about this city and I got to be a part of a fun tradition that I had never heard about before. There are no normal or average days being an AVMA extern, but my first day was certainly an extraordinary one.
This past month in DC, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting numerous DC veterinarians, doctors of policy who work on preventative or curative legislation. They do not carry stethoscopes or wear white doctors’ jackets. They are congressional staffers, congress members, federal animal welfare policy coordinators, animal product trade experts, food safety inspectors, and lobbyists. And I am so very grateful that our profession has this network veterinary-trained experts working on the issues that matter most to us. I wouldn’t trust lawyers, MBAs, or polysci folks to handle it on their own. Indeed, if we do not practice medicine through policy, we leave important legislative initiatives to other animal advocacy groups who may not have our background knowledge in animal welfare, natural animal behavior, production economics, zoonotic disease, and food safety.
While none of the veterinarians I’ve met this month practice clinical medicine in the strict sense, they have all said that veterinary school was very useful in their careers. Vet school was justified. For some, the connection is obvious.
- Food Safety inspectors working on slaughter lines need to be able to recognize pathologies.
- Representative Ted Yoho told us that he uses the S.O.A.P. procedure to evaluate problems both Subjectively and Objectively before coming up with an Assessment and a Plan.
- The vet profession prepared him to be a small businessman, and he takes that business acumen to hill the way any MBA would.
- US Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) vets work on import and export policies in combination with OIE, and echoed the importance of using both their clinical and disease knowledge to streamline and coordinate trade policies.
- Being able to rapidly make a decision, as you would in a clinical setting, is a necessity. Being able to change the course of action and try something new if the first plan doesn’t work, is also helpful. As vets, we are taught problem-solving skills and can use them under pressure.
- Being able to think broadly about disease spread from animals to humans and environmental and economic implications of decisions allows us to exercise these problem-solving skills with an array of consequences in mind.
Throughout vet school, I’ve struggled with this question, “don’t you want to practice medicine?” And while in DC, I’ve had the pleasant experience of realizing that only veterinarians ask this of each other. We define our profession too narrowly (if that is even possible after being required to know the ins and outs of every non-human species on the planet).
On the hill, most people assume that as a veterinarian you are a knowledge expert. By working on issues relevant to the medical profession and animal health, you are, in fact, practicing medicine. For example, lobbying for the Veterinary Medical Mobility Act (VMMA) to ensure that veterinarians can take medication outside the hospital to treat ailing patients enables the 85,000 AVMA veterinarians 12,000 SCAVMA veterinary students we represent to practice clinical medicine. More broadly speaking, the reason we practice animal medicine is to improve the lives of animals and safeguard the health of humans. What better way to do this than political engagement?
I am truly grateful to the knowledgeable AVMA GRD staff for allowing me to get a glimpse of their ‘clinic,’ to practice medicine with their clientele, and learn an entirely unique skill set along with the issues pertinent to the profession.
It’s been very gratifying to serve our profession this way- and the icing on the cake came in the form of a follow-up email with one of the 12 staffers I’ve met with this month. She wanted me to know that her boss, Representative Lowenthal (D-California), will co-sponsor the VMMA! It’s been a short, but happy, whirlwind of a month.
If you are a self-proclaimed #AGnerd like me, you were also probably waiting with baited breath for the clock to strike noon last Thursday so that the preliminary results of the 2012 Agricultural Census could finally be unveiled the world over. It was thrilling, wasn’t it? Perhaps you aren’t like me (ie, you didn’t mine the last 20 years of agricultural census for data for a 4-year-long PhD in food planning), but you do want to know the short story for US agricultural trends- and what that may mean for the veterinary profession. Fear not, I have a run-down for you here (and it’s not nearly as long as my dissertation).
The Agricultural Outlook Forum of 2014 unveiled a preview of the 2012 Agricultural Census to a diverse audience consisting of representatives from the many federal agencies, embassies, research universities, farm bureaus, and food industries. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack opened plenary with an overview of some of the bright spots in US agricultural production. The value of agricultural products sold in the U.S. is up 33% from 2007, totaling $394.6 billion. Farmland loss is slowing, declining from 922 million acres in 2007 to only 915 million acres in 2012. This decline of less than 1% is the third smallest decline between censuses since 1950. This is also the first time in history that the US has lost population in rural areas. This means that we are making more with less land, and there may be less development pressure on precious farmland.
While the numbers of big and small farms are stable, there is still a decline in the numbers of medium-sized farms. Principal farm operators are becoming older and more diverse, following the trend of previous censuses. Many farmers are over the ages of 65 and 75 years old, necessitating a push to make agricultural connections with young people and returning veterans to keep the farming sector viable.
Secretary Vilsack emphasized the importance of supporting all scales of agriculture, with a particular focus on medium-sized farm operations. He elaborated on the importance of medium-sized farms as many older farmers transition out of the business, small farms are important entry points for young farmers. Successful small-scale farmers may want to grow their businesses as they continue to support regional economies. This is certainly true for the livestock sector where the overall livestock farm numbers continued to decrease, but smaller operations are growing or remaining steady. For veterinarians, particularly those working with small and medium-sized farms, it becomes important to help our clients think of innovative ways to grow and succeed- be that new markets, social media outreach, value-added products, or agritourism.
To this end, Secretary Vilsack emphasized the need for diversity in agriculture, both crop diversity (multi-crop/species, more focus on value-added products and multiple opportunities- to minimize risk), land-use diversity (marketing land-use for conservation and wildlife purposes) and diversity of farm operators (with the help of immigration reform- so farm laborers can become farm owners). Secretary Vilsack sees hope in a bio-based economy where Americans grow something, and use our manufacturing sector to turn agricultural raw products, such as corn cobs being transformed into biodegradable plastic. While 14% of manufacturing is already connected to agriculture, Secretary Vilsack sees more opportunity for agricultural growth and diversification in marketing innovations.
These numbers indicate that rural veterinarians will face more depopulated rural areas, larger farms, and an older clientele. Nonetheless, emerging trends point to a need for veterinarians to increasingly operate in diverse agricultural practices, where a diverse language and skill-set may be needed to ensure animal, plant and human health where domestic and wild species are mixed and agritourism brings people and livestock into close proximity.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been tasked with carrying out the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2010, and everyone is wondering how they are going to do it. Unlike food safety regulations of the past, which relied on public officials to test and catch already tainted foods on the market, FSMA grants the FDA preemptive oversight to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested and processed. The regulation has caused intense speculation as it operates at the nexus of public health, food industry economics, international trade, and consumer food spending.
- What will FSMA cost to enforce, and will those costs be passed on to the American consumers, who spend less on food than any they would in any other country?
- How will FSMA synch with already existing county and state agricultural regulations for the production and sale of eggs, milk and meat?
- How will FSMA impact food imports and exports as the FDA extends its food safety inspection procedures to other countries?
To discuss these issues, Charlie Stenholm (former Representative, Texas-D) hosted a press forum through the Farm Foundation Forum. Dennis Nuxoll of the Western Growers Alliance accentuated the benefits of a public-private-partnership as government agencies work with individual industries to review and enforce standards. As Dennis pointed out, the environmental and health ramifications of watering fruit trees is drastically different from watering lettuce. Each food industry has its own set of standards and guidelines for how crops are grown and managed, and a one-size fits all regulation will not work across different agricultural types, scales, or regions. Paul Muller, a farmer from ‘Full Belly Farm,’ emphasized the need for new regulations to be cost effective for small growers who sell locally and bolster local economies.
On the other end of the world stage, Richard Gilmore, the Chairman of Global Food Safety Forum, addressed the ripple effects that FSMA could have on global trade in terms of restricting imports and driving food safety legislation abroad. He pointed to Chinese dairy consolidation as being partly driven by need to comply with US import regulations like FSMA.
From the veterinary perspective, I wonder if veterinarians, particularly those employed in food safety and inspection, can expect job growth as expertise and oversight is required from farm to fork?
Moreover, how will FSMA change the way we raise food animals and manage intrusive wildlife on farms?
In blazers and smiles, we trumped through the metal detectors and into one of the Senate conference rooms (the one where the Godfather was filmed… it looked suspiciously familiar: marble columns, stately chandeliers, and flags galore).
Representative Ted Yoho (R-Florida) and Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) , both veterinarians, greeted us. Each had found that their medical expertise was a welcomed rarity amongst their fellow lawyer congresspeople. Rep Yoho described using SOAP to diagnose a legislative problem and work toward a solution (and he could relate remembered Ettinger’s internal medicine to the job! … as well as some horse anatomy Veterinarians belong in discussions of public policy and we have valuable skills to offer as widely versed health experts with client skills and general concern for the environmental impact on the world around us. If vets want to run for office, the field is far from saturated!
If trials and tribulations of public office are not appetizing, we also heard a pitch to get involved as staffers. Previous AVMA fellows, Dr. Melinda Cep and Dr. Eric Deeble, both delivered candid views of being staffers on the Hill, often infusing their experiences with humor and a sense of urgency for all veterinarians to get involved in local, state or federal politics. While staffers don’t have the heat from the limelight, they still feel the full force of the infectious energy that permeates politics. Drafting policy comments, reaching out to expert constituents, and briefing the congressperson, the staffers help shape the positions that the office will eventually take.
Not yet a congressperson or a staffer, we did the next best thing and became engaged constituents. Paired with two other UPenn students, I met with David Goldfarb, a Legislative Aide to Senator Toomey from Pennsylvania. David’s brother attends Penn, so we made our connection over a mutual love of the school. David had also been very well briefed on the issues we came to discuss. He’d read the literature, spoken with other constituents, and he had questions. At the end of the conversation, we asked for co-sponsorship of the Veterinary Loan Repayment Bill and received a favorable reply.
Still all smiles and blazers, we exited our first Hill meeting with faith in the political system. I plan to follow-up with David and anyone can track the legislation through AVMA-CAN for some armchair activism that will only take a few minutes.
This year was the first year that AVMA leadership and students attended the same Fly-in event.
The students, harried from the bi-weekly veterinary school exam schedule, took a much deserved break from studying to be excited and engaged in federal policy issues and rub shoulders with AVMA leadership. And the enthusiasm and engagement was palpable. The past, present and future presidents of the AVMA were treated to a barrage of ideas for the future of the profession from contentious questions about veterinary supply and salaries to idea pitching for new opportunities in public health, emergency animal aide and disaster relief training. The receptiveness of AVMA delegates and eagerness of students to contribute gave the mingle sessions a spirited buzz. Ideas flew. Friendly fire was exchanged as policies were debated. And the entire event hummed with productive synergy across student and leadership groups as our profession changes demographics and orients toward the 2020s and beyond.
This event was also a wonderful time to shine the spotlight on the AVMA Government Relations Division and learn some from their magic tricks for staying in-tune with policy, government, and the pulse of the profession. The GRD office delivered policy briefs on each of their topics, laying out the history and projected future impacts that AVMA-supported legislation would have on animal industries. Gina Luke celebrated the farm bill passing and dove from that victory head-first into her next project: the veterinary loan repayment program; Dr. Ashley Morgan detailed the veterinary medical mobility act’s necessity to clarify Drug Enforcement Agency policy on controlled substances; and Dr. Whitney Miller gave a history of soring Tennessee walking horses and the need for revamping currently ineffective federal inspection policies.
Once we all knew the ins and outs of what was on menu this congressional session, the GRD invited Chris Kush up to the podium. A veteran lobbyist and author of numerous books on the topic, Mr. Kush, performed stand-up comedy while demonstrating effective and courteous skills for discussing bills on the Hill. His lessons: introduce yourself and make a connection with the office staff (they are the guardians of policy), know your ‘ask’ when you meet (well… anyone in D.C.), and be prepared to back that ask up with a personal story or facts. Mr. Kush also gave wonderful pointers for the event that we get push-back: give one courteous rebuttal, and then move on.
Changing someone’s opinion is a slow process, and instead of backing the LA or congressperson into a corner with debate, it is usually better to plant the seed and check back in on it at a later date. While the lobbying primer was geared toward our immediate trip to the Hill tomorrow, I took at as a life lesson as well.
The next day, the Fly-in took off for the Hill!
Every time I turn around in D.C. there are type A people (just like me… on a good day) waiting to start up a thoughtful, timely conversation peppered with facts they JUST gleaned from the latest twitter feed and name dropping like they know everyone in the United States. This is a city brimming with extreme extroverts.
While conversations move mind-bogglingly fast, the bills move slowly- and thank goodness, because the process for how it all works is just, plain mind-boggling. As an AVMA-member veterinarian, and particularly an AVMA extern, I am learning how we sort through the many issues and bills that concern our profession- and how we keep up with the buzzing conversations around D.C. to get our views heard:
Veterinarians can elect and appoint representatives to the AVMA volunteer governing body. Because of the time constraints with practicing veterinary medicine, many of the governing body members are retired and have the time to invest back into the profession. The governing body consists of a House of Delegates and Executive Board and a variety of more specialized councils and committees. Twice a year, AVMA governing volunteers review policy briefs for proposed legislature to decide the priorities that the profession will take on a broad array of issues from puppy welfare to egg inspection. The Governmental Relations Division (GRD) of the AVMA in Washington, D.C., advocates the Association’s policies and positions on federal legislative and regulatory issues. And this is where I get to hop in for a month to learn from some truly knowledgeable policy wonks and lobbyists who have worked with our congresspeople to craft, propose and follow bills of interest to veterinarians- making sure our voice is heard by our representatives amidst the constant din of competing viewpoints.
AVMA’s Governmental Relations Division (GRD) is pleased to announce the 2014 candidates selected to participate in its externship program. The program provides students with a four-week, hands-on introduction to public policy development and advocacy for the veterinary profession.
The externship program brings veterinary students to Washington, D.C., where they will work side-by-side with the AVMA GRD staff to educate congressional staffers on the organization’s legislative priorities; attend congressional hearings and briefings; and meet with a wide variety of veterinarians in all sectors of the federal government and nonprofit organizations.
The externship program is very competitive, and we had an excellent pool of nearly 30 candidates to choose from this year. Students will have the opportunity to learn how veterinarians can impact public policy on a national level, and the program will also expose them to alternative career paths in veterinary medicine. When they return to their veterinary studies, the externs are encouraged to remain involved in the political process and to educate their fellow students about the importance of advocacy on a state and national level.
The 2014 AVMA GRD externs are:
- Catherine Brinkley, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
- Tabitha Basine, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
- Alex Bluntinger, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
- Tayler Foshee, Oklahoma State University, Class of 2015
- Kristen Hamsley, University of Georgia, Class of 2015
- Samantha McDonnel, University of California-Davis Class of 2015
- Spencer Mills, Mississippi State University, Class of 2016
- Kevin Przybylski, Ohio State University, Class of 2016
- Emerson Tuttle, Tufts University, Class of 2015
- Taylor Winkleman, University of Georgia, Class of 2016
AVMA’s governmental relations externship program has been in place for more than a decade, and more than 100 students have participated.