Summer research program offers unique experiences for veterinary students

This summer, 11 rising second- and third-year veterinary students explored possible careers in research thanks to a program that creates opportunities for students both during and after their professional training.

Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Merial Veterinary Scholars Program, the 11-week Summer Veterinary Student Research Program covers veterinary student expenses for conducting biomedical research with a faculty member and participating in weekly breakfast seminars on careers in veterinary research. This year’s participants included six Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine students and five students from other veterinary schools.

Group photo: participants of the 2015 Summer Research Program

This year’s program participants, pictured with some of their mentors, included Mitch Caudill (VA-MD Vet Med), Corren Freeman (Tuskegee Vet Med), Chris Gow (VA-MD Vet Med), Judy Jean (Wisconsin Vet Med), Anna Jiang (VA-MD Vet Med), Kelsey Jorge (Midwestern Vet Med), Caroline Moon (VA-MD Vet Med), Sandra Muller (University of Utrecht), Erika Olney (Midwestern Vet Med), Luis Rivero (VA-MD Vet Med), and Deepinder Sidhu (VA-MD Vet Med).

After a week of short courses on topics ranging from experimental design and analysis to research ethics, students participated in nine weeks of mentor-guided laboratory training. They also traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with professionals in research and policy positions with the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Mitch Caudill of Richmond, Virginia, a second-year student at the veterinary college, spent his summer doing genetics research in the laboratory of Clay Caswell, assistant professor of bacteriology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. He focused on Brucella, a bacterium that causes spontaneous abortions in cattle and an inconsistent and sometimes fatal fever in humans.

“I worked on the genetic regulation of Brucella and how Brucella alters its genes in response to different stresses in the lab,” said Caudill, who is in the college’s public and corporate veterinary medicine track. “My project was on a protein called putR and how it interacts with another gene, putA, which has been linked to virulence in Brucella. We found that putR binds to the promoter region of putA, and future work will clarify whether or not that’s a causative virulence factor for Brucella.”

The putR protein has been studied in other species of bacteria, but not Brucella. Although Caudill only investigated a single protein, the project contributed to a larger body of research on brucellosis.

Deepinder Sidhu (l) worked in the laboratory of neurosurgeon John Rossmeisl (r), where he created a brain biopsy simulator.

“Ultimately, the idea is that if we can find new ways of treating Brucella, then that would dramatically impact people around the world,” Caudill said. “There are about 500,000 cases of brucellosis each year, and right now the only treatment is long-term antibiotics.”

Deepinder Sidhu of Rancho Cucamonga, California, a third-year student at the veterinary college, conducted brain cancer research in the laboratory of John Rossmeisl, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.

“I created a training tool to practice minimally invasive brain biopsies,” explained Sidhu, who developed an inexpensive brain “phantom,” or physical object used as a substitute for live tissue needed for medical imaging — in this case, it was cheese.

“I had the phantom and had to determine which cheese worked best,” he said. “The engineering department’s testing machine is super specific, so I had to make sure the cheese met their requirements. Then, we did the CT scans and biopsies.”

He added, “We did this research so that more veterinarians are able to do this method of biopsy, which is not commonly done.”

On Tuesday, July 28, participants in the Summer Veterinary Student Research Program gave presentations on their research projects to other students in the program and faculty mentors.

Sidhu learned about the summer program from his classmates who participated last year. “I learned how the research process works, how to work with other individuals in the lab, and the creativity that’s needed to have a successful research project. You run into problems at times, and you have to come up with a creative way to find a solution.”

Corren Freeman of Alexandria, Virginia, a third-year student at Tuskegee University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, worked in the laboratory of Irving “Coy” Allen, assistant professor of inflammatory disease in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology.

“I was finding a potential drug agent to reduce inflammatory bowel disease/ulcerative colitis by using a mouse model,” said Freeman, who explained that his research involved “knockout” mice, which are laboratory mice in which researchers have deactivated, or knocked out, a gene. His research was part of a larger project to investigate possible treatments for the diseases that cause chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract.

Freeman hopes to pursue research and laboratory animal medicine after graduation and has previously worked with lab animals at Randolph Macon College and Howard University. He learned about the summer research program from the college website after looking into similar programs around the country.

“I picked this summer research program because it was particularly close to home and when I last visited here, I enjoyed the experience,” he added.

The summer research program not only gives veterinary students an opportunity 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 entered advanced training programs, such as residencies or doctorates.