VetTRAC Summer Program offers underrepresented students a peek into the veterinary profession

Mel Kegley brought her own dog, Nika, for participants to listen to her heart and respiration
Laboratory manager Mel Kegley (right) brought her own dog, Nika, for participants to listen to her heart and respiration.

A group of undergraduate students from around the country now have a better understanding of what it takes to become a veterinarian thanks to a program at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

The second annual VetTRAC Summer Program offered a week of hands-on experiences, lectures, and tours for students from underrepresented populations interested in veterinary medicine. Nine students participated in this year’s program, which is one of three initiatives developed by the veterinary college as part of InclusiveVT, Virginia Tech’s approach to diversity and inclusion.

VetTRAC Summer Program participant Francisca Cantu of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a biology major with a pre-veterinary concentration at Old Dominion University, has known for a while that she wants to be a veterinarian. She’s especially interested in providing dental care for big cats.

“Most people want to avoid the teeth of big cats, but I want to get in there,” Cantu said. “This seemed like an unobtainable goal when I was younger, but it seems more obtainable now — especially with this program, which is an equalizer for people who don’t have these opportunities.”

The program gave participants like Cantu a real-life glimpse into what it would be like to be a veterinary student. During the week, participants spent an afternoon in the college’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital shadowing faculty members and fourth-year veterinary students on clinical rotations.

Participants visted the Dairy Science Complex at Kentland Farm
Participants visted the Dairy Science Complex at Kentland Farm.

“Watching the surgery was my favorite part,” said Cantu, who shadowed the hospital’s small animal surgery service. “I got to watch a plate being inserted into a fractured femur with my case. … It was fascinating to see how many people had to work together to complete a single surgery.”

Other participants agreed that the clinical experiences gave them a unique look into life as a veterinarian. “That was our chance to see everything in action and listen to the doctors and fourth-year veterinary students. It was really awesome to do,” said Tommy Shields of Norfolk, Virginia, a senior biology major with a pre-veterinary concentration at Old Dominion University. “They were able to ask questions about your interests as well.”

During his rotation with the internal medicine service, a dog came into the teaching hospital with a distended abdomen. Shields had a chance to see the physical examination and diagnosis in action. He plans to apply to the veterinary college this fall and hopes to pursue a career as an emergency medicine and critical care veterinarian.

“It’s easy to think you want to go to vet school, but this program allows you to see what it’s like and know first-hand that this is what you want to do,” said Mackenzie Gurczenski of Newark, Delaware, a junior majoring in pre-veterinary medicine and animal biosciences at the University of Delaware. “We are able to see what the students are learning and how they are able to apply it.”

After checking in on Sunday, participants had dinner with a faculty member and took a tour of the college’s 270,000-square-foot complex. On Monday, they met Dean Cyril Clarke and learned about veterinary terminology and the basics of animal production systems before touring the university’s agricultural animal facilities. One stop took them on a tour of Virginia Tech’s Dairy Science Complex at Kentland Farm, where they viewed the milking process first-hand.

Participants practice their clinical skills at the Veterinary Medicine Instruction Addition's surgical suite
Participants practice their clinical skills at the Veterinary Medicine Instruction Addition's surgical suite.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, highlights included a session on catheterization and suturing, the application process, careers paths in veterinary medicine, cardiovascular physiology, and body condition scoring, not to mention the clinical shadowing in the afternoon.

On Thursday, participants learned about surgery, physical exams, gaining experience and seeking mentorships, and laboratory animal medicine. They also visited an equine herd and toured Virginia Tech’s campus. The final day featured an experience with ovine ultrasonography at Virginia Tech’s Sheep Center and a closing luncheon.

“We hope to not only provide the participants with veterinary-related experiences, but also teach skills that will make them more successful moving forward,” said Carling Sitterley, assistant director of admissions and students services.

Participants stayed in a Virginia Tech residence hall during the week-long camp and had a chance to experience life at the university and in Blacksburg.

Ashley Sheen of Norfolk, Virginia, a sophomore biology major with a pre-veterinary concentration at Old Dominion University had a word of advice for students who apply for the program next year. “Keep your mind open and don’t be afraid to try new things,” said Sheen, who aspires to be a small animal and equine veterinarian. “Dive right into it. It’s more fun that way.”

View a Facebook photo gallery with more images from the VetTRAC Summer Program.

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On the first day of the program, participants came to the Veterinary Medicine Instruction Addition for introductions, ice breakers, and a group photo. Front row, left to right: Carling Sitterley (assistant director for admissions and student services), Tyler Johnson, Sharryl Boone, Tommy Shields, and Francisca Cantu, and Alaina Cargill (DVM student ambassador). Middle row: Ali Williams, Mackenzie Gurczenski, Ashley Sheen, and Anastasia Alverez Johnson. Back row: Bryan Koury.