The scientific community needs more veterinarian scientists for biomedical research. A federal grant program administered at Virginia Tech is helping fulfill that need.

Veterinarians are a large pool to pull from, with extensive knowledge in comparative anatomy and spontaneous diseases that can cross species. The National Research Service Award Institutional Research Training Grant, more commonly called a T32 grant, offered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides a way to tap into this pool, helping fund veterinarians who pursue a Ph.D. and become leaders in biomedical research with the guidance of an experienced mentor.

The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM) at Virginia Tech is one of only 15 veterinary schools in the country receiving T32 grants from NIH. 

Earlier this month, VMCVM hosted a first-of-its-kind Mid-Atlantic regional workshop, bringing together NIH T32 training grant trainees, directors, and mentors from Wake Forest University, Johns Hopkins University and Virginia Tech

“It is not a trivial achievement to get a T32,” said S. Ansar Ahmed, associate dean for research and graduate studies at the veterinary college, recalling the complex application process.

X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of molecular virology at VMCVM and professor of internal medicine at VTC School of Medicine, is the program director of the Virginia Tech T32 training grant, and Ahmed is the program’s co-director. Twenty-two faculty mentors from six different Virginia Tech colleges are participating in the T32 program.

Ahmed and Meng say that the combination of obtaining a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree plus knowledge and experience in the field make veterinarians extremely valuable as biomedical scientists.

“Currently there is a critical shortage of veterinarians with a strong biomedical research background across the country,” said Meng. “But veterinarians are uniquely qualified for conducting cutting-edge biomedical research, especially in the area of comparative medicine. For example, many spontaneous animal diseases that veterinarians see on a daily basis also affect humans, such as cancers, so they’re uniquely equipped in terms of the broad biomedical science knowledge they have, the clinical experience they have, to conduct comparative biomedical research.”

“Veterinarians deciding to do a Ph.D. in the T32 program bring a unique clinical and real-world perspective to the research team by addressing research questions with translational implications,” said Ahmed. “Veterinarians know physiology, anatomy, pathology. Then after working as a veterinarian, they're deciding to come back for a Ph.D. It’s a pretty small group, and they need to be really dedicated to come back and do a Ph.D. They’re very comparable to doctoral candidates with a medical degree.”

The regional T32 workshop with Wake Forest and Johns Hopkins was supported by the VMCVM’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies, and by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

“It's the breadth of knowledge, that tremendous breadth of knowledge that you developed in your veterinary training that is now being honed, refined and added to in your scientific exploration of your current program,” Dan Givens, dean of VMCVM, said in opening remarks at the workshop. “Today's an important day, where you cross-foster and cross-pollinate, based on ideas, methodology and relationships.”

Twelve representative T32 trainees from the three universities made short presentations of their ongoing research, with plenty of time to network in between the presentations.

“I wanted to represent Wake Forest and give a glimpse of what my research and that of my colleagues is accomplishing,” said Shane Sills, a veterinarian and Ph.D. candidate at the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, university. “Also the T32s in the Mid-Atlantic region haven’t had much of a chance to interact, so I wanted to see what other programs are doing and meet researchers who may be my collaborators in the future.”

“I get to talk to other young scientists about their work, give ideas and get ideas, make connections, hear really interesting thoughts of experts in their fields,” said Nathan Crilly, a veterinarian and Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.

Mitchell Caudill, a veterinarian and Ph.D. candidate at VMCVM, appreciated the variety of research topics and opportunity to connect with other T32 research trainees in the region.

“It was wonderful getting to see the true diversity in research topics that a veterinary degree can prepare you for -- from radiation poisoning to immunotherapeutics to cancer to brain development,” said Caudill, who presented on aspects of his brucellosis research. “Additionally, many of us have an interest in becoming faculty and are starting an informal group to work to build grant-writing skills, which is an unexpected and exciting outcome from the workshop.”

The workshop is not expected to be a one-time event.

“A distinctive feature of this Mid-Atlantic partnership is that it provides a forum for post-DVM T32 trainees from medical schools at John Hopkins University and Wake Forest University to interact with our trainees from the college of veterinary medicine,” Ahmed said. “The value of these interactions was strongly endorsed by the program directors of these three institutions to continue hosting this workshop annually on a rotation basis.”

NIH T32 grants pay research trainees more than $50,000 per year in stipends plus tuition, fees, research allowance and some travel expense. Most of the costs of the actual research projects are provided by the trainees’ faculty mentors. T32 grants are funded for a period of five years and renewable on a competitive basis.

“This isn't like paying off a loan; your debt is one of time and effort, not money,” the NIH T32 website states. “You can pay it off by continuing to work on the project for which you were funded.”

Michelle Theus, associate professor in biomedical sciences and pathology at VMCVM, says the T32 program builds a strong foundation for the future.

“Our T32 program plays a vital role in advancing the goals of research in veterinary medicine,” said Theus, a mentor for T32 trainee Elizabeth Harris. “I am grateful to be supporting the development of such talented and skilled individuals. Collectively we are creating a diverse workforce of clinician scientists that advance our understanding of animal health and disease. Dr. Elizabeth Harris has tremendous support towards her professional development, including opportunities to collaborate with her peers and faculty across campus, which helps foster a more inclusive research community.”

Caudill agrees with the importance and value of the NIH T32 program.

“The T32 has been an invaluable opportunity to build my research skills in a supportive, mentored environment. The T32 program allows me to focus 100 percent on research without the need to perform clinical or other service duties, which is a huge benefit at this stage in my training. It also allows me time to develop long-term research questions and the infrastructure and support to apply for early career grants that will be immensely helpful in obtaining a faculty position, which is my career goal.”

Written by Kevin Myatt, Writer/Editor for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.


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