Alumni Spotlight: Viner (DVM '98)
February 21, 2023
Veterinary Forensic Pathologist at National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory
Tabitha Viner has been at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory since 2010. She is part of the pathology section at the lab and works with other Fish and Wildlife Service scientists in the fields of genetics, morphology, and criminalistics on crimes involving birds and endangered species.
Before her work in wildlife forensic pathology, she was a pathologist at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, where she worked for 7 years as the associate pathologist. A residency in pathology at the National Zoo and a fellowship at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (now Joint Pathology Center) at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC comprised her pathology training.
How VA-MD equipped me for the 'real world'...
The broad curriculum exposed me to the many ways a veterinary degree could be used. Entering vet school, I wanted to do field research in wildlife. But that first semester, John Robertson's description of pathology intrigued me. My focus shifted from a research-only track to how diseases and other conditions show up grossly and microscopically. I tracked pathology in 4th year but hit some personal snags before I could apply for residencies. I ended up doing two years of small animal medicine in Washington, DC, and was glad that vet school had given me such a strong foundation in small animal medicine. The core blocks helped me transition from focusing on pathology to practicing small animal medicine.
The best advice I've gotten.
Dr. John Robertson, my fourth-year advisor, told me to apply for the pathology residency at the National Zoo. Zoo residencies are so few and so coveted – each opening gets lots and lots of high-quality applicants. As a student with decidedly "meh" grades, I had already decided that any application I sent would be flatly rejected. Dr. Robertson knew I had spent six weeks there during 4th year and told me I should still apply, so I did. Lo and behold, I landed the slot! During my residency, I forged relationships in the zoo world and at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (now the Joint Pathology Center) that I still value 20 years later.
How would you capture the essence of your work in a newspaper headline?
Case of coyote killer clinched by cunning animal forensic pathologist.
I am Super Nerd…I can construct a pivot table in Excel like a gangsta. Isn't that boring? You can see why I keep these talents hidden.
My hidden talent...
I am Super Nerd! I know precisely what punctuation to use to separate two sentence clauses, and I can construct a pivot table in Excel like a gangsta. Isn't that boring? You can see why I keep these talents hidden.
A person who has inspired me...
My mother was by no means a perfect person, but she instilled in me the idea that I can do things if I set my mind to them. As a young mother in the ‘60s, she decided to take a road trip with my older siblings across the country, sans spouse. When I was in grade school, she went on a hiking trip to the base camp of Mount Everest just because she wanted to. I don't remember talking of limitations or worries or "what ifs." She'd just quietly decide to do something, figure out how to do it, then make it happen.
What did you learn at the college that you never thought you would benefit from?
The hands-on work with live animals – both during vet school and in practice – helped me better understand the pathological processes of disease. As a clinical vet, I saw what renal disease, for example, does to the behavior and bloodwork of a cat. As a pathologist, I could put that information together with the histology of the kidney and know the complete picture of chronic renal failure. Being so single-minded during vet school about my pursuit of a career in pathology, I didn't realize that the live animal aspects would be so informative. It was the difference between knowing the information and getting the whole picture.
Words of encouragement to a current veterinary college student.
Stick with it. "Challenging" isn't the half of it. Parts of vet school are downright hard and discouraging. When you are at your most frustrated, remember why you started this educational journey and find someone to talk to about it. Knowing you are not alone and some people are going through the same difficulties you are can be immensely helpful.
Fondest college memory or tradition...
In between classes, a group of us would go out in front of the building and play hacky sack. It was a great way to blow off steam, commune with classmates, and have a little fun. Some of us were good at it, and some were not so much, but we all shared in the same fun. As we used to quip, "There is no 'I' in hacky sack."
Forensics is not done in rooms with low lighting by unfailingly attractive people….. in real life, it is not infrequently messy, confounding, and full of maggots.
The biggest misconception about my job or industry...
Forensics is not done in rooms with low lighting by unfailingly attractive people who provide clever and tidy answers to complex questions within one hour of receipt of the body. In real life, it is not infrequently messy, confounding, and full of maggots. It is, though, fascinating. The sleuthing aspect of veterinary medicine has always intrigued me, and this is one reason I went into pathology in the first place. Working with organizations like the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association (IVFSA) to educate veterinarians, animal control officers, and lawyers on how to work together on cases of animal abuse, neglect, cruelty, and take is a fulfilling experience. Evaluating evidence put before me to help law enforcement prevent negative human activity from happening again is rewarding.
A cause I'm most passionate about.
Helping my community. I volunteer with the Ashland Community Emergency Response Team to help people in the area prepare for natural disasters and be more resilient in the face of adversity. I've also helped our community cats at spay/neuter clinics. Working together is the best way to maintain the health of a community.
The most formative experience I've had...
A formative experience I had during vet school was taking my free three-week block to drive back to Virginia from my externship at Colorado State University. I had my cat and my pet rat with me, and we took a spontaneous Americana tour, visiting Roswell, N.M. (for the aliens), Memphis, Tenn. (for Graceland), and a zoo that collected animals with congenital disabilities (think five-legged cows and two-headed snakes). Whatever looked interesting on a map was where I would go that day. Eating food out of a cooler every day and pitching tents in rainstorms taught me that I could actually be self-sufficient and make my own way in the world. All three of us made it back to Virginia unscathed and with many stories to tell.
Top of my bucket list...
Backpack the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. This is a beautiful state to be immersed in, and I love being wrapped in mountains and oak-pine forests. The Oregon section of the PCT passes by some stunning scenery, including Oregon's only national park, Crater Lake, and the highest point in the state, Mount Hood. Fun fact: Timberline Lodge, at the base of Mount Hood, is where “The Shining” was filmed.
My favorite quote...
Do one thing every day that scares you –Eleanor Roosevelt
Viner's current projects include characteristics of traumatic injury in birds, post-mortem computed tomography, and the effects of lead in raptors and other avian scavengers. She has served on the board of the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association since 2015 and maintains Medicolegal Death Investigator certification with the Oregon Medical Examiner's Office.