Through sharing resources, knowledge, and culture, veterinary students and faculty from the Austral University of Chile and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine are strengthening the field of veterinary medicine. 

Virginia Tech has had a longstanding relationship with the Austral University of Chile, and colleges across the university have participated in exchange programs. In a three-month exchange, students from the veterinary college and the Austral University of Chile explore hands-on opportunities. The two Chilean students studying at the veterinary college this year are Priscila Soto and Maksimiano Rodríguez. 

The collaboration between the two universities began in 1996 with a veterinary faculty exchange facilitated by professor emeritus Gerhardt Schurig. Schurig served as the college’s dean from 2004-2013. Working with Virginia Tech Outreach and International Affairs, Schurig expanded the program universitywide.

“Some of the faculty in Chile who were trained in this program are actually senior administrators now,” said Phil Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics. For many years, Sponenberg has helped organize exchanges and keep the program going. 

Due to visa requirements, American students can gain clinical experience in Chile, but Chilean students cannot gain clinical experience while in the United States. However, because Chilean veterinary programs are clinically focused, Chilean students studying at the veterinary college receive unique research experience that can be incorporated into their thesis. For example, Rodríguez is working in the lab of Xin M. Luo, associate professor of immunology. Luo’s lab studies the immunological and microbial regulation of autoimmunity and immunodeficiency. 

Veterinary school in Chile looks a little different than in the United States. Chilean students enter veterinary school straight out of high school, and the program is five years long, culminating in a thesis. In the exchange program, Chilean students also get the opportunity to network, making connections that will prove useful if they want to pursue a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. 

"It's amazing for both sides how this diversity helps them. My U.S. vet students share a lot with my Chilean vet students, and for U.S. vet students, there are things that the Chilean students know better,” said Roger Ramirez, clinical associate professor of veterinary parasitology. This spring, Ramirez is working with Soto on canine respiratory parasite research. 

Soto, who is also working with associate professor of quantitative epidemiology Audrey Ruple, has been able to put theory into practice while at Virginia Tech. After being a parasitology TA at the Austral University of Chile, she’s interested in studying the subject further. 

"Learning about the molecular procedures is good because in Chile we had classes on that, but we never saw how to do a PCR, for example. I've heard of electrophoresis, which is a procedure we do after a PCR, but I've never understood it — but right now, I've been doing it!" 

Soto is in her last year of veterinary school, and the exchange program has been her goal since she began her studies. She wants to pursue a Ph.D. so she can teach. 

"If I get to become a teacher, I want to also get a masters in university teaching and maybe specialize in different ways of teaching because I want to teach all students. I want to be inclusive,” said Soto. 

Sponenberg says that the program’s next goal is to facilitate more faculty collaborations, and as someone with two collaborators at the Austral University of Chile, Sponenberg knows firsthand how valuable international collaboration is. 

"In Chile, they have things that not only we do not offer, but we can't offer.”

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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