Summer research training program enters 16th year at veterinary college
July 13, 2023
The Summer Veterinary Student Research Program has been going so long at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM), it would be easy to take it for granted.
But the major grant that supports it isn’t automatic.
“The program is funded every five years,” said S. Ansar Ahmed, professor of immunology and director of the summer program, referring to the National Institutes of Health T35 grant. “It is competitively renewed, which means we go back into the pool and then compete for it. It’s difficult to get it competitively renewed, because they are looking at the performance of how you did the previous five years and what you are going to be doing the next five years.”
The veterinary college has successfully competed in starting a third renewal of the T35 grant as the program enters its 16th year of giving veterinary students the chance to explore research in the summer between academic terms. Four additional years beyond this summer are ensured by the latest renewal of the grant. The program is also jointly funded by Boehringer Ingelheim and the veterinary college.
The latest cohort of summer research students began the program in late May and will continue through early August.
At the culmination of the program, students present their findings at the National Veterinary Scholar Symposium in Puerto Rico, a conference attended by over 600 registrants that include Doctor of Veterinary Medicine students from universities across the U.S. and world-class veterinary scientists.
After an orientation at the veterinary college, summer research students traveled to the veterinary college’s University of Maryland campus, the Avrum Gudelsky Veterinary Center, for a week, and were taken on tours of federal agencies in Washington, D.C., to see how veterinarians can work outside of clinical settings.
Ryan Jordan of the VMCVM Class of 2026 and a summer research scholar described his three interests as “lab animals, pathology and poultry,” and said the Washington visit and the summer research training program as a whole will help him gain a sense of non-typical careers available to veterinarians.
The Blacksburg-based part of the session, with students devoting much of their time to individually focused research under the oversight of a faculty mentor, will continue until July 27. Students also attend Friday morning breakfast sessions in which they hear the experiences and insights of veteran researchers from academia, government and private industry.
While most of the summer research students attend veterinary college at Virginia Tech, it is open to students from across the nation and also internationally. Boehringer Ingelheim International is funding veterinary student Annika Hyder from Freie Unviersitat in Berlin.
“I wanted experience in research,” Hyder said. “We don’t have this kind of program in Germany. Our schedule is so tight, in our normal day, there is no opportunity to go in the lab.”
While the program helps introduce many students to research possibilities outside their clinical interests, it can also help augment clinical interests.
Summer scholar Julianna Scardina of the VMCVM Class of 2024 said she is interested in shelter medicine. Her summer research focuses on cats.
“Shelter volunteers take dogs on walks but cats just sit in a cage all day,” Scardina said. “My study is to find if cats benefit from taking a walk in a stroller.”
Since the original funding by NIH in 2006-7, the summer research program has introduced 150 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) students to research. This research experience has enabled many of these trainees to seek additional training after their DVMs as residents and PhD students, and many are employed as faculty and DVM scientists in academia, industry, and government organizations.
“It’s really important for the college, and its’s important for the students who don’t have an opportunity for this kind of experience,” said Ahmed, who recently stepped down as the college’s associate dean for research and graduate studies but will continue shepherding the summer research program. “It can really change their career paths.”
Some of the summer research students return for the extended research training program leading to a Ph.D. and supported by the NIH T32 grant.
“The T35 is for veterinary students seeking a DVM degree, whereas the T32 is intended for post-DVM scholar pursuing a Ph.D,” said X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology at the veterinary college and professor of internal medicine at the VTC School of Medicine. “However, both training programs share the same overall goal of training DVM scholars as future leaders in biomedical research.
“There are lots of crossovers between these two training programs,” said Meng, co-director of the summer research program. “The T35 summer training program serves as an important source for recruiting T32 trainees.”
The summer research program involves over 25 faculty mentors, not only from the veterinary college, but also from the College of Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Jessica Crawford, grants and contracts administrator for the veterinary college, assists Ahmed and Meng in organizing the summer session.