Chance meeting changes life trajectory toward fulfilling career in equine veterinary medicine
February 8, 2024
“I am very fortunate and lucky to have this career in science and feel like I am standing on the shoulders of giants, other women who through their fortitude, dedication and toughness forged into these fields that were once empty of women and now I get to reap that benefit and hopefully keep that benefit going.”
Jennifer Barrett traveled an unusual path to land her dream job at the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center (EMC), a job that combines her three passions in life: clinical service, research, and teaching.
Barrett’s long love affair with horses started at the tender age of 4 when she begged her non-horsey parents to allow her to spend more time with horses. This passion has driven Barrett, throughout her career and drives her to learn new things and apply new knowledge for the betterment of not only horses but small animals and humans.
Barrett is the Theodora Ayer Randolph Professor of Equine Surgery at the EMC, a full-service equine hospital and 24-hour emergency treatment center located in Leesburg, Virginia, that is one of three teaching hospitals of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine based at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Focusing attention on sports medicine and specifically orthopedics has fueled her interest and fascination with the elegant organization of tissues that make up bones, muscles, cartilage, and tendons and how they evolved to allow locomotion.
Describing herself as a bit of a nerd, Barrett enjoys the challenge of unwrapping an injury, initially using her expert eye to figure out which technology will best assist in figuring out each complex locomotion problem in the horse.
“There is a lot that can be done to treat tendons and ligaments as well as surgical repair for bone damage,” Barrett said. “Horses are prone to damage of the lower leg, as unlike humans, the lower part of the leg on the horse is pretty much joint, bone, tendon and ligament – there is no muscle mass and not a lot of fat which makes their locomotion very efficient but lends itself to injury."
Although there is a lot that can be done, there are many injuries that cannot be fixed now, which fuels Barrett to figure out better ways to help horses and other species through clinical research.
Barrett’s path to becoming a clinical professor at an equine university hospital was not a straightforward one. It had never occurred to her that she could have a career that would provide an opportunity to treat horses, complete high-level research and teach as a professor until her mid-20’s and she had a chance meeting with an old friend who was a veterinarian. The friend helped Barrett clarify the perfect direction for her, a career in veterinary medicine.
The new direction fit well with her emphasis early on when she completed a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology. During this time, she studied locomotion inside cells and again, the idea of movement and the structure and energy conversion needed to make that happen on a cellular level fascinated her.
Barrett studied how the cytoskeleton and motor proteins (think of them as the skeleton and muscles inside cells) allow cell division to occur and separate DNA into two equal parts. When this doesn’t work properly, you end up with the wrong number of chromosomes in the new cells after division, which is associated with birth defects.
Although this research fascinated Barrett, the timeline on having an impact on human health was really far in the future, and as someone that enjoys immediate gratification, she realized that staying on this career track would be hard on her.
“More and more women are at the forefront of major discoveries, such as CRIPR/Cas9 which allows genetic editing in humans and other species,” Barrett said. “I have always looked to the generation before mine for inspiration to pursue science and have felt supported by doing that.”
Barrett’s research is inspired by the horse and the locomotion system and, at this point in her life, she is gratified by her work.
If she has a novel idea to use platelet rich plasma (PRP) to treat a horse or how to make PRP a better treatment, she can head to her lab and design an experiment, do the experiment and analyze the data. If it looks good on the bench top, she can use the treatment in a study to see if it works, and if it does, use it to treat her equine patients, which she finds very exciting.
Barrett is currently focusing on collaborative research with a material science engineer, who has developed a patch that can help resurface damaged cartilage and bone. Everything works more poorly in horses, which makes them excellent test subjects. Barrett is looking forward to seeing how well it works for horses.
When horses develop, little pieces of bone and cartilage can form incorrectly. Horses are large animals, and they grow quickly, and it is possible for the process to go awry. Barrett often clinically removes chips, resulting in raw bone that will not grow cartilage. The patch, made from an absorbable material, stimulates the body to heal behind and through it, as it dissolves. The hope is to have an off-the-shelf product that can assist humans, horses, and other animals to heal more efficiently after surgery.
Barrett has two horses she cares for at home. One first arrived at the EMC as part of a research study that she swiftly bonded with and adopted at the study's end. The second – a pony – was adopted from a local equine rescue group. They are best friends.
As someone who enjoys talking about discovery and science and an idealist, Barrett feels extremely fortunate for the mentorship and instruction she has received from amazing professors and teachers throughout her life.
“I think it is important for girls interested in science to find good mentorship,” said Barrett who enjoyed attending an all-girls high school which now has a strong STEM emphasis.
While in high school, Barrett’s teacher – Elaine Bonai - created a new class to encourage everyone in the school’s biology class to complete a science fair project. Barrett’s science fair project was presented at the International Science and Engineering Fair, and she was a finalist at the Westinghouse Science Talent Search - now known as the Regeneron Science Talent Search.
The project, which focused on oysters, was her first original research. She was 14 years old at the time. It involved numerous visits to the National Marine and Fisheries and mentorship from a scientist working there, Dr. Ed. Rhodes.
Now, as a teacher, Barrett enjoys the different levels of students she can teach and mentor. College research students work with her during the summer months, to learn how to design and conduct good research, how to analyze their study, and communicate that study to others. Barrett also shares teaching skills that they can use to be good future teachers.
Putting ideas together in new ways to open the students' minds to new information is thrilling, but she also loves the questions that she gets. Questions often show that the student has a different way of looking at a particular idea and she finds this fascinating!
Barrett has shared her knowledge across the globe, particularly in regenerative medicine. She believes she is where she wants to be, working in a field she loves.
“I am very fortunate and lucky to have this career in science and feel like I am standing on the shoulders of giants,” Barrett said, “other women who through their fortitude, dedication and toughness forged into these fields that were once empty of women and now I get to reap that benefit and hopefully keep that benefit going.”