On the trail of cats and stars

Guest post by Beatriz Alves.

“One day, you will write a book”, my dad often told me. I can still hear him say that every time I write. I can hear it now, as I sit here, my cat on my lap, writing this blog. Some things are just born with you, they are a part of you, even if you don’t recognise them. I don’t write that often (not nearly as often as I should to fulfil my dad’s prophecy), but, when I do, I feel like I really have to do it. When I applied for the MVetSci Conservation Medicine, it felt just like that, like I really had to do it. When I started the course, I had not realised how much of it was already a part of me, how much I would identify with the values and concepts of conservation medicine and one health. As a child born and raised in the second biggest city in Portugal, I always had this nagging feeling that I didn’t quite belong there… One of the earliest memories I have from my childhood, is asking my parents to wake me up in the middle of a night when a meteor shower was going to take place. They did as I asked. I was so excited, all wrapped up in my blanket, standing in the middle of the street, looking up… But, as it turns out, it is also one of my most disappointing memories, as I did not see one single shooting star. Because you just can’t really see the night sky in the centre of a big, bright, smoggy city…

I lived there for many years, I went to school and became a veterinary surgeon in that very same city. Unfortunately, vet school did not teach me about all the different paths a vet can take, being very focused on clinical practice, particularly small animal practice.

And so, feeling like I didn’t have much of a choice at the time, I became a small animal vet. But very shortly after starting my first job at a local practice, I realised that, once again, I did not quite belong there… It is not a nice feeling to have, especially when it has, in one way or another, been following you your whole life. However, it is an extremely useful feeling to have, because, if you trust it, it makes you move, it makes you change. And it can lead you to places you did not expect to go to, it can lead you to the right places (even if you don’t realise that at the time). Less than a year after I started working, I decided to quit my job, without really having a plan in mind. Would I try a different practice (maybe the problem was that one…)? Would I do a PhD (I actually wrote a proposal for a small animal clinical research project, which, thankfully, never went very far from my laptop…)? Or would I just try something different? I searched and explored and, eventually, something came up that triggered a little spark in me… A volunteer program had just opened, to join the ethology team at the recently developed Iberian Lynx Breeding for Release Centre (CNRLI), in southern Portugal (Lynxexsitu). What happens when you add a lifelong love of cats (of all shapes and sizes), a will and a need to try something new and the prospect of a two-month period in beautiful sunny Algarve’s countryside? Well, you consider all the pros and cons (always make a list of these, particularly highlighting the fact that you won’t be making any money) and, on that very same day, you send your application. I was accepted and I went to CNRLI with the plan of staying for two months. However, the volunteering turned into an internship, the internship into a job, and I ended up staying for two and a half years.

Iberian lynx check-up at CNRLI.

Being involved in a wild felid conservation project was an extraordinary experience, and it made me realise so much of what I already felt but didn’t quite know. This was what I really wanted to do. But I knew nothing about it… Vet school does not prepare you for this type of work. So I decided to move to the UK, where working conditions were better, to go back into small animal practice and look for an opportunity (a post-graduation course or a masters) that would allow me to learn more about how to be a conservationist as a vet.

Three years later, I enrolled in the MVetSci Conservation Medicine programme. The comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach of conservation medicine fascinated me from day one and is now intrinsically a part of my life and the way I see and interact with the world around me. During the course, I had the opportunity to meet incredible people, from all over the world (the highlight having been the three week IWAH – Interventions in Wild Animal Health course, at Sariska Tiger Reserve, in India. Despite so many cultural and personal differences, it was extremely inspiring to realise how we had all been brought together by identical goals and values. The support we gave and received from each other going forward was crucial, particularly since our last year of the course (the dissertation year) took place during the covid pandemic.

Field day during the IWAH course, India.

Fitting my cat conservation passion, my dissertation project ended up consisting of the analysis of disease surveillance data collected by Scottish Wildcat Action, the first national conservation project for the European wildcat in Scotland. This was a wonderful opportunity and one that confirmed my appetite for working in wild felid conservation.

Walking the “Wildcat Trail”, Newtonmore, Scotland.

One thing led to another, one meeting to another meeting, one person to another person, and, once I finished my MVetSci, I was invited to apply for a PhD scholarship in Portugal to continue studying wildcats. After the terrifying process of writing a PhD research proposal (which felt completely above my credentials) and six long months of waiting, I was offered a four-year PhD scholarship.

Now in my second year, I can tell you a PhD is no walk in the park. It is a rollercoaster of excitement, disappointment, motivation, fear, adventure and anxiety. I often have to remind myself why I decided to do it in the first place. However, given the choice, I would do it all over again. It is a completely different experience from the clinical practice work I was used to. I am learning things and acquiring skills I never thought I would (some more challenging than others). I am working with professionals from multiple disciplines (biologists, ecologists, geneticists, zoologists, statisticians and actually very few vets…), thus bringing Conservation Medicine into practice. The PhD is a great opportunity to have contact with different projects and subjects, as long as you are willing to take the opportunities that are presented to you.

European wildcat detected on a camera-trap survey, during my 1st PhD year. Montesinho Natural Park, Portugal.

Looking back, I am grateful for all the little (or not so little) steps throughout my life that have brought me here. After many bumps along the way, I am now working with wildcats and I get to spend time in incredible places in Portugal (Montesinho Natural Park) and the Scottish Highlands (Cairngorms National Park), where I can actually see the stars…

I feel curious and excited (and, at times, a bit scared…) to see what comes next. But wherever life takes me, as long as the night sky is clear, it will be the right place. And maybe I will finally write my book…

One Health: My Journey

Natalie SampsonGuest post by Natalie Sampson.

Studying the One Health MSc has been transformational for me. The course has reinvigorated my love of learning and has served as the inspiration for taking my career in a new and unexpected direction. I hope that my story will encourage you to take the first step on your own ‘wriggly road’, wherever it may take you.

Soon after my youngest child turned 1, and with a secure job as a Veterinary Clinical Director in a growing small animal practice that I enjoyed and fitted well around family life, I found myself with a small amount of free brain space and surplus energy.

As a young vet, I had really enjoyed volunteering abroad and, recognising that disappearing off for a few weeks was no longer something I wished to do, I found myself reaching out for other opportunities closer to home. I soon found myself volunteering for Street Vet every few weeks and sitting as a Trustee for a fantastic grass roots charity providing veterinary care for street animals in India. Unfortunately for my husband, this work reawakened my passion for an area of veterinary medicine I hadn’t practised for a while, namely the links between human and animal health in a bigger picture context. Combining my interest with the experience and skills I had accumulated over time, I began to think about the possibility of a doing an MSc.

The Conservation Medicine MSc at Edinburgh had always been on my radar and, through this, I stumbled on the One Health Programme. I realised it encompassed all of the areas I am drawn to, so One Health it was, and I jumped in. Needless to say, had I thought about what I was doing I may not have applied, but with only my degree to compare against, and now at a completely different stage of life, I didn’t overthink what I was doing or consider how I was going to find the learning experience, a “blessing in disguise”. My only nod to reality was that my first aim was just to get through the 1st year and gain a certificate – baby steps!

With the pandemic still to come, I began my online MSc journey. I found lots of areas challenging, centring on moving beyond the pace and clinical world that I was familiar with and slowing down. Slowing down was extremely hard, but gradually I learnt to embrace it and in doing so, it allowed me to reflect and get to know myself again (albeit slowing down whilst cooking dinner, getting the kids to bed, answering emails etc). Nevertheless, that first term was vital in laying the groundwork for expectations at MSc level and getting my rusty studying skills back, whilst also learning how to embrace an online community– many of whom I was pleased to discover, were in a similar boat. I started this MSc simply out of curiosity but quickly I was hooked by the learning bug and by the subject.

Fast forward to Spring 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic when, co-incidentally, I was studying emerging diseases and One Health policy… timely to say the least. Each module presented new challenges, some in stark contrast to the part of the veterinary world I was familiar with, and I realised that I was beginning to develop an image of the direction of my next career move, alongside giving me confidence that I could move outside of the career path I thought was set in stone. My wriggly road was well underway, and I was keeping an eye out for roles that piqued my interest.

I won’t list the value of each module but, with each one, my confidence grew, and I was able to appreciate the skills and strengths I already had and those that were in development. Moreover, I was learning to embrace myself and relax, skills that I found difficult to exhibit in a clinical setting.

Surprisingly reflection, self-awareness and re-learning to presence myself have been key to this part of my journey. Honing these abilities and diving deep into who I am and what I enjoy has given me back a grounding I had lost. Using intuitive and free flow imagery has helped me to visualise my reflections and explore deeper, for example my ‘me tree’ depicted below, focusing on what I find balancing and what I seek on my journey (noting of course that my artistic ability is one of the skills I need to develop).

Drawing of a tree with a treehouse and swings in it

At the start of my diploma year, a role with the Food Standards Agency caught my eye. A One Health veterinary role working in food policy and reading the job description I had some but not all of the experience. I would never have considered it but for my increased awareness of the importance of veterinary work in public health (aka One Health). I was also aware of the challenge in applying for a Civil Service role in the UK, so I took a deep breath and reached out to the recruiting manager. Following an enjoyable chat about the role and how vet skills are applied in the One Health arena I discovered that I was determined to apply. I was surprised and delighted when I not only got an interview, but was offered the position, which of course I accepted.

Halfway through my One Health MSc and I had spring boarded into a One Health Policy role!

I am now 18 months into the role and have made it my own, with the fantastic support of a transdisciplinary team, all working to protect food and feed safety and animal health and welfare. I am a firm believer in Veterinary Public Health and One Health and am determined to raise awareness of how fascinating and exciting it is to practice Veterinary Medicine in this context. My work is highly varied, covering notifiable diseases, zoonotic disease, meat hygiene, policy development, trade, future borders, microbiology, veterinary medicines, corporate management and more. Moreover, I am surrounded by phenomenal vets and non-vets with encyclopaedic knowledge who I learn from every day.

It is easy to think that I was a small animal vet in practice and suddenly and smoothly transitioned into a One Health role… but that would be to oversimplify and not do myself justice. In practice I had also developed nonclinical and human behavioural skills as I progressed through my clinical career and, I use all of those skills, alongside my veterinary and One Health knowledge every day. By giving myself space to embrace my curiosity, reflect and refocus my perspective through the One Health MSc, I have grown considerably, and I am looking forward to whatever the future may hold.

Knowledge is Contagious, Pass It On: My One Health and Conservation Medicine Journey

Guest post by Inga McDermott BVMS MVetSci MRCVS.

In 2015, after spending 15 years working in small animal veterinary practice, I decided to embark upon an overseas veterinary volunteering trip. The intention was one month leave from work to visit India volunteering on projects teaching animal birth control surgeries to local veterinary surgeons organised through Worldwide Veterinary Services. I returned from this trip invigorated from my solo travel adventure and with a new sense of purpose and potential for my own veterinary work, and quickly realised this would not be a one-off trip. Where I had previously found barriers, I looked for solutions enabling further travel along-side my veterinary work at home. This led over the next few years to multiple volunteer trips in India, Thailand, a three-month sabbatical finishing in Nepal where I met Himalayan Animal Rescue Trust (HART), and a short teaching programme in a Nepalese veterinary teaching hospital.

During these trips I made many great friends and contacts which culminated in setting up our own charity, The One Health Foundation, which has been providing practical surgery training and skills programmes to veterinary students in Nepal. Over the following three years over one hundred and fifty students benefitted from their only experience of mentored practical surgery training, additional practical skills classes, and lectures, which were carried out alongside the sterilisation and rabies vaccination of free-roaming dogs.

Top left: Practical surgery and anaesthesia course. Bottom left: Skills class demonstrating clinical examination. Top right: Surgical scrubbing/ gloving class. Bottom right: Dry suture class.

My colleague had completed the One Health distance learning masters through The University of Edinburgh and on discovering the related Conservation Medicine programme my interest was sparked to both improve my own knowledge and interest in conservation, and to widen the offering of topics we could share with teachings through The One Health Foundation.

The initial thought of returning to study was very daunting, but the options of flexible learning and tiered qualifications from certificate, diploma, through to the full masters encouraged me to apply for the course. The Conservation Medicine course has provided so many learning opportunities and in addition to the curriculum, has improved my writing, presentation skills, and self-confidence for teaching others. A key highlight was the 3-week residential course on Interventions in Wild Animal Health at Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. This offered the chance to meet fellow students and study alongside wildlife vets from India in practical wildlife surveillance and management including training on remote drug delivery darting systems.

When I approached the final dissertation year I was able to draw upon many of my previous contacts and collaborations through travelling and volunteering, to carry out an overseas field research project investigating the seroprevalence of canine distemper virus in the free-roaming dog population surrounding Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Left: Sampling, data collection and marking of free-roaming dogs. Right: Antibody testing of free-roaming dog blood samples for seroprevalence to canine distemper virus.

My dissertation project was both the hardest and most rewarding challenge I have undertaken and through it I have developed valuable skills in project planning, funding, risk assessments and ethical approval as well as dealing with hurdles when carrying out overseas work. Writing my final thesis during the covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vital importance of a One Health approach to both human health and for the conservation of endangered species and ecosystems. The pandemic halted plans to travel this year, but we have maintained engagement with veterinary surgeons and students in Asia via webinars on one health and conservation topics. I hope to continue to find ways to widen the scope of my veterinary career, to share what I have learned from the course, and deliver our charity motto ‘Knowledge is contagious, pass it on’.

Find out more about the One Health Foundation

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Final day photo from The One Health Foundation training course and master’s research project in Nepal, Nov 2019.

Online learning

Find out more about postgraduate online learning at the University of Edinburgh:

MSc One Health

MVetSci Conservation Medicine