Monday, May 2, 2016

Editing the Journal of Tomorrow

This month I have a unique interview lined up for you all. A few weeks ago I was able to connect with Dr. Marian C. Horzinek, editor-in-chief of Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow, an online, refereed journal that provides reviews and opinion papers (in contrast to experimental data) on the most current research in biological sciences. The journal's noble mission statement captures very well its intent and scope: "Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow is an electronic current awareness journal that aims to encourage and support the worldwide veterinary research community; it also wishes to give the community a sense of identity and appreciation of quality." Perusing the site, you will quickly find yourself immersed in a spectrum of topics as diverse as animal night vision to the genetics of autoimmune disease to a bit of paleontology. And that's just from the past few weeks. Check back again and you'll find updated information, links, and editorials, illustrating just how deep the well is in biological research. How fun to be the editor-in-chief, right? Let's see what Marian has to say about it.

Rewind to 2001. Marian was spending the last decade of his professional career in research administration, founding the Utrecht Graduate School of Animal Health and the Institute of Veterinary Research in the Netherlands. "I had interviewed many of the approximately 80 PhD students and found them focused on their research topic without looking left or right," Marian says. "My students knew everything about every amino acid in every glycoprotein of a corona virus, but nothing about a disease caused by it."

So he started to think.

"A web-based biomedical journal with a current awareness perspective seemed the right thing to do," he says. With moral and financial support from the Dean of the Veterinary Faculty at Utretch along with assistance from a professional web design office, Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow (also known by its web handle VetScite) was born.

At the start, the publication electronically published four issues a year and since 2002, Marian says, this has been continuous with biomedical news updates appearing at twice weekly intervals. The staff for this publication is small but mighty. Dr. Anjop Venker-van Haagen is the editor who works on the majority of the publication with current part-time help from a vet student. Marian notes there are no external funds. "We have never considered sponsoring," he says. "Because of the independence issue, there are always strings attached." The staff also has a cartoonist, Miroslav Pavlicek, whose drawings on the site are crafted from stories the site features and offer a visual component that is creatively exceptional.

"My favorite part of the job is to look at the material Anjop collects, to tweak some details, to suggest topics and discard others and to communicate with the authors, contributors, and students," Marian says. "Several have been or have become personal friends. Anjop is one of them." Anjop herself is a leading expert in ear, nose, and throat diseases of companion animals and author of the textbook on such conditions: Ear, Nose, Throat and Tracheobronchial Diseases in Dogs and Cats.

Perhaps it's important to take a minute to explain the unique niche that Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow fills. "The content of VetScite is not primarily laid out for the veterinarian practitioner," Marian explains. "Neither is VetScite a journal for publishing primary scientific work. This journal intends to fill another niche: it is aimed at the graduate student, the PhD supervisor, the postdoctoral fellow, and academic teacher, the veterinary scholar, the science journalist, the government researcher, the scientist." VetScite instead addresses the forward-looking academic teaching and pathophysiology/animal well-being/veterinary public health research scene, says Marian.

Given this broad brush (and to me, intimidating) approach, just how, then, do Marian and Anjop select content? Interestingly, Marian says he and Anjop look for what they think is funny. "We publish what may lead to new avenues of research, what is novel in the true sense of the word, what raises expectations," Marian says. "After all, the journal is about tomorrow."

"The journal is about tomorrow."

This blog has featured a few cartoonists in the past so it should be no surprise that I was taken by the cartoons published on VetScite, by the above-mentioned Dr. Miroslav Pavlicek. I had to find out more about the man behind these drawings and asked Marian to elaborate. "Miroslav is my cartoonist and a successful companion animal practitioner in a vet hospital in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic," says Marian. "This is a rare combination and you can tell from his drawings that he knows the scene well. He has illustrated a number of books, advertising material for a vaccine company, and reliably provides new drawings for VetScite about once a month."
Cartoon appearing in VetScite, by Miroslav Pavlicek

You may notice that the cartoons on VetScite aren't there for the laughs, per say. Instead, they provide comment on a current article referenced on the site. "As most persons with a sense of humor, he is not funny, but rather considerate and thoughtful," Marian says of Miroslav. "His way of lateral thinking finds humorous aspects in any scientific discovery, which he portrays in his characteristic style."
Cartoon appearing in VetScite, by Miroslav Pavlicek

Moving forward, Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow continues to utilize multimedia technology and explore new and exciting topics as they relate to OneHealth. (The OneHealth concept is a large focus of Marian's work.) Since he and his staff are looking at the very edge of new biomedical research, I asked Marian about trend spotting. "Quite generally, any new technique or method that enters the biomedical scene initiates a trend," he says. "Cancer and immunology, ageing and neurology, genomics and behavior have been our focus, among others." Visit the tags in the News articles on the site to get the latest and greatest. To stay in-the-know, subscribe to their newsletter.

Until next month, dear readers!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fundamentals of Form and Function

This month, I have a feast for the eyes to share with you. Talking with Dr. John Plishka, a small animal veterinarian and pastel painter in northern Illinois, we explore how creative expression through art helps provide balance to the scientific brain. Oh, and how horses are the most gorgeous creatures on the planet. Duh.
"Tiger's Eyes" by John Plishka, DVM
John credits a lot of his artistic talent to his mother. "I've seen some of Mom's old drawings that she did when she was a kid and they are amazing, so I think a lot of my talent was given to me by her," he says. "To me, art has always come easily but as I got older, I realized I had to refine it and take it more seriously."

Although John took art classes throughout high school, the academic demands of undergrad and vet school became the priority. "My drawing frequency really decreased significantly at that time," he says. "But about five or six years out of vet school, for whatever reason, the urge to paint started coming back pretty heavily. I started drawing and painting, mostly with oils. But I've always liked painting with pastels and that has been my media of choice for the past few years. Pastels are quick, you can re-work it easily, and you don't have to wait for it to dry. And this whole time, I started re-discovering my creative side again."
"Day is Done" by John Plishka, DVM
At this point, John got serious about his art. "I wanted to take it to the next level," he says. While still practicing veterinary medicine, he started taking art classes and found an instructor who guided refinement into his work and helped with his mistakes. "I think a big part of it was confidence for me, knowing that I could actually really paint and make something that was really, really good."

Soon, John's work was attracting attention. He entered a few contests, won awards, and, as the saying goes, never looked back. "[Winning awards] really helps with the confidence," he acknowledges. "Knowing I can do that and be good at it. A big thing for me was then becoming a member of the Academy of Equine Art. That was a big goal for me. It was quite an honor to be accepted into that circle of people who are really the best equine artists in the country. I still don't think I'm worthy of that!"

This concept of confidence keeps coming back, this fact of human nature that John endearingly tangles with--this tiger in the weeds--despite his obvious talent. "Like everything, you're never really there," he says. "You have to keep striving. I think the day an artist can be satisfied with something is the day he needs to hang it up." Which, of course, can be said of all professions, I believe (especially writing...). I compare this to another painter's observation: "If we all have continuous confidence in our creativity, it would become dull and not very inspiring," says Lida van Bers.

Through all of John's artistic accomplishments, remember he's still a full-time veterinarian, with all that entails, so naturally, the common concern of time meanders into our conversation."Now, it's just about finding the time," John says. "I do a fair number of commissions now, but those cut into your creative time so it's a bit of a double-edged sword. The more you work, the more people want commissions, but the more commissions you have, then the less you're able to express yourself how you really want to." John sees himself as having perhaps about ten more years in the veterinary profession before he retires and then dedicates himself solely to his art.

"A little to the left" by John Plishka, DVM
The majority of John's work, as you see on his Facebook page, is of horses. He has a few reasons why this is. "One is that obviously they are just amazingly beautiful animals," he says. "Horses are the consummate example of form and function with their muscles and tendons as power and levers. You look at a horse and it not only satisfies the artist but also satisfies the engineer in you because it's just amazing how they are put together. With horses, it's like watching a tool at work. All the cogs are there to see." John also has an interest in military history, in which of course horses have a major role.

"You look at a horse and it not only satisfies the artist but also satisfies the engineer."

In previous conversations I've had with veterinary painters, the science of anatomy features heavily in their work and with John, this is no exception. Being a vet with extensive knowledge in anatomy has been extremely helpful, he says. "It's not even just with horses. It's with everything. If you're painting an eye, you know what's in there. Being a vet, I know animals literally inside and out." At an art show a few years ago, John recalls a woman who was able to identify the breed of horse in his painting even though it wasn't even a full head shot. "She was able to identify it as a Thoroughbred and she said 'He's got his anatomy spot on,' " recalls John. "And that was a great compliment."
"Eye Candy" by John Plishka, DVM
Ultimately, however, practicing art is about how the creative process makes you feel. "Painting brings me a lot of peace and joy," John says. There was a period in John's veterinary career where he says he experienced some burn out. "When I look back at that time, I wasn't as creative," he says. John observes that the amount of creativity in our lives parallels our moods. "Creativity helps us see that other side of life; it makes for a better situation, gives us more perspective."

"Creativity helps us see that other side of life...it gives us more perspective."

We end our conversation discussing my favorite piece of John's, a painting titled "Cascade." This painting was done from a photo John took at the Midwest Horse Show in Madison, WI a few years ago (most of John's pieces are from photographs he's taken at an earlier time). "This was a breakthrough piece for me," John says. He hadn't been painting for a while due to various health issues but he came back with this work. The title refers to the flow of the horse's mane. "I felt that even though the animal was black, I marveled at how many colors are actually in the void of color. The mane reminded me of a waterfall."
"Cascade" by John Plishka, DVM
And with that exquisite image, I'll end things here. Until next month!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Doing Diversity with the Canine Conga

Veterinarian Dr. Betsy Sigmon, owner of Creature Comforts Animal Hospital in Cary, North Carolina, has recently published her first book: a children's book titled Cha Cha ChocoBelle and the Canine Conga. I caught up with Betsy last month to pick her brain about her writing experiences and how using her creativity to educate the younger generation can make a difference.

A champion of educating the young, Betsy utilizes both her own clinic and other venues to host Kid-Vet days where children visit and learn about being a veterinarian. This includes instruction on how to conduct a physical exam (kids use stethoscopes to listen to their own hearts and sometimes the hearts of a helpful volunteer dog) and how to look at radiographs, as well as watching procedures such as cleaning a dog's ears and acupuncture. Just this past January, Betsy's clinic held its first annual kids vet camp. Betsy says her experiences teaching children about veterinary medicine was part of her inspiration to write a book. "It was a combination of things," she says about her inspiration. "Funny interactions, watching kids' eyes light up when they hear a heart beat, and frankly a way to say thanks to all those who helped me along life's journey."

The title character of Betsy's book was inspired by her very own dog, a rescue Chihuahua-Dachshund mix named Taco Belle, who, says Betsy, helps keep her grounded as she makes tough medical decisions. "There's lots to be said for rescue animals that don't have a great pedigree," she says.
Taco Belle and Betsy's son last Christmas - courtesy B. Sigmon

In fact, Betsy's book focuses on diversity as the main character ChocoBelle--whose journey to find a home helps her discover her love of dance--encounters disabled and rescue animals. "I tried not to duplicate any current kids series and also to be inclusive of minorities and animals with disabilities," Betsy says.

Betsy admits to what I've always wondered--that writing for children is deceptively hard. "It was a stretch," she says. Writing for younger people doesn't mean dumbing it down; it means writing differently. Madeleine L'Engle, author of the well-known children's book A Wrinkle in Time, once said: "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

"In mentoring students from North Carolina State's College of Veterinary Medicine, I make them write a two page continuing education article on a particular subject that a 7th grader can read," Betsy continues. "So I simply take it one step further to write for a 7-year-old to read. I bought a few kid's books to get in the groove and put the content of my story on my iPhone notes."
Photo: Kathyrn Trogdon

For younger readers, Betsy says an author has a double challenge--to make the work fun for both the child and the reader. "I put some surprises in the drawings that adult humor will pick up, but the kids not so much," she says. "The biggest 'like' report is when I hear parents state the book has become a repeat read."

Although this first book is directed toward kids, Betsy also writes a blog (Taco Belle Times) on her clinic's website that adults will find helpful. "The blog shows a side of me when not wearing a lab coat," she says. "It lets me explain a topic in the news that may have human, pet, or One Health implications in a manner that hopefully simplifies the content from a veterinary article or national news. I enjoy writing for both kids and adults."
Betsy Sigmon, DVM, teaching students about veterinary medicine - courtesy B. Sigmon

Despite a modest proliferation of published vet memoirs over the past few years, children's books on the topic of veterinary medicine are still few and far between. Both Betsy and myself aren't sure why this is, as it would seem that animals and medicine are a mix rife for the interest of the young. However, Betsy looks at it in a positive light and acknowledges how challenging it can be to educate young people. "It is a challenging job for teachers to meet the expectations of parents, kids, and administrators," she says. "This book is my personal way to show humble gratitude to those educators that inspired me."

Betsy has a reverent respect for the scientists who have worked in the past and continue to work toward making the future bright. "The research scientists that go to work each day to make a difference in the long run, the companies that invest in long term research and development, the discovery of the DNA helix by Watson and Crick, and the veterinary and medical clinicians that challenge themselves to improve the lives of others--those are my heroes," she says. "I have been placed in a position to inspire young children in a positive manner while sharing our profession--pretty cool!"
Photo: Kathyrn Trogdon

In classrooms and libraries when Betsy has gathered a young group to learn about heart murmurs and ingested foreign bodies, she tells the kids this: "When you win the Nobel Prize, I am expecting a first class ticket to the award ceremony because I know one of you today is going to be an extraordinary scientist from this day forward!"

I don't think you can get much more inspirational than that.

Catch you next month!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Lions, rhinos, and... moose? Oh my!

I am excited. I get excited sometimes, like when there's a new book coming out by Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin or when I learn about a new bookstore or when I order cat-themed apparel or, like today, when I get to share with you all a really cool person I've just met. This guy, let me tell you---Dr. Jerry Haigh: wildlife veterinarian and conservationist, storyteller, author, professor, photographer; I mean, really.
Dr. Jerry Haigh treating a white rhino; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Jerry and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago and I'll relate our discussion in a bit. First, a bit of background is required. Dr. Haigh is a self-described "Kenya-born, Glasgow-schooled veterinarian living in Canada's providence of Saskatchewan." After graduating from Glasgow, Jerry spent his first ten years of professional life working in Kenya, then in the mid 1970s, moved to Canada where he held a post at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Jerry retired in 2009, but continues to be active in wildlife conservation, storytelling, and writing. His first collection of stories about his past, Wrestling with Rhinos, was published in 2002 and followed by The Trouble with Lions and Of Moose and Men. Jerry is currently finishing his fifth book.

Here's a fantastic summary of Jerry's work on YouTube. A must-watch on storytelling. And another sample of Jerry in action on the stage.

I immediately asked Jerry about his oral storytelling. This is an art I know little about and it holds a sort of campfire and smoke-like reverence to me. I asked which Jerry prefers, since he's a master at both: writing or storytelling?
Dr. Jerry Haigh checking a lion in Namibia; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
"One of the nice things about oral storytelling is that is doesn't have to be the same every time," Jerry says. "You can pick a folk story or a real-life story -- I don't do it the same every time. You react to the audience; you see how the audience is responding. Preschoolers won't get the same story as adults. For example, if you have a picture of your arm up the rear end of a rhino, you get gasps and laughs, especially from kids. Kids always giggle at stories about bums and poop so you make damn sure you tell them it's processed grass you're getting out. The word poop offends nobody and works across all age groups, be it in real life or not. With my career in the background I can switch from biology to 'A long time ago, in a time before time.' I have used three folk stories about poop, one for rhino, another for dikdik and a third for hippos. That's the beauty of folklore."

Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
In comparison to writing, Jerry laments the challenges of typing when one's mind is going one speed and the fingers go another. "Writing is fun," he says. "But storytelling...one of my old students told me the one thing he remembers most about my lectures was my storytelling. That's a nice compliment in a way."

At this point in our conversation, we somehow got completely sidelined talking about the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, a Canadian football team. (Did you know that in Canadian football, they only go to three downs instead of four? Did you also know that I know nothing about either American or Canadian football?) I think it's safe to say if you ever get a chance to fall into conversation with Jerry, DO SO, because you will find yourself learning things that you didn't even know you wanted to learn about.

Leaving that tangent and getting back on track, Jerry said his favorite topic to write about is rhino conversation. "The first proper wildlife patients that I had were rhino," he says. "When I was working in Kenya, there were 6000 rhino in the country and I was helping translocate them out of farmland and into national parks. Now there are less than 600. It's a horror story."
Working rhino, 1974; Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Other than expertise in rhinos, Jerry has also had an historic impact on the deer industry: he was the first to do artificial insemination (AI) in deer. "For many, many years I was one of the small number of people who knew anything about deer," Jerry explains. After he perfected his AI technique, off he went to New Zealand. "We took North American elk to New Zealand, the first trip of its kind since 1908 when President Roosevelt donated a small number of elk to New Zealand." Jerry's textbook, Farming Wapiti and Red Deer, was first published in 1993.

You might notice, as I did, that in Jerry's book The Trouble with Lions, there is a forward by Jane Goodall. I had to ask about that. "She's an amazing woman," Jerry says. "Fantastic storyteller. I've seen her on stage for an hour without a single note in front of her. Phenomenal. She preaches a story of hope. And I suppose we have to have hope in the face of what's going on with wildlife. And we're not just talking about African wildlife--it's a global problem."

Many of the stories that Jerry tells orally and writes about in his books, blog, and in magazines come from his expansive experience. Since I can barely recall what I had for breakfast on most days, I asked Jerry if he has volumes of journals that he relies on as his memory-keepers. Other than his medical journals containing his difficult cases back when he worked in Kenya, his answer is: no. "I've got a very good memory for that sort of stuff," he says. "And when needed, I speak to other people to see what they remember, so I have enough stuff to cobble things together." And by cobbling, I'm going to editorialize here and say that he means recounting details such that you can see the feathers on a bird, smell the rhino dung, and swear you hear the roar of the lions coming up behind you. Because if you take a look at his books and listen to his storytelling, that's the sort of experience you'll get.
Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh

Until next month, dear readers!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Not your Common Veterinarian

Last month, I had the privilege of tracking down Elliott Garber, DVM, a unique veterinarian and author. He had some great stuff to tell me about his journey to getting his first novel published, establishing a platform, his writing process, and his secrets to staying focused as a writer. I'd like to share our conversation with you in this month's VetWrite.

Firstly, I had to clarify exactly what Elliott is doing professionally at the moment. You see, Elliott's fascinating blog, The Uncommon Veterinarian, is thick with international intrigue from a vet med point of view. For example, Veterinary Capacity Building in Post-Conflict Liberia and Wildlife Medicine and Conservation Programs in Belize are enough to make anyone's search histories of kittens and tea just seem like, well, come on people. There's a world outside of your steaming cup of Earl Grey. (Rest assured, I am sitting behind a steaming cup of Earl Grey right now.) Elliott clarified currently, he is working as an Army vet based just outside San Diego, dividing his time between providing clinical vet med coverage to the working dogs of the Navy SEALS and veterinary regulatory oversight to lab animal research. In his spare time, he's working on promoting his newly published novel, The Chimera Sequence. And off we go:

In Elliott's novel, a veterinary medical thriller, we follow the main character, the ex-Special Forces veterinarian Cole McBride, chase the origin of an outbreak from central Africa to expose dangerous implications of international terrorism. Intense stuff. Complex stuff. I asked Elliott how he could possibly start something as ambitious as this.

"Writing a book has been a life-long ambition, but this particular story has taken about three years," he says. "The actual idea for this story and then sitting down and doing it just sort of came to me. I remember exactly when it happened. I was traveling for work and I was in a hotel in the Netherlands on the side of the highway. I thought, well, I've always wanted to write a book so let's see what I can do. So I wrote the first couple of paragraphs, then a few more pages, and then I realized it started getting serious."
Elliott Garber, DVM, and his lovely family

Sigh. He makes it sound so easy. Elliott describes that after his initial leap into novel writing, he had to pause the creative process to actually learn how to write a book. Through some research on the craft, he continued and then finished his very first novel.

"I jokingly say that I wish my life were as cool and exciting as my main character's, but in reality, it's not," Elliott says. Do note, however, that his novel is loosely based on Elliott's job and experiences. "I try to write the type of story that I love to read. I tried to tie in all the stuff I naturally have an interest in and have knowledge of. That made the whole writing process a lot easier because doing some of the background research was enjoyable as it was stuff I was interested in learning about."
Dr. Elliott with a small wooly friend.
Somewhat ironically, Elliott's blog came about as a platform for his novel; however, Elliott felt it started turning into something unique in and of itself -- which is good -- but was taking time away from his novel writing -- which is bad. Many writers, including myself, struggle with two key concepts that Elliott hits on here:

1. How to develop a platform
2. How to not let your platform eat away at your creative space

"A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

One thing clever about Elliott's blog is its timelessness. Although he's taking a break from blogging at the moment, Elliott's timeless nature of his topics creates a self-described "immortality" in his online content. "My blog went off into its own thing for a while," he says. "And then I got kind of tired of it and stopped updating because I wanted to finish my book. Then I kind of defeated the whole thing because I didn't really use my blog too much for launching my book. It was a big failure," he laughs. Still, Elliott feels his blog has allowed him to communicate with others with similar interests and he's acquired a few speaking engagements out of it at vet schools. So, not quite the failure, after all. Elliott says he would like to get back to the blog at a later point. I think he should, too. "It's not completely dead," he reassures me. "Just hibernating." Podcasting was another branch of the blog, too - listen here.
Dr. Elliott Garber being a bad ass veterinarian.
The time suck of the online presence for writers is a delicious topic to talk about -- maybe because we all fall victim to procrastination and what more self-rewarding, prophetic way to procrastinate as a writer than to talk about procrastination with another writer. "I had to cut back on blogging," continues Elliott. "I just couldn't do everything at once. I frequently saw on writing forums that a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

Truer words were never spoken.

Luckily, Elliott remained unchained by the bonds of NOT WRITING and settled into a pattern. Writing in the evenings, Elliott honed technique and took time for research and learned a little about himself along the way. "One of the things I discovered about myself after the first few months of writing was that I couldn't write fiction very well while I had access to the internet. I was always wanting to look up something -- oftentimes related to the book, so it wasn't completely worthless -- but I would just keep bouncing back and forth between writing and getting dragged down the internet wormhole. Then I discovered this app called Freedom App which lets you turn off your access to the internet universally for a certain amount of time. It's funny to think about having to force yourself to do something that you're choosing to do, but I think for a lot of writers it's a struggle to produce content. But I think there's something about getting to the end that makes it worth suffering through the process."

Elliott then hit on a topic that had recently been discussed at my very own writer's group: as a writer, are you a pantser (meaning, you write by the seat of your pants, unplanned and free flowing) or a planner? Elliott discovered he could write his actual novel more efficiently if he had planned a few chapters in advance. "I would write in the style of telling myself what's going to happen without actually writing it in story form, so once I had that settled in my mind, I could switch to the actual story," he says. "It made a big difference in efficiency. There was no more agonizing over deciding what was going to happen next and then actually writing it."

In the end, with novel finished, Elliott explored the traditional publishing routes first. After getting an agent, he ended up rejecting offers from a few publishers, as he felt he'd ultimately have more control over his own intellectual property (and how it was formatted and sold) if he published independently. "From my own research, I knew the offer the publishers were giving me didn't represent much of an investment at all from the part of the publisher so really they would get it out there without a whole lot of input from me. So I turned those offers down. It has been a lot of work for me this year getting everything ready for independent publishing, so now it's a matter of time to see if it was a good investment doing it this way," he says. "But, I've learned a lot and had a good experience." Elliott writes about his process in more detail here.
Dr. Elliott Garber in India
Prior to The Chimera Sequence, Elliott self-published a short story, called No Dog Left Behind. Also available on Amazon, this was Elliott's first experience with independent publishing and it was a positive one. "I try to tell people there are lots of different ways to do this and it's better having a few people read your work than having it sit on your computer having no one read it at all. It was good training for a bigger project."

In the end, Elliott is extremely positive and open-minded about his own future, both as a veterinarian and as a writer. He acknowledges a sequel to his novel is a possibility, but he's not sure when that might happen. He's still waiting to see how well his first novel will do. "There are also a bunch of other things I like doing and am interested in, so I'm kind of doing other things while seeing how this novel goes. I also have other ideas about other totally unrelated books I'd like to write, too. It's just about making the commitment."

Well, hurry up, Dr. Garber. I want to see what all you can do.

Until next month, dear readers!


Monday, December 7, 2015

Online Chronicles of a Vet Student

Recently on Twitter, I became a fan of a delightfully active, witty, and bright vet student, Shannon Finn. Attending Ontario Veterinary College, Shannon somehow finds time to craft insightful blog posts, interesting Tweets, and very clever Vines. All told, I'm a bit jealous of her craftiness at the whole online presence; this young woman is GOOD. She gets it. So I contacted her last month to ask her some questions. And here's what she taught me. Maybe you can learn something, too.

Currently in her sophomore year at OVC, Shannon comes from a small town in Ontario, Canada, about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. She says so far she is really enjoying vet school and 2nd year has her excited about theriogenology and how should I say it gently... a bit less enthusiastic about radiology. In Shannon's own words, "Reading abnormal radiographs is a lot tougher than it seems!" Preach it, sister.
Shannon Finn
Shannon primarily uses Twitter and Vine as her main online modalities, and she blogs as well. Her recent blog, "The value of your veterinary dollar: a vet student perspective" has gained a lot of attention and is well deserved. Shannon uses data combined with real life examples to paint a stark picture of the economics of the current veterinary profession. "I like Twitter because it's so quick and simple to connect with people," says Shannon. "You can add pictures and links and have conversations and ask questions and even Tweet right at someone you admire. It's just SO easy to interact, which is what I love. Vine is also a lot of fun - you only have six seconds for a video so you have to be creative. Six seconds involves a lot more planning than you'd think! I think it's a quick way to show something neat, like blood smearing or suturing or a time lapse of all your notes. I feel like having these quick social media snippets (six second videos and 140 character Tweets) is a good complement to the longer story telling that I get to do on my blog."

Shannon says she uses her social media platforms for education and entertainment. "I think the more the public knows about what we learn and what vet school is like, the more trust you can build in that relationship," she says. "People are always interested in animals and how you become an animal doctor, so why not make it accessible to them? I remember being an eager little pre-vet in undergrad and I would have killed for a good Twitter account or vet school blog."

"People are interested in animals and how you become an animal doctor, so why not make it accessible to them?"

Now that Shannon is providing that service for current pre-vets and others who would like to know exactly what goes on in the anatomy lab or the hospital, she also offers advice on what not to share. "I think that you always have to be careful and aware of what you put on the internet, especially with a medical setting where you have client-patient-relationships," she says. "Confidentiality and over-sharing can be a pitfall, but once you become familiar with what's acceptable and what's not, it becomes common sense to realize what's OK to post and what not to. Another thing is to use social media as a venting space. It's just so easy to throw negativity out there when you have a rough day. I really try and stay away from that and make it a more positive space. I mean, snark is so instantly gratifying but I think it just looks bad in hind sight. The internet is filled with negativity, so why add to it?"

"The internet is filled with negativity, so why add to it?"

Shannon has a history of being an avid reader (she admits to blowing away the competition in a reading contest at her childhood library) and cites other veterinarians as authors that inspire her. Dr. Sarah Boston makes Shannon's list (remember we talked to Sarah a while back?) as does Dr. Elizabeth Stone, the co-founder of the Society of Veterinary Medicine and Literature, and another VetWrite interviewee alumni. "I basically admire anyone in our field who takes the time to write and share their thoughts and passions for our wonderful career with others," Shannon says. "It's sometimes nice to have a break from being so science-oriented and appreciate the more poetic aspects of what we do."

For some folks, the concept of building an online presence, or a platform if you will, can seem overwhelming. For example, consider your choices: blogging, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn... I'm getting sweaty just thinking of all the different modalities. Shannon offers some sage advice for those who are interested in getting their foot in the internet door. "I think for most people, you start with what you're familiar with and what you enjoy," she says. "Think about if you like information sharing, picture sharing, or story telling. I don't think you can go wrong with picking a modality as long as you take the time to learn about how to use it, what appropriate use is in your job, and who your audience is. I would say the ultimate piece of advice is that you get out of it what you put into it. If you spend time formulating good Tweets, coming up with good blog ideas, and interacting with others, you will find it more rewarding for sure. It's definitely not a passive process."

Looking into the future, Shannon is interested in OneHealth. "I really like the concept of solving important problems at more of a population level," she says. She remains open to the vast opportunities that are available for today's veterinarian. But for now, there's one thing Shannon sees as a definite no-go: "Definitely not to be a radiologist!"
See you next month!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Capturing many a veterinary legacy

This fall I had the opportunity to speak with an impressive member of the veterinary community--Dr. Don Smith--and I'm very excited to share with you one of his many projects. Don, large animal surgeon, dean emeritus of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, author, and veterinary history enthusiast, is the creator of a fascinating collection of interviews of veterinarians who attended vet school during some of the most challenging times of modern US history, most notably the Great Depression. These interviews, both in written form and available as audio files, are available on Cornell's website. The collection is called Enduring Legacy. Here's what Don had to say about how this project came to be, his interview process, and what he's learned from talking to some amazing veterinarians.

Despite modest ambitions of wanting to be a dairy practitioner, Don wound up a large animal surgeon. Then, after following the winding road of professionalism, Don eventually held a deanship at Cornell from 1997 to 2007. After this, Don found himself at a crossroads.

"I was too young to retire but didn't want to continue with administration," he says. "I didn't know what to do so I packed my dog into a Jeep and I went to Alaska along the back roads. I used that time to decide what I didn't want to do as well as to some extent what I did want to do."
Beau, Don's Cocker Spaniel who accompanied him to Alaska and back.
Don had been introduced to the concept of helping record the history of individuals who were veterinarians in the early part of the 21st century. The element of time passing--these individuals were not going to be around within the next 20 years--was palpable and when Don returned from his trip in Alaska, "I decided to meet and record these life stories of as many veterinarians who were educated in the 1930s as possible," he says. "So, I traveled around the country and interviewed them. I did Cornell graduates first, and then I was encouraged to interview younger people who had graduated in the 1940s, and then interview some from other schools as well."
Dr. Andre Moul Ross, the only female member of the Cornell veterinary class of 1943.
Don has conducted hundreds of interviews, not just for the Enduring Legacy project, but also for other books and blogs. I was curious to learn about Don's interview technique and perhaps gain a few hints for myself.

Primarily, Don states an axiom that should be remembered by anyone who ever conducts any interview, for whatever reason (this can even apply to vets getting a decent case history on a patient!): "When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias. You're hearing the way they remember, or more specifically, how they want their history to be remembered on their behalf. They will tell you things they want you to know and in the process, perhaps, they don't tell you certain things or there are certain errors. Therefore, you have to get at the facts. In order to interview someone, you have to do research."

"When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias."

Don describes his process of triangulating a story: hearing something during an interview then corroborating those statements with interviews from other sources and facts collected elsewhere. Another concept Don used to make his Enduring Legacy interviews stand out as unique collections of veterinary history is who he talked to. "Most people, when they want to know about the history of veterinary medicine, they go to the faculty and ask them what it was like to be a faculty member," he says. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to find out about the real people in the real world under real circumstances. I wanted to explore their history."

As far as interview techniques, Don cuts to the chase: "Don't ask the obvious questions." Don likens a good interview to allowing the interviewee to demonstrate leadership. "You have to create instability and let leadership come through. People are great leaders but they too often will not find leadership unless they are put in an unstable situation and they have to demonstrate how to move society forward. So I try to use that same context within my interview style."

"Don't ask the obvious questions. Create instability and let leadership come through."

I asked Don what his most memorable interviews were during his time putting together Enduring Legacy. Without hesitation, Don stated that the class of 1939 at Cornell was probably the most extraordinary class to have gone through veterinary college anywhere. "The reasons for this were because of the diversity in the class and the challenges of the Depression," he says. "The challenges of that era were just extraordinary but it allowed the students to become friends, not just colleagues, with people who were very different."

Don describes this class as one containing "three women, a Chinese man, a Canadian who didn't know how old he was, an African American from Memphis, some Catholics who were discriminated against back then, and some Jewish people."

The relationships and bonds formed in this vet school class have left a huge impression on Don. "A Jewish man from Brooklyn and a Catholic man from southern New York became the very best of friends," he says. "Never once during these interviews did I ever hear anyone say anything negative about anyone."

Take some time to explore the interviews captured over at Enduring Legacy--the audio files are so rich with memory and emotion you'll easily find yourself rooting for those who, at immense odds, fulfilled their professional ambitions.