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Posted August 14, 2018

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Drs. Jon and Gwen Levine

Have you ever met a couple and you knew that being friends with them would be the “coolest” thing?  Well, then, meet the Drs. Levine—Gwen and Jon. Oh, and let’s not forget their gregarious son, George!  Named after his grandfather and as spirited, smart, and funny as his parents, George adds another dimension to their lives. If you haven’t met them, you’re about to.

Although Dr. Gwendolyn Levine and Dr. Jonathan M. Levine first met at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), the CVM is not the first school they had in common.

The couple met at a party on the second night of Gwen’s orientation as a new student in the DVM program in 2002. Jon, then a new resident in neurology, had only been at the CVM for six weeks.

“My mentor told me to go because she could tell I was an introvert and I needed to get out,” Gwen recalled. “I was standing in the garage talking with some of my newfound friends. Jon had said that he had completed veterinary school at Cornell, and one of my friends said ‘Oh my gosh, this girl in our class went to Cornell; you have to meet her.’ And the way they tell it, he shoved them out of the way so he could come over and talk to me.”

Jon’s road to the CVM had begun years earlier in his home state of New York as an undergrad at Cornell University. He began attending medical school at State University of New York at Buffalo after completing his bachelor’s degree in biology but decided after a year that a career in human medicine was not what he actually wanted, so he took a research job at Harvard.

There, he realized that veterinary medicine better aligned with his interests in biomedical research. He returned to Cornell to begin his veterinary education and earned his DVM degree in 2001. Along the way, he discovered his passion for neurology, which took him to Colorado State University for an internship in 2002 before moving to College Station to begin his residency.

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Gwen Levine with her horse, Live from New York
(Photo by Frankie Wylie)

Gwen’s professional path also began on the East Coast, but she had entered Cornell already knowing she wanted to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. She had shadowed and later worked at a veterinary clinic in her hometown in Connecticut during her high school years, and one of the clinic’s veterinarians suggested she apply to Cornell for her undergraduate degree. After completing her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2001, she applied to eight veterinary schools and moved to College Station in the fall of 2002 to begin her DVM education.

The meeting at the party proved to be serendipitous.

Although Jon briefly left the CVM to finish his residency at the University of Missouri, the couple married during Gwen’s third year in the DVM program. Jon returned to the CVM to join the faculty in 2005, and Gwen earned her DVM in 2006 and went on to do her internship and residency at the CVM.

Gwen now serves as chair of the selections committee and is a clinical associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB). Jon is the department head, a professor, and the Helen McWhorter Chair in Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS).

Balancing their roles as leaders in the CVM with raising their 5-year-old son, George, and having a healthy work-life balance is no easy task for the Levines. Their partnership is unique, and the partnerships they have established over the years both here and around the world are, too.

Jon’s work on gliomas and Gwen’s work on intervertebral disk herniation in Dachshunds and cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers have led to them collaborate on multiple levels.

Currently, one of Jon’s major research collaborations is with Dr. Amy Heimberger, a neurosurgeon at MD Anderson. Dr. Heimberger’s research explores possible treatments based on directing a patient’s immune system to attack gliomas (a glioma is a type of tumor that occurs in the brain and spinal cord).

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Jon Levine

“We take her early stage therapies and trial them in dogs,” he explained. “We have a new one that we’re about to get rolling on that’s really exciting. And we’ve also worked with her to characterize the genetics of these tumors, with the goal being not to just describe that, but to actually understand what’s happening biologically within the tumor, immunologically, so that we can better target these cancers with therapies.”

Gwen’s research interests include the use of technology in assessing gait through the application of force platforms and motion-capture systems. This technology has been used to complete a research project evaluating how Dachshunds recover their walking ability after a spinal cord injury and to support research by clinicians in orthopedics. She also is interested in biomarkers in neurologic and orthopedic disease.

The Levines’ first project together was a paper for the Journal for the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA); they also worked together on a neurology teaching CD-ROM several years ago.

“I did the programming for it, and he wrote up all the cases,” Gwen said. “We’ve collaborated on grants. We both have an interest in spinal cord injury; for example, I love dachshunds, so we’ve done a lot of papers on that topic.”

Because of their shared interests, talks about work often carry over after hours, especially as their professional responsibilities and research projects diverge.

“We’ll kind of walk through our day a little bit and discuss what we accomplished,” Gwen said of how she and Jon discuss their work with each other. “Sometimes, because we have different perspectives about our work, talking with Jon will help me get more perspective on a situation. I think I can do that for him sometimes, too. We bounce things off each other.”

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Gwen Levine (left) works with technicians and a patient.

“For me, it helps to have a partner in my life,” Jon added. “She’s an amazing partner in so many different respects, whether we’re talking about someone to give you ideas, someone to empathize, someone to listen. And she’s an incredible mom; she’s responsible for so much of George’s success, I think—everything from discipline to understanding how to help him be the best he can be.”

The Levines also have very different decision-making processes. Gwen likes to make a decision, move forward, and not agonize over it, whereas Jon likes to talk about his decision-making process.

“You should see us pick out furniture,” said Gwen. “A simple dining table involves many days of deliberation and discussion.”

“I’m an INFJ on Myers Briggs, and Jon is an ENTJ,” Gwen explained. “I make quick decisions with my gut, and Jon gets numerous opinions and contemplates the buy before he moves forward. It actually works well for us.”

“I think we have the right things in common,” Jon added.

Seeking each other’s opinions and feedback is reflective of how they approach leadership in their roles at the CVM.

“I like to present options to the selections committee because I need and value their perspective,” said Gwen. “I’m just one person; the reason we have a committee is to get all these people’s critical input on what we’re considering and make sure that we make the best decision.”

“The best thing about being a department head is helping people,” said Jon. “The absolute best thing is seeing people be able to get to their fullest potential. It’s just amazingly rewarding. You have to be comfortable with yourself and who you are and what your strengths are. You have to listen to people and hear what they want. You have to know what the unit or the college needs, because those things have to be in synergy. And then you just help folks put it together.”

The family part of the Levines’ collaboration equation requires synergy, as well. Perhaps the most significant task that Gwen and Jon must collaborate on each and every day is raising their son, George.

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George Levine

“Parenting is a lot of work; I would say it’s just another layer of responsibilities,” Gwen said. “But he’s so fun; it’s great. It’s funny because when he was a baby, Jon would say, ‘Oh I can’t wait till he can do this—I can’t wait until he can walk; I can’t wait until he can talk.’ And now when the two of them are in the car with me, I’m just like, ‘Really can one of you guys stop talking now?’ They’re both extroverts, and sometimes I need a break because it feels like Jon and George are trying to see who can say the most words.”

George, who is 5 now, acts like a little lawyer—always negotiating and trying to figure things out. He also loves Legos and math.

“We can usually entertain him by giving him math problems,” Gwen said.
The Levines wake up at 5:50 in the morning, get ready for work, and wake George. Gwen or Jon make George breakfast and lunch. They drop George off at his daycare before 7, because school doesn’t open until 7:30, and they like to be at work early so they can get their days started before everyone else arrives at work.

Their days also depend on if they’re working clinics or not, which might change Gwen’s hours to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Jon’s hours might be even longer.

“Clinical pathology clinics are fairly straightforward because I sit behind a microscope and look at whatever samples come in,” Gwen said. “I don’t have to interact with patients; I don’t have to do surgeries on emergency cases. I get to train residents and talk to clinicians about their samples, so I really enjoy it because it’s not as stressful as the role I had as a clinician when I was an intern.”

Jon, now in an administrative role, doesn’t get to work clinics as much as he used to, but he does still see patients, perform operations, read reports, and consult with clients.

“You know, one of my philosophies is if you don’t do what your team does or have a way to be boots-on-the-ground a little bit, it becomes really hard to connect with them,” Jon said. “By being in clinics, even only six weeks, I maintain that connection. It’s a very hard thing to manage sometimes, with everything else that’s going on, and, yet, I see it as being of high importance to me and to my team.”

While the emergency aspect of clinics can create longer days for Jon when combined with his administrative duties, the rest of the year is a bit more regulated.

“But I travel a lot,” he said. “I have done 50 air flight legs this year (2017).”

“Gwen is a rock star when it comes to taking care of George and stepping up. When she travels, I take care of him and do the whole morning routine, and the evening routine,” Jon said. “One day, when Gwen was away and George and I were on the way to drop him off at daycare, he looked at me and said, ‘You know, Daddy, when it’s just Mommy, I get to have breakfast at the table; I don’t have to eat in the car.’”

Outside of work and George, the Levines have individual hobbies; they trade off days for Gwen to ride her horse, named Live From New York, which she rides twice each week after work, and for Jon to run one night each week.

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Jon Levine with Dexter at the CVM’s Diagnostic Imaging & Cancer Treatment Center

Some of their routine will change soon, as Gwen will be preparing for a non-traditional residency in radiology that will take four years. She plans to fit it in with all of her “other” responsibilities.

“I have always been interested in radiology,” she said. “I think what I’m looking forward to is having more of a connection with the clinicians and getting to see the front end of samples and appreciate the ultrasounds—kind of bringing more of a pathology perspective to my work.”

Fitting vacations into that packed agenda can be difficult, and a “pure vacation” that isn’t tied to a conference or some other work-related activity is a true challenge. But dreams do come true, and, fittingly, did so a few years ago when the family took a trip to Disneyland in California. For George, the dream just turned out to be very specific.

“There’s this one ride, Goofy’s Sky School, that George was finally tall enough to go on, but he had been talking about going on all year,” Gwen recalled. “So we go on the ride and he says, ‘OK, we can leave now.’ That was the one thing we did, the first thing, I made sure it was a priority, and he’s like, ‘Ok, we can go.’”

“I asked him, ‘Where do you wanna go?’” Jon added. “He said, ‘Back to the hotel.’”

“He was a bit task-oriented,” Gwen explained with a laugh.

In 2014, the Levines (minus George) went on vacation to Moab, Utah, for their 10-year anniversary. They also took a trip without George to Germany, after they’d been invited to speak at the University of Hanover. After much convincing on Gwen’s part, they stayed two extra days enjoying Berlin.

“Gwen has to twist my arm to take a vacation, but I’m always appreciative when I get there,” Jon said. “We enjoy hiking, being outside on nature walks together, and our families.”

The Levines agree that there’s a balance when talking about work at home; they don’t want work to take over their home life. So, after George is sleeping, they allow 15 or 20 minutes to talk about something that may have happened in the day and then they put away their cellphones. They admit that is not easy, but they are finding it beneficial to their life balance.

“One of our best vacations was where they didn’t have cellphone service during the day,” Gwen said. “Jon missed his phone, at first, but soon began to enjoy the time away from technology—for a little while, anyway.”  

The Levines are hoping to find time to take their next vacation this spring. As usual, their planning process is a collaboration.

“We’re gonna argue about it,” said Gwen. “And then we’ll talk about it like 15 times.”

“But then—it’ll get decided and we’ll both be happy with it,” Jon said.

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of CVM Today magazine.

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