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The Road More Traveled

Posted August 08, 2018

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Dr. Cheryl Herman and Dr. Morgan Scott

Their professional paths may have diverged, but the mutual support Drs. Morgan Scott and Cheryl Herman have for their unique interests and ambitions make them ideally suited for their work…and for each other.

Few couples within the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) have more differing professional interests than Dr. Cheryl Herman and her husband, Dr. Morgan Scott.

Herman, a clinical associate professor, teaches anatomy to undergraduate and professional students, whereas Scott is a principal investigator researching antimicrobial resistance among zoonotic bacteria.

Their unique paths diverged from the same beginning—the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, where, in 1985, they met as veterinary students during the many social gatherings that brought their two classes together. Not only did they share a common professional interest in large and mixed-animal practice, but they also shared an affinity for pursuing outdoor activities in the Canadian Rockies: skiing, cycling, and backpacking.

“I don’t know where the time went,” said a smiling Scott as he recalled their initial meeting, in which they connected easily.

Herman graduated first in 1987 and eventually moved to Lloydminster, in Alberta, Canada, to start her clinical career four hours away from Scott as he finished up veterinary school and then started out in a separate practice.
After two years, they were reunited at Lloydminster Animal Hospital, a mixed-animal practice in which for efficiency’s sake, they divided their clients—Scott took on the food animals, mostly bovine patients, while Herman jumped at the opportunity to work specifically in equine medicine.

“I started out only wanting to work on horses and ended up working only on cats,” Herman said with a laugh. “That’s why I always tell my students, ‘never say never.’”

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Herman cycling in India

Even though they essentially worked together, they had a unique set of patients, which made the work more individualized. If the occasional overlap resulted in conflict, Scott admitted, with a chuckle, “she was always right.”

As clinicians, their dedication to their clients took precedence over their lives, because, working in a small practice, one was constantly on call, which made it impossible for the young couple to plan any dates or trips, especially in a time before cell phones.

These grueling nights, among other things, began to wear on Scott.

“I got bored fairly quickly in the type of practice I was pursuing. There was a lot of repetition, in that 95 percent of what I was doing were things I did routinely, and then there was 5 percent that was new and kept the job interesting,” he said. “One spring, I had done 120 caesarian sections and the last one I took 17 minutes skin-to-skin. I thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that fantastic?’ And I was like, ‘Well, is it really?’”

Scott began to focus on those few unusual cases that raised unanswered questions, such as when he came across a steer that had died from pneumonia but also harbored lung worms, a rare find in the “Frozen North.” The case left Scott wondering: should northern Alberta ranchers invest in treating their animals for this parasite, which was otherwise rare and had no apparent ill effects?

To delve into the research and statistics that would help clients make those kinds of decisions, Scott obtained his doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, a feat made possible by Herman’s support as she continued to work in clinical practice.

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Herman and Scott at the Taj Mahal

“She funded this whole expedition,” Scott said.

After graduation, Scott accepted a position in food safety surveillance in the Alberta government, where he became interested in bacterial resistance and, specifically, how agricultural practices like antibiotics in animal feed might encourage resistance in humans.

He wanted to investigate these questions but acknowledged the inherent complexity in designing a logical scientific study. As Scott put it: how can we investigate resistance factors associated with foodborne bacteria if “I don’t even remember where I ate two days ago?”

The answer to his design problem was waiting for him at Texas A&M, where Scott accepted a research position in 2001.

At an Aggie Thanksgiving hosted by the university, Scott met the chief veterinarian for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the late Dr. Derry Magee. Their discussion revealed the perfect setup for a study—the Texas prison system, where the food supply and consumers were understood in such a way that Scott could confidently know where the food came from and where there would be very little food introduction from the outside world. Shortly thereafter, Scott and a team of researchers from Texas A&M University and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service received a $1.5 million grant to study the bacteria in the animals, food, and humans in the unique system.

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Herman in the classroom

Their move to Texas sparked unforeseen changes, not only in Scott’s career but for Herman’s, as well, in ways arguably greater than the change in climate.

While Scott began his research, Herman decided to explore her growing interest in teaching. Their clinic had hosted several summer students who had been drawn to Herman’s approachable and patient nature, making her a preferable mentor, so when the couple moved to Texas, Herman, too, began working at Texas A&M, where her passion for teaching has grown as she has interacted more and more with the CVM’s veterinary and biomedical sciences students.

“Anatomy is an easy subject to make relevant. Plus,” she said with a smile, “it’s just fun.”

Herman said she has no regrets about switching to teaching after 14 years of clinical practice, even though Texas clinics probably see more interesting cases because of the warmer climate and a much more diverse disease ecology.

“It’s all here: vector diseases, toxic plants, rare fungal conditions—things we had to know for the North American Veterinary License Exam but we never thought we’d see in practice back in western Canada,” Scott said.

While Scott prefers teaching smaller groups through graduate-level courses, he said he admires his wife’s dedication to teaching.

“The tendency of a researcher is to become narrowly focused; teaching keeps you fresh and honest by having to know the breadth of your discipline and not just the narrower focus of your research area,” he said.

He said he is more drawn to the solitary work of research, punctuated by interactions with his colleagues.

“According to my Meyers Briggs INTJ [introversion, intuition, thinking, judgement] personality, I’m only allowed five close friends at a time anyway,” Scott said, poking fun at his self-proclaimed introversion and then pointing to his wife. “So, she’s number one.”

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Scott in the lab

Their unique accomplishments have been made possible by their mutual support and their taste for new experiences, such as when the couple completed a 23,000-kilometer (that’s almost 14,300 miles, for us Americans) around-the-world bicycling expedition in 1999/2000.

“It changed us both forever,” Herman marveled. “You spend nearly 14 months with all your belongings on a bicycle, and then you come home and ask yourself, ‘is all this stuff really necessary?’”

This perspective shift was solidified when their house was burglarized during their excursion.

“At that point, we realized we really didn’t care that much about the stuff,” Scott said, with a shrug.

The trip of a lifetime was good for their marriage, their world view, and, apparently, Scott’s research.

“I did my best thinking on that bike,” he said. “You have a lot of time to think, and it’s not easy when you’re riding in traffic in new Delhi.”

“Or,” Herman added with a shake of her head, “when it’s pouring rain in Germany nonstop. It is an experience we would have again if we don’t retire too late.”

Both are self-described perfectionists about their work which makes it easier to understand each other’s commitments.

“It helps that we have similar schedules,” Herman explained. “I think it’s more difficult for couples when one person doesn’t really get the time commitment.”

While their different, and rigorous, professional paths have been possible because of their mutual support for each other’s ambitions and their unique interests, they also believe their differences complement each other and make them ideally suited for their respective professions.

Above all, it is their shared value of open communication that has reinforced their lifelong companionship.

“We’re best friends,” they said, smiling at each other.

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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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