Studying Abroad In South Africa

By Priya A. ’24, B.S. in Biomedical Sciences student

A young woman smiling and kneeling behind a nyala, a type of South African antelope, that is sedated.
While visiting Dinokeng Game Reserve, we transported five nyala (a type of antelope) from one side of the property to another about 30 minutes away. This is the animal I watched and monitored. The nyala is sedated.

In June 2023, I studied abroad in South Africa for two-and-a-half weeks through the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences with Dr. James Derr, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology. The name of the course was African Wildlife Medicine, and we partnered with South African veterinarians each day to serve their clients. The purpose of the trip was to gain experience working with African wildlife and knowledge in topics that arise with these animals, such as poaching. This course is unique because it includes both undergraduate and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) students.

In South Africa, lions, rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, and leopards are some of the most ecologically and economically important animals. We saw and worked with some of these species, as well as others. There were two days in particular that were my favorite — the days we worked with white rhinos and giraffes.

On our first day, we worked with 11 white rhinos. Some of us rode in a helicopter with a local veterinarian while others took DNA samples, gave sedatives, and microchipped the rhinos, which helps keep track of rhinos since poaching is a major concern in South Africa. We learned how to be a team, which carried us all the way through our two weeks.

A woman sitting on a large metal trailer that is holding two giraffes wearing anti-stress blindfolds.
These are the first two giraffes we captured and transported. They are fully awake, but blindfolded and have earplugs to reduce any stress. I’m standing on the trailer that pulled the giraffes.

Later in the trip, we captured and transported three giraffes in order to help relocate them safely. This was the most physically exhausting day of the entire trip! Each of us had a particular role to ensure that both the giraffes and our team were safe.

Over the course of our trip, we worked directly with five South African veterinarians and their clients. They challenged us in our critical thinking, clinical, and communication skills. Personally, one of the coolest parts about networking with them was the possibility of getting to return for an externship with them during my fourth year of veterinary school.

As an undergraduate student, I found this experience beneficial and eye-opening as I applied to veterinary school and thought about what type of veterinary medicine I want to pursue. Those of us who were undergrads had opportunities to ask the current DVM students questions and get advice for the application process. If anyone is wanting to get more diverse veterinary experience for their vet school application, I highly recommend applying for this study abroad experience. You never know what new passions might arise!

Summer Experiences

This summer, I was lucky enough to be selected to participate in Banfield Pet Hospital’s Summer Job Program. Back in March, I was assigned to work at a clinic in Houston. The program is designed to be a mix of working as a technician and learning alongside the doctors. While I was initially concerned that the experience would be canceled due to COVID-19, everything continued as planned!

At the start of the experience, I was asked to rank my comfort level in different areas- clinical skills, communication skills, and business skills. This allowed to me to evaluate myself and think of what I wanted to get out of the program. I was able to talk with both my assigned coach doctor and the practice manager to discuss my goals- placing IV catheters, practicing drawing blood from the jugular vein, and performing physical exams. I was eager to practice the skills I learned my first year of vet school in a real clinic!

Starting day one, I was surrounded by supportive and encouraging technicians and doctors. Everyone asked what skills I wanted to hone, and were quick to say “Tabitha, come do this!”

Not only did I perform routine physical exams, but I also got to do orthopedic and neurologic exams. I also became much more confident in interpreting diagnostic tests like fecal exams and ear cytologies. I even got to scrub in on surgeries!

Getting to put everything I learned into practice this summer really enforced that I love the veterinary medicine industry. I love interacting with clients, learning new things, and working with animals with totally unique personalities. I am already looking forward to everything I will learn this coming school year.

Vet School from a Distance

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in a matter of days, changed just about everything in our daily lives, and our veterinary education is no exception. Near the end of our spring break, we received word that classes during the subsequent week would be cancelled to allow planning for a pivot to an online format.

What does an online veterinary education look like, you ask? Great question!

As I write this, our veterinary classes are set to resume in a few days, so I don’t have all the answers. What I can tell you is what life for me has looked like for the past week. Although no formal classes were held, our instructors continued to post class material so that we could continue our learning.

Back in College Station, our instructors have been working tirelessly to revise their courses to an online format. They posted new syllabi to reflect modifications to class formats, exam schedules, assignment due dates, and exam formats. Some classes will lecture by virtual video conferencing (such as Zoom), other classes will have content posted ahead of time for us to watch at our leisure, and other classes will ask us to review content ahead of time then meet virtually during our normal class time for a Q&A session. While it will be challenging to adapt to the various learning styles, I am extremely grateful that we may continue our education during this unprecedented time.

Day-to-day life as a student looks a little bit different for everyone. Many of my classmates, myself included, are in their hometowns to be close (albeit socially distanced!) to loved ones. I am currently living with my partner and his roommate in Oregon.

Because of the time difference, I am trying to wake up early each day so that when classes resume I can cope with taking tests and being functional at 6 a.m. Pacific Time. It’s a small price to pay for being able to stay home and close to my parents and loved ones. My classmates and I study and collaborate via Google Docs. When the weather is nice, I take a break from studying by exploring the nearby walking trails. I stay in touch with friends and family by phone, Facetime, and social media. When all else fails, there are always board games to stay entertained.

Although these are uncertain times, I take comfort in knowing that my classmates, my instructors, and I are all doing our best to adapt to the evolving situation and keep each other safe. Our resiliency has helped us get to where we are now, and it will help us get through whatever the next few months hold.

My Mountain to Become a Great Doctor

They say life doesn’t stop because you are in vet school. This semester, it really didn’t stop.

For whatever reason, the spring semester of our second year has been a trial for many people in our class, me included.

Over Christmas break, I had a migraine and right-sided persistent numbness. I spent four days in the hospital undergoing MRI’s, CT scans, and a spinal tap until my diligent doctors concluded that I
have an aggressive form of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.

While I would have preferred to spend my break planning my wedding and skiing with friends, I spent much of my time reflecting on not only what it means to live with a chronic illness, but also to manage that chronic illness as a medical professional myself.

In school we spend so much time talking about the art and practice of medicine. We are here because we are problem solvers and because we like a good challenge. But what happens when you are the problem but can’t provide your own solution? That vulnerability is not something we are accustomed to as veterinary students.

I am not the only one who has learned a thing or two about putting your life in other peoples’ hands. As you read in a previous blog, one of my classmates is currently battling cancer, others have had car accidents or supported family through illness.

In school, our days are consumed with understanding radiology, identifying pathology, and honing our anatomical understanding, but suddenly this knowledge couldn’t help ourselves or those closest to us.

In the months following my diagnosis, I perhaps leaned what my professors had been trying to teach me all along. Great doctors not only possess precise yet broad knowledge in their field of specialty, but they also sit by your bedside and explain the complexity of an MRI as many times as it takes for you to understand. Great doctors follow up, take extra time, make sure
you understand each piece of a complex diagnosis.

They also don’t quit until they have an answer. Great doctors persevere.

And while I have previously persevered through five-hour anatomy practices, late night study sessions, bad grades, and emotional breakdowns, I see this as the most important mountain I will climb both in vet school and my career. Like so many of my classmates who have faced unfathomable challenges during their veterinary training, I now know how those challenges will turn us in to better veterinarians.

Refreshing My Passion

I feel this is the best year ever!

My classes this semester have been beyond phenomenal as I have more hands-on experience from our designated labs. We have a surgery lab this semester which teaches us how to perform a proper sterile technique to prevent any form of contamination with the imaginary patient.

We are given SynDavers, which are synthetic surgery models that have realistic looking organs and vessels. These models allow us to practice suturing, taking biopsies of the organs, and removing foreign objects that were supposedly swallowed by the patient.

This is our first class where we learn the sterile surgeon skills for our practices, and are taught by veterinary specialists who work at the A&M hospitals next door.

Besides surgery, we also have radiology and this class solely focuses on how we can read and diagnose the pet’s problem by identifying them on x-rays. To me, it’s like a puzzle where I look at an image and see what is abnormal or not. We are given a brief history of the animal but otherwise we don’t have any test results to explain what isn’t right with our patient.

I appreciate this approach because it gives me a blank canvas to work with and I’m not blinded by my own ideas. With this method, I learn how a normal bone looks like compared to a bone with a small fracture. I can see the detail, or lack of detail, of vessels in the chest and determine if there’s fluid or air in the lungs.

From two images, I can create a story behind what I see and determine what form of treatment is best for these animals.

Experiencing these two classes reminds me why I wanted to come to this school and to this program. I truly appreciate the brilliant specialists who teach us, along with the vast amount of hands-on experience I get to be involved in!

‘Micro’ Class, Major Inspiration

During our first semester “Agents of Disease” class, we were encouraged to use our own pet’s fecal samples when learning how to perform fecal floats (a routine veterinary test used to diagnose internal parasites). As a student interested in exotic animal medicine, I brought a sample from my own pet crested gecko.

I enthusiastically researched all I could find on reptile parasites and was intrigued to learn that there was almost no information available on crested geckos, let alone peer-reviewed research articles.

Since crested geckos are relatively new to the pet trade, it was understandable that not much data had been collected on them. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the little information I found, and as any good researcher would have it, I decided to conduct my own study to improve our medical understanding of the species.

I immediately considered all of the research opportunities possible and shared my thoughts with Dr. Sara Lawhon, the course coordinator for our “Agents of Disease” class.

I had the idea to test fecal samples from a variety of lizards at the largest reptile show in Texas, and Dr. Lawhon enthusiastically supported the idea. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, but with her guidance, we were able to develop a plan for collecting data.

Fecal Parasite Eggs

Although Dr. Lawhon was undoubtedly very busy during the semester, there was no hesitation when she agreed to take time out of her weekend to help me analyze gecko fecal samples.

She specializes in bacteria and had nothing to gain by helping with my parasitology project, yet she spent hours assisting with data collection, research, and development, just to foster a love of research in one of her students.

As I collected more and more data from various reptile shows across the state, Dr. Lawhon introduced me to Dr. Guilherme Verocai, director of the Veterinary Parasitology Diagnostic Laboratory in the college’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB), and his team, including Joe Luksovsky, MSc.

Reptile Parasite

With his lab’s help, I was able to fine-tune my project and expand it to include a variety of exotic reptile and amphibian species. To date, I’ve tested almost 300 fecal samples from 60 different species, ranging from the tiniest pygmy leaf chameleon to the largest gecko in the world, the leachianus gecko.

At this moment, I’m currently writing two, first-author papers from the data I collected, which will undoubtedly help me with my goal to become board certified in exotic animal medicine.

I know for a fact that I would have never come this far without my incredibly supportive mentors, Dr. Lawhon and Dr. Verocai, who are helping me turn my simple idea into actual published papers.

Friendships are Everything

As I approach my fourth semester of veterinary school, I have thought a lot about what has helped me come this far.

Veterinary school is definitely a huge change from my days as an undergraduate, not only in schedule but also workload; initially, it was kind of a culture shock.

Although, I worked hard to make the transition as seamless as possible, I realize what has really made the biggest difference is the friendships I have made in my class.

Coming into veterinary school, I knew a few people from undergrad who would be in my class.

But as the first semester progressed, I started to become close to many more people.

It is pretty inevitable, considering we spend almost 40 hours a week together in class, but it almost felt like being back in high school, when you had the same classes all day, everyday with your friends.

But what really helped me form the closest friendships was the countless hours we would spend studying together. Not only does it help to share knowledge and study guides and quiz each other, but it also makes the whole process less painful.

Now, it is tradition for my groups of friends to study together the night before every test.

After fall finals, my friends and I decided to reward ourselves by taking a trip to Colorado.

We went skiing and snowboarding, rode snowmobiles, tubed, and generally spent a week just hanging out with each other.

This trip made me realize that I don’t think I have ever gotten so close to a group of people so fast. Not only do they help pass the time in class or make studying more bearable, but they are also an important support system, because we are all going through the exact same thing together.

I’m not sure I would have made it this far if it weren’t for the friends I have made here.

My First Birthday in Veterinary School

This year was the first year I was truly on my own for my birthday.

In planning for the occasion, with two upcoming tests, I decided it was better for my, my family’s, and my husband’s schedules if we all met up in two weeks. However, that didn’t make my birthday any less special.

The day itself started out with sweet “happy birthday” texts from my family and husband and then in-person wishes from my classmates.

With a long day of class and studying for our anatomy test that Friday, I spent most of my day at school, but that didn’t stop my friends and me from celebrating later that night, when we all went to eat dinner at Mad Taco. While we talked about school some, we were able to get out of an academic environment and just hang out with each other.

These kinds of nights are my favorite because they allow us an outlet to get out of “study-mode” and get into a more relaxed and lighthearted situation. They, my friends surprised me with a birthday cake topped with candles.

After we were finished with dinner, I studied a little more and then ended my day with a couple short Facetime calls to my parents and best friend, as well as a longer one with my husband.

While it’s hard to be so far away from my parents, husband, and best friends, they showered me with love in the best ways they could.

My veterinary school friends have quickly become “my people” and are the ones who truly understand the struggles and victories, the highs and lows, and everything in between of being a veterinary student.

I’m incredibly lucky to have found them so early in school and am so thankful that they help keep me sane during this journey.

My birthday wouldn’t have been the same without all of the special people in my life!

Do You Get Free Time in Veterinary School?

One of the most common questions I get while giving tours to prospective students is about veterinary students’ schedules, especially regarding free time. In fact, one of my close friends asked me this question a few weeks ago, since she will be starting veterinary school in the fall!

So, I decided to talk a little bit about how I schedule my time.

First, this picture is of my schedule for the past week. Here’s a quick key:

  • Dark green: Class lectures
  • Yellow: Class labs
  • Light green: extracurricular events (no, I don’t go to every one!)
  • Dark blue: my scheduled study time
  • Light blue: time with friends
  • Pink: time with my dog

Each weekend, usually on Sunday afternoon, I plan my week. I look at what exams I have coming up and what projects or quizzes are due, as well as think about my personal progress in each class.

I usually get home from school around 5:30 p.m., and then I give myself about an hour and a half to eat dinner and relax.

First thing Saturday mornings, I walk my dog around the nearby park. On Sundays, a friend and I are committed to going to church together. On Monday nights, another friend comes over and we watch “The Bachelor” together!

Now, you may be looking at this and freaking out. Let me say that no, I don’t stick to this schedule 100 percent.

Sometimes you just don’t feel like studying, and that’s OK! Sometimes, your friend texts you and invites you to go eat or to see a movie that starts in 30 minutes, and that’s OK too.

Part of taking care of yourself during veterinary school means doing what’s best for you, even if that means going to Raising Cane’s instead of studying for anatomy.

“But Tabitha, you only have time with friends scheduled once a week. Do you never see people outside of school?”

Good question! Often, my weekend study time is with another person. Study dates at Starbucks, or group study time at the house of the only person in my friend group who cooks, are common occurrences.

It’s all about balancing school life and social life, and it is possible!

Last, I would like to say that if you’re looking at this and worrying because you have never used a planner in your life—don’t.

Most people aren’t as… intensely nerdy as I am.

I have a friend who plans his week on a notepad and another who just goes with the flow and never schedules anything.

All sorts of people are in veterinary school, each with different learning styles and structures.

If you are currently applying to veterinary school, or planning on applying, I hope this helped you know what to expect, and I wish you good luck!

Welcome Back

It’s the first day back at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) after winter break, and I feel recharged.

I went home to Michigan to spend some much-needed time with family feeling very proud of myself for all I accomplished in my first semester and feeling even prouder of how well I did, not to “humble-brag.”

Within the first week of being home, it started snowing, which meant one thing—snowball fight. My two older brothers and I reverted into our inner children and it was amazing; it felt like a mini-celebration for the end of the semester.

I sent all of my friends in Texas a picture of the snow and was very excited.

Sadly, however, it all melted, so there was no white Christmas for me, but on the bright side, I did get to see how pretty everything looked covered in snow without really having to drive through it. I know this may seem a bit foreign to some Texans, but up north when it snows, the salt trucks hit the road as it starts sticking and it’s only really an issue if the snow is continuous…sometimes. Luckily, they were on point when I was home.

Over the break I got some much-deserved sleep and got to see friends and family for the first time in months. We spent hours just talking and catching.

I would like to say I was productive over the break, but, honestly, I felt like I was in a three-week coma and just slept. But, hey, at least I’m going back in fully rested.

I also can’t wait to see all of my DVM friends. I made all of them animal plushies as a belated Christmas present. They are really cute, in my opinion, but so time-consuming.

Looking ahead, this semester, we get to start on our pathology class, and I am so excited. I love learning all about diseases and what causes them.

Here’s to hoping for an even better spring semester. Wish me luck!