Lawhon began her journey at Texas A&M in 1987 with the dream of becoming a small animal veterinarian. After completing a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences, she returned in 1993 in pursuit of her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree.
But four years later, as she neared graduation from veterinary school, her focus began to shift. At the time, she was studying under pathologist Paul Frelier, who proposed that she stick around to fill an open postdoctoral position.
After graduation, she took him up on his offer; however, making the decision to go with the flow didn’t come easily.
“I had sworn I wasn’t going to do that,” she recalled, in reference to her post-doctoral work, “but spending time in Dr. Frelier’s lab inspired me. The work we were doing married clinical diagnostics and research in a way that sparked my interest in microbiology.
“It was exciting,” Lawhon remembers.
This marked the start of her transition from one goal to another; as she drifted from the idea of becoming a small animal veterinarian and toward her new passion, she began looking for microbiology residencies.
As Lawhon saw it, she had three options worth considering, and one of them was at North Carolina State. Once again, an opportunity had found her and she went with it—and was happy to do so somewhere with a favorable climate.
“I’m a Texas girl,” she said, adding that the warm weather had a major impact on her ultimate decision, “and fortunately for me, they were willing to take me on.”
While completing her residency in infectious diseases and her Ph.D. at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, she discovered her passion for Salmonella.
“I didn’t expect to spend my life or career thinking about Salmonella and carbon metabolism,” she recalled. “The science behind the Ph.D. was very basic, but we got to do a lot of things that really had application and direct clinical relevance. It was really a lot of fun.”
With the support of clinical microbiologist Dr. Craig Altier during her residency, and through application and direct clinical relevance, basic science came to life.
After this, Lawhon returned to Texas A&M as a postdoctoral researcher with Dr. L. Garry Adams and, in 2008, became an assistant professor. However, once again, this was not always part of her plan; she had loved A&M during her time here but never thought it would be her ultimate landing place.
“I was certainly supportive of (coming back) as an option,” she recalled. “(But) you just never know what’s going to happen and what jobs are going to be available. I was open to being other places, as long as there was good science, good people, and interesting diseases.”
So, with the support of her family and husband Ian, as well as her love for College Station, she returned to A&M, where she has been ever since.
She joined the CVM as associate director for the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH), where on day two, her interest in Salmonella expanded to include the genome sequencing of Staphylococcus. Looking for virulence factors (molecules produced by bacteria that help the bacteria cause disease in a host), antibiotic resistance genes, and investigating case studies of natural infections all became part of her growing list of responsibilities.
These are still her primary interests, but now, Lawhon does three main things; in addition to teaching, she is a clinical microbiologist for the VMTH and the director of the clinical microbiology and clinical immunology laboratory.
Likening herself to “Happy Gilmore,” who thought of himself as more of a hockey player than a golfer, Lawhon sees herself as “a researcher who gets to teach.”
But it’s a role in which she excels, so much so that in 2018, she was recognized by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) with the Distinguished Veterinary Teacher Award, presented by Zoetis.
Important for Lawhon is that her teaching and research are often combined.
She emphasized the value of protecting antibiotic resources, adding that part of her goal is to ensure that her students still have many antibiotics to use when they are in their 20th or 30th year of practice.
“We all want for the next generation to still have the tools and resources that antibiotics provide,” she said. “We translate whatever struggles we have in finding information for a patient into an easier way for somebody in the future to find a diagnosis and a good therapeutic agent faster.”
Fourth-year veterinary student Rachel Ellerd, who nominated Lawhon for the award, says she is both an excellent teacher and mentor who encourages students to follow their passions.
During a class activity on fecal floats, Ellerd discovered that very little peer-reviewed research existed on crested geckos. Under Lawhon’s guidance, Ellerd began a project on a variety of lizards that is set to become a published paper.
“Dr. Lawhon is undoubtedly very busy during the semester; however, there was no hesitation when she agreed to take time out of her weekend to help me analyze gecko fecal samples,” Ellerd said. “Although she specializes in Salmonella and had nothing to gain by helping with my project, she spent hours assisting with data collection, research, and development, just to foster a love of research in one of her students.”
This type of forward-thinking teaching has inspired countless students, who said while Lawhon expressed surprise in winning the teaching awards, they would have been surprised if she hadn’t been awarded it.
One of her two current Ph.D. students, Sara Little, said Lawhon has been a huge source of support.
“I feel like with her guidance, and her advice, and her support, it’s been more of an all-around growth instead of just your Ph.D. in science,” Little said, with those milling around the room nodding in agreement. “She’s been an example of how to live my life, how to ‘adult,’ and how to be a caring person.”
In addition, Lawhon’s care for her students extends beyond the classroom and lab; Little says Lawhon even invites students to her home for holidays.
“We don’t necessarily get the chance to go back to our families,” Little smiled. “So, every year, she always hosts a Thanksgiving dinner and a Christmas party, giving all of us little grad student ’orphans’ somewhere to go.”
“I have great students,” Lawhon said. “You don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to be a veterinarian.’ You might initially have done that, but then you’re going to put in another dozen years of hard work to get to that point. And then when you get to that point, you’re going to work even harder, so they work really hard to be the best possible veterinarians that they can be.”
When discussing her reception of the awards, Lawhon emphasized how humbling it is to know that her students elected her for the awards.
“That’s incredibly personally satisfying, to get to be a little piece in their story, in their timeline,” she said. “It is really positive and rewarding to share what I get to see at the bench with people that I hope that will find it useful.”
Ultimately, Lawhon never guessed that she would be where she is today, but she is glad that her journey has brought her back to A&M. Here, she has the opportunity to inspire future microbiologists, all while making her own positive changes in the world.
“You do your best with your education and be prepared when opportunities arise,” she said. “I try to create those same kinds of opportunities for my students now because you just might find your Salmonella somewhere out there. So, if you have the opportunity to try a bunch of different things, it can take you interesting places.”
Since graduating in 2013, Dr. Lauren Thielen has found herself—and her work with exotic animals—as the centerpiece of Nat Geo WILD’s “Dr. T., Lone Star Vet.”
Story by Margaret Preigh
Dr. Lauren Thielen, a 2013 graduate of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), is no stranger to a camera.
After receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, Thielen pursued an internship at the Broward Avian and Exotics Animal Hospital in Florida under Dr. Susan Kelleher. One month after beginning her position, Thielen learned that National Geographic would be producing a television show about the practice.
“I thought it was cool,” Thielen said. “I’m the type who likes these things. I thought it would be great to educate through an outlet so lovely as National Geographic.”
“Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER” premiered in 2014 and is currently in its eighth season. The show follows the happenings of the animal hospital as Dr. Kelleher and her team treat everything from ferrets to foxes. Thielen appeared on the show from its beginning in 2014 until she left the practice in 2018.
Her claim to fame didn’t end there, though; she now headlines her own National Geographic program, “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet,” which premiered in October.
“Nobody thinks they’re going to be on TV. I went to school to be a doctor,” Thielen said. “I don’t think I ever expected something like this to happen, but I’m really glad it did.”
An Early Interest
Although appearing on television was an unexpected twist in her career, Thielen has always held a passion for exotic animals. Raised in Fort Worth, she recalls sharing a love of animals with her father; she was never far from an animal friend in her home growing up.
“I’ve had turtles, iguanas, parrots, different types of lizards, hamsters, gerbils, and rabbits. I’ve always had rabbits,” she said, adding that in veterinary school, she had a Dutch rabbit named Penelope. “I’ve had a very big variety of different animals over the years.”
When she began thinking about working with animals, she initially wanted to be an exotic veterinarian at a zoo, but at the CVM, she was exposed to the option of becoming an exotic animal pet veterinarian. She was especially drawn to the hands-on nature of working with pets, saying that bunnies were much cuddlier than zoo animals like tigers.
“I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I knew what a veterinarian was. I’ve really always just loved animals, and I’ve always loved exotic animals,” she said.
Thielen’s early exposure to and interest in a range of animals has benefited her career. She has gone on to help a diverse cast of animals, working with everything from emus and capybaras to turkeys and lizards.
At this point, there is little that could shock her.
“One guy wanted to bring me this red Indian flying tree squirrel that was the size of a cat. It was awesome,” she said. “I see crazy things all the time. On Tuesday, we saw a lynx.”
Among her favorite cases was a pot-bellied pig Thielen treated for water intoxication. The pig came into the clinic unable to move with its pupils fixed and dilated, which means its brain wasn’t functioning properly.
“I contacted like five different veterinarians and everyone told me it was completely hopeless and that the patient’s never going to be normal again,” she said.
Thielen didn’t give up, describing her approach to that case as meticulous. In the end, her effort paid off.
“The pig ended up great and is still doing well to this day,” she said. “I was a brand new veterinarian, and I still found confidence and was able to gather the right knowledge to be able to save this patient against all odds.”
A New Chapter
In 2018, Thielen made the decision to move home to Texas and pursue an opportunity with her former mentor Dr. Sharman Hoppes, a professor emeritus at the CVM.
The two had first connected over their mutual love of exotic animals when Thielen was a student assigned to the zoological medicine ward. Thielen eventually joined a group of students led by Hoppes that traveled to Tambopata, Peru, to work with macaws. Thielen said this experience is when she became more involved with Hoppes and her husband, Dr. Bruce Nixon DVM ’85.
The two reconnected by chance when they ended up on the same flight to an exotic animal conference.
As Hoppes discussed the opening of her and her husband’s new practice, Thielen was particularly intrigued by their concept of providing specialized care to exotic animals within a complex that also offered specialized care in surgery, internal medicine, cardiology, dermatology, ophthalmology, critical care, and dentistry services. Thielen also noted that the clinic would be located near her childhood home.
Thielen now is copartner at Texas Avian & Exotic Hospital, which recently added another Aggie, Dr. Jordan Gentry, who completed his residency in zoological medicine at the CVM.
Thielen says she is proud to be an Aggie.
“I think my favorite part of being an Aggie is just the comradery that everyone has and the support of everybody for one another,” she said.
Hoppes is glad to work with her former student and mentee as a colleague.
“Lauren is funny, smart, and passionate. She is confident in her knowledge base and her skills,” Hoppes said. “And she is a really good person. She truly loves people and their animals and it shows.”
Thielen also brought with her to Texas Avian & Exotic Hospital her TV legacy; “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet,” filmed at this hospital, follows Thielen as she provides veterinary care to exotic animals.
“We were nervously excited about this show being filmed at our clinic,” Hoppes said. “We thought it was a great way to educate people, but we were nervous about cameras being there all the time.”
Thielen is glad to get back on camera. She said that the decision to resume her television career was easy.
“My producer and I always had a really good time filming the other show together, so we thought, ‘why not continue the fun?’” she said. “I’ve been on television literally since I graduated veterinary school, so to me, this is just normal.”
Thielen’s comfort in front of the camera is clear. In the first episode of her show, she fearlessly corners a turkey that has been attacking its male owner. Thielen handles the situation with a mix of humor and educational flair, cracking a joke about the turkey’s sassy strut before diagnosing the animal with a testosterone imbalance.
A Veterinarian On A Mission
Thielen hopes that this program, the first season of which aired for eight weeks on Nat Geo WILD (and is now available on Disney+), provides a platform from which she and other veterinarians can educate the public on proper animal and veterinary care.
“One thing I want to accomplish with this show is to show people how veterinary medicine is supposed to be practiced,” she said. “Being able to show veterinary collaboration at its finest is important. I want to show people that your birds can go to cardiologists, too.”
Thielen hopes that by providing exposure to these options, owners might seek out more comprehensive care.
“We can fix a fracture in a parakeet’s leg. We can remove a tumor on a rabbit,” Thielen said. “By educating pet owners on not only how to take care of an animal, but also that there is real medicine for their pets, people will understand the possibility in what we do.”
Thielen said another benefit of her program has been the influence she has over inspiring the next generation of exotic animal veterinarians.
“Little girls and even students in veterinary school write me and visit the clinic. They’re like, ‘I want to be an exotic vet one day,’” she said. “I didn’t even know this job existed until I was already in veterinary school. For these people to already know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, I just think that’s so cool.”
Inspiring more students to pursue exotic veterinary medicine is important, Thielen notes, since not all owners have easy access to veterinarians properly trained to care for their exotic pets.
“Patients do travel to see us. There are some veterinarians who see exotics in the area, but we’re the only exotics-exclusive facility in all of Dallas-Fort Worth,” she said. “I do think that there are definitely other veterinarians who will see some exotics, but we’re kind of the only practice that’s going to see the lynx or the monkey.”
What Lies Ahead
In general, Thielen is enthusiastic about most animals that the average person would shy away from. She is particularly drawn to birds, speaking about the beaked animals as lovingly as most people would talk about puppies.
“Birds are the cuddliest,” she said. “They’re expressive. When you walk in a room, they get excited and they dance and they fly to you.
“I also get attached to lizards,” she said. “I would argue they’re all extremely personable, and most of them want to be held and want to be interacted with.”
This mindset suits Thielen well as an exotic animal veterinarian, and leaves a lot of doors open for her future work. In addition to filming “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet” and completing her regular clinic duties, Thielen recently became a board certified avian specialist.
When reflecting on the animals she has provided care for, Thielen does not recall ever feeling fearful of a patient.
“I have a healthy respect for all animals,” she said. “As far as a true phobia, I don’t have anything like that.”
Indeed, Thielen is ready for any patient the future brings through her clinic’s doors. She looks forward to continuing to provide comprehensive care to her patients and educating her audience through “Dr. T, Lone Star Vet.” She is optimistic that she can handle whatever is in store.
“I see pretty much everything now,” she said. “There’s a lot I haven’t seen, but I think I’m ready for almost anything.”
When Tex Moncrief welcomed a rescued pug into his home, he opened the doors to a friendship with an Aggie veterinarian that he would come to cherish as much as his beloved pet.
Story by Jennifer Gauntt
William “Tex” Moncrief has owned a lot of dogs in his 100 years, but none were as special to him as Lucky.
Lucky came to Tex and his wife Linda in 2007, when the pug was only around 3 or 4 months old.
“He was a cute little guy, all ruffled up,” Tex said. “His name was (originally) Zamboni, like the machine they drive on an ice rink. I said, ’I’m adopting you, but your name is not Zamboni anymore; from now on, you’re Lucky.’ We loved that dog.”
And Lucky, he was.
Over the years, Lucky came to mean a lot to the Moncriefs, and Tex, especially, meant a lot to the pug.
“If Lucky happened to be asleep, and I got up and walked away and didn’t wake him up, it didn’t make any difference where I went in this house—and it’s a pretty large house—he would find me,” Tex said. “It was the darnedest thing. I’d look down and pat him, and he’d lick my hand and wiggle his tail.
“I’ve had several pugs, but he was the most lovable fellow I ever had; he just had to be with me,” he said.
Lucky even liked to sleep with his head on Tex’s shoe, which Linda interpreted as “making sure he wouldn’t get left behind.”
When, at one point, Tex was briefly hospitalized for a nosebleed, Lucky did get left behind, but the pug still did his best to “be” with Tex.
“I came back from the hospital and I couldn’t find Lucky where he normally stays, by the kitchen or the main entrance. I said, ‘What happened to Lucky?’” Linda recalled. “It was unusual, because when we were away, he would make sure he was the first to greet us.
“So, I went downstairs, and I found Lucky on his (Tex’s) shoes, the way he always slept when Tex was wearing his shoes,” she said. “I brought the shoes upstairs and I left part of his clothes in the chair Lucky rested in so that he would feel comforted. I thought that was very special.”
So special, in fact, that Linda ended up bringing Lucky to the hospital to see Tex.
“He was so happy,” Tex said. “He crawled right up on the bed, and I just rubbed and patted him.”
As Lucky aged, he developed Addison’s Disease and then leukemia, which eventually took his life at the age of 11. It was a hard loss for the Moncriefs.
“For weeks there, we could hardly stand it, missing that dog. I don’t think I’ve ever had a dog in all of my life that I missed that much. It was awful,” Tex said. “I didn’t think we were going to get over him.”
When Lucky passed, the veterinarian who had cared for him throughout it all—Dr. James Schroeder ’65—was there with the dog. Because of the routine nature of Lucky’s treatment, Schroeder had become a fixture in the Moncriefs’ lives.
“I met Dr. Schroeder when I took Lucky in for a checkup. I was impressed when I first met Jim,” Tex said. “Dr. Schroeder and Jill (who worked for Dr. Schroeder) would come to our house to care for Lucky, like he was a little child of their own, almost, and they were just gentle. It meant a lot to me for them to do that.
“Dr. Schroeder just made life easier for us, knowing we were going lose him,” he said. “From Jim, I understood how you can love a little dog.”
Knowing that Lucky’s passing was particularly hard on the Moncriefs, Schroeder wrote a letter to the couple to express his condolences. The framed letter now hangs in their home.
“‘The past month was difficult to see Lucky lose his strength and energy but through all of that time, until the end, he remained very loyal and faithful to you,’” Tex says, reading the letter. “‘Though it is with humility that I understand that I am unable to cure or save all of my patients, I have long realized that I am just the hands that the Lord uses to assist in the ultimate purpose for these little creatures He gives us for a time to enjoy and care for. Believing that gives me some comfort as I try to help with the end of their lives.
“‘I will always remember as Lucky’s life was ending that you said a very…,’” Tex pauses as he reads, emotions welling up. “‘…dear prayer thanking God for giving those years with Lucky to enjoy his companionship. I have also seen the sweet adoration and love that you and Linda have shown for each other. That is a reflection of a kind and generous heart that I have seen and I thank you for your trust.’”
In recognition of that mutual love and respect, Tex and Linda decided to “give back” to Schroeder’s alma mater with a gift honoring their long-time veterinarian. The funds will honor Schroeder in perpetuity, with a room named after Schroeder at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Small Animal Hospital.
“Jim Schroeder is just one of the finest men I’ve ever met. He’s not only a good veterinarian, he’s just a fine gentleman,” Tex said.
Editors note: Dr. James Schroeder passed away Feb. 13, 2020. We send our condolences to the Schroeder family.
When Zarei was 12 years old, she watched two of her close aunts fight cancer. One aunt benefited from early diagnosis and treatment; the second passed away.
Throughout this ordeal, Zarei’s mind raced with questions: How could she help her aunts? What kind of cancer did they have? What were the treatments?
As a result, she became an avid student of cancer, devouring cancer biology books.
“At 12, I wanted to know, what is cancer and what’s happening with the cancer?” Zarei recalls. “I learned most of the treatments for different types of cancer.”
Zarei’s interest in this career path never wavered.
She earned her undergraduate degree in medical bio-technology and her Ph.D. in cancer biology before accepting a postdoctoral research scientist position at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
In 2016, she was the lead author on a study about pancreatic cancer and its ability to survive in the nutrient-poor conditions of the pancreas. The survivability of pancreatic cancer in such poor conditions has also seemed to translate to its resistance of current chemotherapy treatments.
“It’s like a cactus in a desert,” Zarei explains, “without any nutrients, but it’s still growing and aggressive.”
Zarei and her co-researchers found that one of the key proteins, HuR, allowed the cancer to survive in the nutrient-poor microenvironment of the pancreas. It also gave the cancer a resistance to chemotherapy drugs.
What Makes Cancer Tick
As the well-known Sun Tzu quote advises, “Know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Zarei has followed this advice in her research by knowing her enemy.
Cancer, in one of the broadest definitions of the term, refers to diseases that cause abnormal cells to divide without control and can invade nearby tissues, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Most know that there are many different types of cancer caused by any number of things or underlying conditions. Doctors and researchers have spent decades, even centuries, fighting cancer in all its forms.
Previous treatments, like chemotherapy, concentrated on killing the cancerous cells, but more recently, there has been a push to discover new ways of fighting it.
For the better part of her career, Zarei took the approach of figuring out how different types of cancer worked at a very basic level. By understanding the different pathways and processes that allow these cancers to live and grow, she can understand how better to fight them at that basic level.
After leaving the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, Zarei joined Harvard Medical School as a research scientist fellow. There, while working at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she learned about a pair of fraternal twins, one of whom had tumors in the kidney; no one could determine why these tumors were occurring.
“That’s why I worked so hard to try and understand her disease better and to come up with something,” she said.
After conducting genetic screening, Zarei’s lab found that the girl had a rare genetic disease that causes tumors that can affect the brain, kidneys, lungs, and heart. A mutation in a protein complex called tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) is what causes the tumor growth.
In normal cells TSC1 and TSC2 help inhibit, or stop, another protein complex called mTORC1. The girl’s tumor cells lacked TSC2, so mTORC1 was hyper-activated. This caused the out-of-control division of cells and the growth of the tumor.
After finding the pathway involved in the rare genetic disease, Zarei and her co-researchers looked for ways to interrupt that pathway. They found a drug called THZ1 that was being used for different cancer types, including breast and ovarian cancer.
When tested on TSC-deficient cells and normal cells, THZ1 selectively targeted the TSC-deficient cells and caused them to die, but left healthy cells alone.
The established treatment for this disease is a drug called rapamycin. Rapamycin and drugs similar to it, commonly called rapalogs, reduce tumor size while the patient is taking the drug. However, as soon as the treatment ends, the tumors begin to grow again, which means that patients would have to remain on the drug indefinitely.
Zarei’s research found that THZ1 not only reduced tumor size, but it prevented re-growth of the tumors after stopping treatment. The U.S. Department of Defense now funds this study, and Cyrus Pharmaceutical Company has begun the first clinical trials of a derivative of THZ1.
“We are hoping that in the near future we can use this with a TSC patient,” Zarei said.
In 2018, Zarei moved to College Station with her husband, who had accepted a position in the Texas A&M University College of Engineering.
“The evaluation of her cancer research program by the faculty in our department identified Dr. Zarei as a rising star and drove our intense interest in getting her to Texas A&M,” said VTPP department head Dr. Larry Suva. “She is an asset to our department, college, and university.”
Suva describes Zarei as a “role model for the energy and focus needed for faculty to succeed in academia.”
She has also renewed her research in pancreatic cancer with renowned cancer researcher Dr. Stephen Safe, also in VTPP. Together, they hope to find a new treatment that will reduce pancreatic cancer’s tolerance of its harsh microenvironment and chemotherapy.
Zarei is hopeful they will be able to publish their findings soon.
“Dr. Zarei has been great to work with,” Safe said. “She will be a prime candidate for a full faculty position.”
Zarei has turned an adolescent passion into a thriving career. In the future, she wants to continue finding answers in the lab that translate to the patients’ beds.
While she has mentored and taught students in her lab, including undergraduate researchers like Rachel E. Yan, one of the co-authors on Zarei’s most recent journal publication, she also hopes to return to the classroom soon, to pass on what she has learned.
Zarei wants to teach undergraduate and graduate classes, and “maybe a cancer biology class, if that’s possible.”
“My future goal is to be a well-known scientist, working on rare diseases and pancreatic cancer,” Zarei said. “I’m really passionate about having students to work with.”
As Dean Eleanor M. Green prepares for her next big move, she reflects on what brought her to Texas A&M, bringing her vision for the college to life, and the things and people who have made her experience so special.
What were your thoughts when you were offered the dean’s position at Texas A&M?
I had gone back to the University of Florida 14 years previously with the intent of finishing my career in my home state at my alma mater. When Texas A&M called, I was reluctant to apply at first; however, I had visited former Dean John Shadduck at Texas A&M once before. He took us to a football game, where we stood for the entire game.
I decided to research Texas A&M further to help make my decision, and my explorations confirmed that Texas A&M was a large, comprehensive, tier-one research institution with immense capabilities. Its College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) was clearly a crown jewel of campus, one that also boasted a strong undergraduate program. I was intrigued by the Texas A&M core values and its many traditions. The vastness of Texas, its large urban centers, the livestock industry, its historic ranches, the Texas A&M University system, and the proximity of the Texas Medical Center in Houston all contributed to a fertile environment for veterinary medicine and veterinary medical education. I simply could not pass up this invitation.
During my on-campus interview, it took very little time to recognize the uniqueness and appeal of Texas A&M and its CVM. Within half a day, I was committed. The formal offer came by phone when I was in Liverpool, England, attending the British Equine Veterinary Association meeting as president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).
That was it; I was coming to Texas. My canine sidekick, Cohen, and I packed up and moved, leaving the horses behind until I could find accommodations for them.
Among your initial goals as dean were prioritizing research, assuring educational excellence at all levels, creating the veterinary medical teaching hospital of the future, and addressing the changing world of veterinary medicine. What strides do you think the college has made in those arenas under your tenure?
All strides were made with much help from others. Many within and beyond the CVM have contributed substantially to each and every accomplishment, as they continue to do. No progress could have been made without hardworking, dedicated, talented faculty, staff, and students, as well as external supporters. I would put the CVM faculty, staff, students, and supporters up against all others. People make programs.
Texas A&M, similar to every other university, has missions that include transformative teaching and learning, discovery and innovation, and outreach and engagement. For the CVM, world-class, compassionate patient care is foundational.
In the research arena, veterinary colleges are uniquely positioned to advance animal, human, and environmental health. This offers a breadth of research opportunities along a continuum, from basic discovery to translational research to commercialization. Research funding appropriately includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal sources, foundations, industry, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and other creative means.
With the decided goal of advancing the CVM research agenda, my first action was to prioritize research by limiting my start-up requests to CVM research support. I was able to obtain campus funds to complete the Veterinary Research Building (VRB), which was under construction at the time, and to provide the money to finish out all of the laboratories, rather than require the principal investigators to use their own monies, as had been planned.
Since then, we have further bolstered research by taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, such as the President’s Senior Hires, the Chancellors Research Initiative (CRI), the Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI), the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, the Provost’s excellence initiatives, targeted hiring, start-up funds, adding designated research support staff, and much more. Dr. Bob Burghardt and his team have been highly successful in supporting research and graduate studies. The existing research signature programs were revisited, resulting in the identification of research focus areas and the development of tangible criteria for areas of research distinction, all under the umbrella of translational research.
Toxicology, oncology, and environmental health sciences fulfilled the criteria for distinction, with the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center reaching great heights. Graduate education support was completely revamped, consolidating degrees, aligning with research focus areas, centralizing admission, offering a rigorous week-long orientation and an oath ceremony, actively recruiting, creating a core facilities experiential learning program, and providing professional development opportunities.
Over the past decade, research expenditures have tripled, the CVM graduate program has been cited as a model on campus, research has incited great impacts, and the contributing faculty and graduate students have received many well-deserved awards and recognitions.
The Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program is an enormous success. With Dr. Kenita Rogers followed by Dr. Karen Cornell at the helm, the Professional Programs Office (PPO) has built a team of education specialists to foster educational technologies, advance pedagogy, and support faculty initiatives, ultimately for the benefit of our students. The DVM program received full accreditation in 2016 by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Council on Education with no substantial compliance issues. The CVM has become known as a leader in veterinary education nationally and beyond.
This reputation has been bolstered by the award-winning Center for Educational Technologies (CET). This unique paragon has supported a myriad of initiatives, including innovative educational technologies, interactive learning experiences, web-based learning, curriculum development, collaborations with other veterinary colleges, and agricultural-capacity building in developing countries. Faculty opportunities are also found in the Bridges Teaching Academy, Teaching Showcase, and CET Lunch & Learn workshops.
The newly formed CVM White Coats program allows students to contribute to the CVM while developing professionally.
The DVM class size had not increased for many decades, despite the growing Texas population. To meet the state’s needs, it has increased from 132 to 162 students per class, soon to be 180. The DVM Curriculum Committee has met annually to review and modify the curriculum to keep pace with changing needs. With a recent yeoman’s effort by the PPO office and the faculty, a completely revised, integrated curriculum was implemented, with core competencies mapped.
Our faculty are tapped by the profession to advance veterinary education worldwide, such as the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ (AAVMC) competency-based education initiative and the AAVMC Leadership Academy.
Educational excellence at the CVM has progressed substantially, all while minimizing student debt. Texas A&M remains the best in North America for our student debt-to-income ratio.
The Biomedical Sciences (BIMS) undergraduate program has grown in size and excellence under the able direction of Dr. Elizabeth Crouch, along with talented educators and advisers, as elucidated in the recent Academic Program Review for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
The BIMS program was expanded to the Texas A&M University Higher Education Center at McAllen, with a record number of students. The overall BIMS enrollment is approaching 2,700, maintaining its status as the largest undergraduate degree-granting program on campus. BIMS also boasts strengths in underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. Its undergraduate research program is cited on campus for its rigor and excellence. BIMS graduates make up a large portion of Aggies who matriculate to Texas healthcare professions.
A BIMS Advisory Board was formed and has proven to provide enthusiastic support for BIMS. Scholarships have increased and a BIMS Outstanding Alumnus award was created.
The Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) created a vision to be the premier veterinary teaching hospital in the world, with a mission of creating a better life through compassion, innovation, and discovery. Praise from clients and referring veterinarians confirms that these efforts are successful. The hospital’s caseload and income continue to climb, which allows the purchase of cutting-edge equipment and other hospital support. This equipment includes advanced technologies, like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and support for a new telemedicine service. Both senior and new faculty are contributing to a rising level of excellence across many services.
It has been imperative to advance the culture in the VMTH of treating everyone the same, which is to say, royally. At the same time, it is important to know who each client is so that we can acknowledge them as indicated; for example, if a loyal supporter and donor brings in a patient, it is vital that we know enough about them to thank them appropriately. If Board of Regents members are clients, we should acknowledge them for all they are doing for Texas A&M and the CVM. Another cultural component in the VMTH is that people treat others as they are treated, underscoring the importance of treating our clinicians, staff, and students royally as well.
Out of all of your accomplishments as dean, what are those that stand out for you? And why?
It is hard to say, because I claim none as mine alone. With that in mind, I might say that the biggest accomplishment is gathering the team we have. We have the most amazing leadership team I’ve ever seen. The executive committee is comprised of leaders who are absolutely devoted, capable, talented, and who have made this college much better. Each of them has, in turn, assembled teams of excellence in their respective areas. The Dean’s Office staff, under the leadership of Misty Skaggs, is also the best I have ever experienced.
I’m really proud to have been a part of putting these teams together. Every single member of the executive committee and of the dean’s office staff has joined the leadership team within the last 10 years. They, individually, and their recruitment of other talented people have shaped this college through their collective efforts.
Culture starts at the top. I have tried hard to create a culture of excellence, integrity, mutual respect, transparency, engagement, compassion, kindness, and inclusion. We must model these traits and mentor our colleagues. The more we intentionally support and reward excellence, while addressing inadequate performance, the better and more fulfilled the whole team becomes.
We intend to give everyone the encouragement and opportunity to achieve excellence. Most choose excellence, but some do not, and that must be addressed. I have often said that our first choice is for people to be happy here, the second choice is for them to be happy somewhere else, and the last and only unacceptable choice is for them to be unhappy here.
There are really good people and really good jobs, but there are not always really good matches. We truly care about people and want to help them achieve all of their career aspirations in whatever position that might be; in fact, the one most rewarding thing about being dean of this college is being able to help others achieve their goals. When we collectively bring our goals together and I can help advance them in any way, it is enormously rewarding to see those initiatives come to fruition.
Creating and launching the Global One Health Program has been particularly rewarding. Because of efforts like these, the importance of the inextricable link among animal, human, and environmental health is finally being embraced by audiences beyond the veterinary profession. For the first time ever, in 2019, the President’s National Biodefense Strategy contained the elements of One Health. Dr. Gerald Parker and his collaborators have become noted resources in Washington, D.C., Austin, and on campus, especially during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The partnership with the Bush School and other campus entities has proven successful, including the Annual Global Pandemic Summits. This effort opens unique opportunities for our students and faculty. It also positions Texas A&M and the CVM as valuable trusted resources.
I am especially proud of the Veterinary Emergency Team (VET). In 2009, Dr. Wesley Bissett came to my office to ask for permission to form a VET with the goal of being prepared for the next hurricane. He added that he would do so on his own time. I immediately said yes but that this was a college program and should be developed on college time. He and his team have created the largest, most sophisticated veterinary emergency response team in the nation.
They have formed rich collaborations across the Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), Texas Task Forces, Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA), Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), Texas State Guard, private sector veterinary professionals, Texas communities, Banfield, the AVMA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other veterinary colleges. I cannot count the number of comments of praise and expressions of gratitude I receive for their good works and also for the involvement of students. We are the only CVM that has “Community Connections” rotations. This is “service above self” like no other. Students learn not only how to respond in emergencies and disasters, but they also gain experience managing teams.
Diversity and inclusion are cornerstone values of the CVM. I feel strongly that people who cross our CVM threshold should immediately feel included, embraced, and accepted. This encompasses all people—whether they are faculty, staff, students, clients, colleagues, constituents, visitors, donors, or anyone else.
I remember asking Dr. Kenita Rogers if she would be willing to serve as the CVM director for diversity and inclusion. She stepped up, as she always does, and the program materialized. As the time demands of this program grew, we discussed the idea that one day we might need a separate diversity officer. Later, when I asked her if she were ready for someone else to step in, she declined emphatically, saying that she wanted to keep diversity, and she did.
I am gratified by all that has been accomplished. We are leaders on campus, within the profession, and across the healthcare professions. We have a Council on Diversity & Professionalism, multiple trainings, wellness initiatives, inclusive facilities, diversity scholarships, Veterinarians for One Inclusive Community for Empowerment (VOICE) Broad Spectrum, and much more. Nearly 200 CVM faculty and staff have completed mediation training. We have competed well for campus funds that reward success annually, and faculty and students have received awards.
I am also pleased with the CVM International Program, which encourages and facilitates our faculty and students to be world citizens in a global society. The program, under the leadership of Dr. Linda Logan, offers rich study abroad opportunities, student exchanges, internships, faculty visits and exchanges, international development, and capacity building. The International Program Advisory Committee ensures representation by CVM units in implementing and strengthening programs. Student experiences include summer courses in various countries, semester long experiences, and research programs.
With regard to the changing landscape of veterinary medicine, I have developed a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. We live in an exponentially changing world, one in which even the rate of change is accelerating. If our profession, our college, and our university are to be successful in the future, we must respond to those changes, and, hopefully, lead in that effort, not just follow.
The CVM also has developed a reputation as a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. We have done many things to earn that reputation, such as the annual Veterinary Innovation Summit (VIS), the Veterinary Entrepreneurship Academy (VEA), Aggies Invent, and the DVM elective in veterinary entrepreneurship. The VIS, in partnership with the North American Veterinary Community’s (NAVC) Veterinary Innovation Council (VIC), was the first of its kind, attracts leaders in the profession, and has been described by attendees as the best program ever attended.
The VEA has become national in scope, with participation by students from many other veterinary colleges. Aggies Invent is offered in partnership with the Texas A&M College of Engineering and some of our own faculty serve as mentors. Participating students experience firsthand the favorable consequences of working on diverse, multidisciplinary teams and of freely contributing their own ideas, rather than learning what others tell or show them. Students describe this experience as life changing.
The students are our future. It is our responsibility to prepare them well for the world they will enter and to give them the confidence to make a difference.
The partnerships between the CVM and four TAMUS universities have been described as especially innovative.
It has been satisfying to help create all of them, especially the Veterinary Education, Research, & Outreach program (VERO) on the West Texas A&M University (WT) campus in Canyon. My first visit to the Texas Panhandle in an official capacity as dean occurred only a few weeks after joining Texas A&M in 2009. That is where the partnership was born among the CVM, WT, practicing veterinarians, and livestock industries. That is when the first discussions were held about offering some of the DVM program in the Texas Panhandle.
It took a while to knock down all of the barriers, but the partnership is strong and the program is well on its way. WT President Dr. Walter Wendler and his team have proven to be trusted partners. As we were discussing VERO and the proposed 2+2 program with Texas A&M’s president and provost, we underscored the unique nature of this program. How often is it that one has the chance, with a modest investment, to create a program that is the best of its kind, the top in the nation?
However, it’s not just about being No. 1; it’s about contributions. The CVM can help feed the growing world population, ensure the integrity of our food supply, protect and grow the Texas economy, assist the veterinary profession, and encourage our youth. That is entirely within our grasp when one considers mobilizing the resources in College Station and the Texas Panhandle, where over one-third of the nation’s beef is fed. At the 2020 veterinary deans’ meeting, a few deans asked if they could visit this program, as they would like to consider a similar model.
Particularly rewarding has been the improvement to the CVM facilities. Most notable is the $120 million Veterinary and Biomedical Education Complex (VBEC). During planning stages, a group of us visited other veterinary colleges; the University of California, Davis medical college; and Stanford University’s medical school and College of Business. We extracted ideas from all sites, especially from the new College of Business at Stanford.
I recall well walking down the street at Stanford with the Stantec architects, including Dan Caren, who ultimately were awarded the contract to design VBEC, when they asked me what we were trying to accomplish. I told them that when people saw VBEC, their immediate response should be that this must be the best veterinary college in the land. This look must include a front door to the CVM, lacking at the time, with the building set back off the road with a tree lined boulevard entrance. The building had to accommodate modern, innovative teaching methods and technologies as far into the future as possible and that included flexible learning spaces for large and small groups. The building had to be modern, yet it had to be Texas classy. It must be warm and inviting such that people wanted to come inside and once inside, they wanted to stay.
The first designers were creative and gifted, but they did not get Texas. After a number of attempts, they were replaced, and the next designers nailed it. Our friends in the College of Architecture had helped us with the program requirements at the beginning and, interestingly, their initial rough design was close to the final design.
I am enormously grateful to Chancellor John Sharp, who supported this project entirely with Permanent University Funds. The $120 million also supported the remodeling project for the Small Animal Hospital. The reception area is really nice, as are all areas remodeled. We desperately need a new Small Animal Hospital.
The $33 million Thomas G. Hildebrand, DVM ’56 Equine Complex was also most fulfilling. Large Animal Clinical Sciences (VLCS) executive director Dr. Jim Heird laid out every inch of the facility, including the equestrian team facilities and the cross-country course for Texas A&M Athletics. This facility has become a treasured resource on campus, hosting more than 250 events and attracting more than 30,000 visitors per year. The entire $33 million was from private donations. The grand opening of the Thomas G. Hildebrand, DVM ’56 Equine Complex was held on the same day as the VBEC ground breaking. That was a special day.
There are other facilities projects for which I am appreciative. The Diagnostic Imaging & Cancer Treatment facility is a state-of-the-art facility that has proven to be an enormous asset for the VMTH and the CVM. The Schubot Center for Avian Health is a one-of-a-kind academic center supporting teaching and research. The Multispecies Research Building provides much needed large animal space. The Global Health Research Complex, a collaborative campus space that was previously lacking, will substantively change our research capabilities in infectious disease. The Highway 47 Reproduction Research facility has been expanded, and Veterinary Medical Park has improved tremendously. The equine reproduction lab was expanded, as was the food animal reception area. The Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies (TIPS) is an impressive research facility that is destined to become invaluable in supporting translational research and innovation in its next phase. I regret that I will not be dean for the VERO facility grand opening in Canyon. TAMUS Chancellor John Sharp once again devoted Permanent University Fund (PUF) monies for this special facility.
Likewise, outside of your accomplishments, what has been particularly rewarding about being dean?
I have said many times that the position of Dean at the Texas A&M CVM is the best position I have ever held in the best place I have ever been. Why is that still the case? It is the people. It is particularly rewarding to work with such highly successful, dedicated faculty. The CVM students are smart, devoted, and attract the praise of our own faculty and staff as well as outside constituents. The devoted staff make everything happen, as they are constantly attentive to success and the impression we make. The Texas A&M core values are alive and well at the CVM.
One of the most rewarding accomplishments was raising all of the salaries within the CVM. At the time, faculty salaries were in the lower-half to lower-quartile among veterinary colleges. We were able to raise all of the faculty salaries well above the mean.
I have also enjoyed working with many people across campus, such as other deans, provosts, vice presidents, presidents, chancellors, and the people who support them. Also included are those in the Texas A&M Foundation, Association of Former Students, and 12th Man Foundation. I have had the privilege of working with three provosts, four presidents, and three chancellors, if interims are counted. It has been a privilege to get to know them, represent the CVM to them, and help whenever needed to advance the greater mission of the university.
I have enjoyed preparing and delivering each and every presentation about the CVM to these groups to make sure they are aware of the excellence of our CVM, how we contribute to the university and system, how we influence the state of Texas, and what it will take to make the CVM even better. It is clear that we all share the goal of advancing Texas A&M.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the development aspects of the position, because development is basically friends-building. Working so closely with the CVM Development Council, the Equine Development Committee, the BIMS Advisory Board, and the Texas A&M Foundation has been a joy. These loyal friends of the college have given or helped raise millions of dollars of support for our people, programs, and facilities. I will forever be indebted to each one of them for their gifts and their love of Texas A&M that rivals ours. You will see the names of many throughout the college, on endowed chairs, in buildings and on scholarships. I have always said that it is gifts from our friends that help us achieve the level of excellence to which we aspire.
With the risk associated with calling out one of them, I share the story of the largest single gift we have received. Jim (Heird) and I had planned a long-awaited vacation, the first since we had been here, to attend a horse show circuit. The day before we were to leave, we received a call from Jeff Hildebrand saying he would like us to come to Houston to meet with him. Of course, we would make that happen. When we arrived he informed us of his intended gift of $25 million for the soon to be designated Thomas G. Hildebrand, DVM ’56 Equine Complex. He took our breath away and we were filled with a mix of emotions, mostly humility and gratitude. The rest, as they say, is history.
Later, Jeff told us how hard it is to give away money. He said that gifts represented desires of the entire family. He said he sought assurance that his wishes would be honored at the time and into the future. Very importantly, he had to have trust in the individual overseeing his gift. I have never forgotten those words, that day in Houston, or that gift.
Betsy Overholser offered a glimpse into the heart and motivation of our donors when she said, “I used to not care about making money, but now I want to make a lot of money so I can give it all to the CVM.” Those words reminded me that they are not our donors, rather we are their cause.
I also have found fulfillment in working with those outside of the CVM. The CVM and the TVMA built a mutually beneficial relationship and I was proud to be able to pay the membership fees for every CVM faculty member for several years. The Veterinary Job & Externship Fair has proven to be a valuable shared event.
Unfortunately, I did not make it to every local veterinary organization in Texas, but I did visit every one that extended an invitation. There are too many industry groups to name, but included are the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo (HLSR), San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo (SALE), Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, and Rodeo Austin. There is nothing like Aggie night at the HLSR; these organizations donate millions of dollars every year to student scholarships across Texas and our students are beneficiaries. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) also has been exceptionally supportive of the CVM.
It has been a pleasure to work with all of the Texas livestock groups and to visit most of the historic ranches in Texas. I call out the 6666 and the Burnett Estates, LLC, because of their support for the CVM in gifts and educational opportunities for our students. The head of their equine division is Dr. Glenn Blodgett, one of our DVM graduates and a CVM Outstanding Alumnus. Another notable supporter is the historic King Ranch, including Helen Groves and James Clement. I have also had the opportunity to advocate for the CVM in the Texas Legislature and in D.C. Dr. Charles Graham has been a special friend of the college, giving his time, resources, and connections. He has advocated for the CVM constantly, making impacts behind the scenes that few realize.
How did your past roles in academia and as an equine veterinarian influence your time as dean?
In each of our lives, our collection of experiences makes us who we are and gives us the tools to contribute. My professional career in veterinary medicine started as a mixed animal practitioner and practice owner in a small rural community in Northeast Mississippi. I have both heartwarming and humorous tales to share.
Having the perspective of a practicing veterinarian was foundational as I entered the academic setting. The opportunity to enter academia to build a new college of veterinary medicine from the ground up was life changing. We dived deeply into every aspect of a veterinary college, from obtaining approval and financial support from the legislature to planning the entire curriculum, which included developing a syllabus for every course, with learning objectives for every lecture. We designed and constructed a modern facility that was way ahead of its time. We created admissions procedures, developed position descriptions, and recruited faculty and staff.
I taught in all four years of the curriculum, sometimes lecturing six hours a day to several different classes, some of which were anatomy, physiology, normal and abnormal systems, various clinical skills laboratories, and even behavior. We launched a clinical service and built a loyal caseload and referral service. During this time, I was approved for an alternative residency training program by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) and sought board certification with both the ACVIM and American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP).
At the University of Missouri, I finally was able to pursue research. I collaborated with Dr. Harold Garner and his team with a primary focus on endotoxemia and laminitis. When the opportunity presented itself to enter an administrative role, I was conflicted; however, I accepted the challenge with the goal of making a broader impact. I was a department head/chair and hospital director/chief of staff for a total of 19 years at two different universities.
It was always important to remain connected to the livestock industries, the horse industry, and to be involved in organized veterinary medicine. Most importantly, I’m an animal owner with a strong devotion to animal health and well-being. All of these experiences have afforded me a unique perspective as dean.
What has been the hardest part of your job (either professionally or personally)?
Once, someone asked me what I worry about every day. I try not to be a worrier; however, what I think about is the opportunity buffet. How do we make sure that we do not miss opportunities we will later regret passing up, yet how do we avoid taking on so much that we are not good at anything? And how much do we take on without creating undue burdens for others?
It is difficult not being able to accomplish all one wants to accomplish, especially when the value and significance are clear. Resources are certainly related and are also limited. It is hard to observe what faculty and students need for their programs and not be able to “write a check” every time. An enjoyable challenge is identifying and seeking different, perhaps creative, sources of funding for various needs.
A challenge in every administrative role is confidentiality. The administrator is often privy to personnel issues and to both sides of controversial issues; however, strict confidentiality must be maintained. It is especially difficult to hear the perceptions and, often, misperceptions about these issues knowing the facts and not being able to share them. Administrators often receive misplaced blame as well. That is just part of leadership roles.
Is there anything you might consider the highlight of your time as dean?
There are so many highlights they cannot be counted. I will certainly never forget the day the chancellor agreed to provide $120 million for VBEC or the day Jeff Hildebrand offered his $25 million gift. Then we had the groundbreaking for the Veterinary & Biomedical Education Complex on the same day that we had the grand opening of the Thomas G. Hildebrand, DVM ’56 Equine Complex.
Imagine major events for two notable facilities, each on the cutting edge, on the same day. That was a $150 million day. Later, the VBEC grand opening attracted the largest attendance of any grand opening in the history of Texas A&M, including national and state legislators. Of course, all of the ground breakings and grand openings were highlights.
The creation of the CET was the culmination of a long-standing aspiration. We are leaders in veterinary education, and the CET supports our faculty and helps them build on their great talents as educators. Few veterinary colleges have such a valuable resource.
I am really proud of how we’ve expanded communications in this college. We have made substantial progress in distributing our stories far and wide to help people in all walks of life understand who we are and how we contribute. Our photographers do more than take photos; they capture our essence and record our history. Our graphic artists are so creative they continue to earn accolades and awards.
Many outside of the CVM believe we outsource to a professional company; they are surprised and impressed when I tell them it is all done in-house because of the enormous talent we have. When we write stories in a CVM Today, people tell me that while they usually throw away most of these types of publications upon arrival, they keep ours, using them as coffee table books because of the quality of publication and content. Those things make me proud.
Another memorable moment was learning about the Texas Monthly survey that asked Texans, “When you think of Texas A&M, what do you think of?” They said the veterinary school No. 1 and football No. 2. Now there’s a moment.
Subsequently, I got a call from the Houston Chronicle’s chief editor, who said, “We have a retreat every year for our executive team at points of particular interest in Texas. May we have our editorial staff retreat at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences?” I replied, “Of course you may.” He said, “We want to come there because we know that the CVM is iconic in Texas and it’s one of the places that we would like to highlight.” That really does make me proud.
What were some of the “lighter moments” you’ve particularly enjoyed during your time here?
There are actually many lighter moments that go along with being dean. In my case, they started even before I arrived. During my on-campus interview, Dr. Kenita Rogers, then associate dean for professional programs, had been assigned to pick me up at the airport. Much to our dismay, my bags did not show up, leaving only one slightly used outfit for my entire interview. Dr. Rogers took me shopping at Target, where I procured a Texas A&M T-shirt and a pair of exercise pants. They served as pajamas and lounge wear, while I washed my only outfit in the hotel room sink. I still have that “Target outfit” and smile whenever I wear it.
Before I moved to Texas, a diehard Aggie and big Texas A&M supporter, Frank Mueller, called to ask if I had made living accommodations—I had not—and temporarily offered one of his patio homes in Chimney Hill. Over the phone, he gave me an address and a phone number with instructions to call Jerome as I was pulling into town. I found out later that Jerome was Jerome Rektorik, one of Frank’s classmates and the development officer at the Bush School.
He greeted me that night along with the entire theriogenology section, all of whom helped me unload my horse trailer. A few weeks later, Frank called to say I had to move before graduation because his family would be coming to stay. Soon afterwards, he called again to relay that I did not have to leave permanently; rather, I should move out just while his family was in town.
He gave me a new set of instructions to go to another address south of Navasota, where I would meet Dr. Nora Janjan. Carrying my suitcase and Cohen, I rang the doorbell of this perfect stranger to inform her I would be staying with her for a few days. She and her husband, Jack, were perfect hosts and even held a dinner party for “friends of the college.” Aggie hospitality is alive and well.
Another lighthearted moment was on the day of the grand opening of the Diagnostic Imaging and Cancer Treatment Center (DICTC). I had brought Cohen for the 5K walk/run fundraiser, Paws to the Pavement, that preceded the ceremonies and realized that I had not thought the day through well with Cohen, as I had no place to put him during the stage ceremonies. He was well behaved, so I decided to take him on stage with me, along with the invited dignitaries. That seemed reasonable as I watched others address the crowd, until I realized that I had to have a plan for him when I was speaking—I couldn’t just tie him to my chair or ask a Board of Regents member or the Texas A&M president to hold him for me. In a flash, I decided to take him to the podium with me. I placed him on the podium facing the crowd, where he stood like a statue attentively scanning the attendees during my entire presentation. Regent Jim Schwertner was so amused that he took a photo of Cohen on the podium. There are few times I have seen Regent Schwertner since that he has not mentioned Cohen on the podium that day, and he has sent me the photo periodically since. In the end, we are veterinarians and we love our animals. It is fitting for them to be a part of our lives and even our special events.
Dr. Kenita Rogers and I began to develop a very close relationship from day one. She has a remarkable sense of humor, and I love humor, so we both enjoy bantering. One particular day when we were deep into our humorous exchanges in a public forum, one of the faculty members asked someone else if we liked each other. The answer was a resounding yes.
William Arthur Ward sums it up by stating, “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” We all deal with daily pressures and I have always found humor stabilizing. The CVM is balanced by its executive committee that gets along very well, works hard, and laughs harder. It is a joy to work with a group of dedicated professionals who weave humor into their conversations. Erma Bombeck took it a step farther when she said, “Where humor goes, there goes civilization.” Our CVM is healthy.
As dean, you’ve continued to be active in the veterinary community. What motivated you to stay involved?
A university is never an island and certainly never should be. It’s extremely important that we have vital connections across our campus and beyond our walls. That’s one goal that I have worked very hard on—building and maintaining relationships. I encourage others to do the same.
What do you look forward to in your next endeavor?
One thing I do not look forward to is leaving the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. That is going to be a very sad day for me. I truly have loved every minute of every day here.
What I will look forward to is utilizing all of my experiences to focus on areas of particular interest in veterinary medicine.
A few buckets include innovation and entrepreneurship affecting veterinary health care and education, leadership, executive coaching, and animal welfare. I have already been asked to serve on boards of one startup and one large international company.
It will be fulfilling to work on issues of significance to the profession with Mark Cushing, founder and CEO of Animal Policy Group. I hope all will remember that I will help Texas A&M and the CVM whenever desired and I will be a phone call away.
Riding my horses, being on the ranch in Millsap, and spending more time with children and grandchildren are certainly draws to this new chapter.
What will you miss most about the students, faculty, and staff?
I will miss the people the most. The CVM is family. We have been through good times and challenges together.
What do you hope people will remember about your time as dean?
Just that I cared and worked hard for the benefit of others, the CVM, Texas A&M, and Texas.
What advice would you offer the next dean?
The main advice I would give is to love the CVM and trust and appreciate its people as much as I have. The college is well-positioned for ongoing success. The CVM executive committee can be counted on under any conditions. I would urge the new dean to be a steward of vital connections, both internal and external relationships.
How do you hope the CVM will build upon your legacy?
I hope the CVM will continue its constant attention to excellence and leadership in veterinary education. The students are our future; they’re why we’re here. We have to make sure that we do what’s right for them, that we give them all of the tools they need for a very successful career.
We need to constantly build on research efforts, from basic discovery to commercialization. Translational medicine must be leveraged. Value all research impacts. Build on those successes to-date and continue to be leaders in the research arena.
Define and build the VMTH of the future to support veterinary healthcare that is connected; integrated; continuous, rather than intermittent; proactive, rather than reactive; precise, rather than imprecise; and personalized, rather than generalized. These include business models, technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and even digital humans. But as the latest technologies are incorporated, carefully preserve the personal touch with the compassion.
Is there anything else you would want to add?
I have really enjoyed the bragging rights that come with being dean. It is hard to imagine how fulfilling and inspiring it is to talk about how great this college is and how great its people are.
One of the things I’ll remember most about our college is the way it comes together around those in need, whether it’s a student, a staff member, a faculty member, or friend beyond the CVM. Certainly, we’ve had some sorrows and some losses along the way, and in each and every case, this college has come together around those in need.
In the end, I can look back and say I’ve never worked as hard, I’ve never had as much fun working so hard, and I’ve never laughed as hard as I have here. I will miss you all.
Laura Ann Grymes works with the Center for Educational Technologies (CET) to ensure that learners with visual disabilities, like herself, and other disabilities can more easily navigate the college’s abundant online learning materials.
Story by Michelle Wiederhold
Technology has become a crucial mechanism in veterinary medicine education.
As such, ensuring that all students—including those with visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities—can easily navigate required software, applications, and other online materials is equally as important.
This concept, known as digital accessibility, is an essential component of the overall higher education student experience because nearly every aspect of academic life now leverages digital or web-based tools and applications.
As part of a society that is constantly “plugged in,” colleges and universities recognize the vital need for incorporating technology that not only enhances student learning and campus life, but also is universally accessible to students, staff, faculty, and visitors.
The Center for Educational Technologies (CET), housed within the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), is recognized as a trailblazing advocate for ingraining accessibility within the framework of curriculum development.
While many of today’s current technology tools have the ability to check for accessibility (which can include tagging pictures loaded onto a website and even sentence length), they fail to offer the vital feedback the CET views as most important to true accessibility—the learner experience.
To gain a true glimpse into how all types of learners interact with the CVM’s online courses and materials, the CET sought a fresh perspective from a learner who relies on assistive technologies to navigate digital content.
In June 2017, Laura Ann Grymes, a member of the local community who is blind, joined the CET as a program aide to assist the team in ensuring materials produced by the center meet both Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards and support the learner in gaining new knowledge.
“Laura Ann is an invaluable member of our team,” said Molly Gonzales, CET instructional assistant professor. “Watching her interact with the content we have created and listening to her share her experience is humbling and insightful. Our partnership with Laura Ann was the catalyst that changed our perspective on how we develop new digital learning tools and experiences.”
The CET and Grymes partnered to further enhance the center’s StepStone online authoring tool by transforming it into a fully ADA-compliant web-based platform. StepStone allows educators to produce interactive, media-enriched learning resources that can be accessed from any internet-enabled device.
“Addressing accessibility is an issue shared by all who rely on digital content,” said Tim Ponder, CET instructional technologist. “Beyond the legal considerations, digital accessibility is a component of good design and delivery, potentially enhancing all users’ educational experiences.”
Grymes collaborated with Ponder and Dan Shuta, CET multimedia developer and the brain behind StepStone, to discuss best practices in accessibility and share some of the most common challenges faced by learners with differing levels of abilities in an online environment.
“Working with the CET and the CVM has been a gratifying experience,” Grymes said. “It is rewarding to be part of a team passionate about making materials accessible for learning and who are actively working to remove challenges to help students grow and learn efficiently.”
As a result of Grymes’ collaboration with the CET, now both authors and end users can experience the benefits of a fully ADA-compliant authoring platform.
Content-building authors can incorporate ADA components directly within StepStone by placing alternative text and long descriptions on images, while end users have the ability to use keyboard shortcuts or spoken instructions via a screen reader to navigate the course.
Many CVM faculty members use StepStone to build online case studies in which students make decisions on how to proceed through a clinical case from the patient’s admission to discharge.
Grymes continues to play a pivotal role in ensuring that StepStone generates accessible content for all learners. She has performed quality assurance testing on several of the StepStone modules and often offers suggestions for how to improve the student learning experience.
“Laura Ann has taught us how to view online learning through a new lens, one that goes beyond the initial assurance that the content and resources are accessible to also consider the language and descriptions we use within our writing,” Gonzales said.
“Am I painting the appropriate picture with the words that I am using? Or is my lack of clarity a potential barrier to someone’s learning? She has really opened our eyes to give careful consideration to the details that really bring the whole picture together.”
Grymes is looking forward to continued work with the CET and increasing awareness of accessibility considerations in digital environments.
“True accessibility is way more than just checking off a box to say it’s accessible,” Grymes said. “I love that this team has high standards and makes teaching modules accessible for all learners.”
Through collaborations with partners like Grymes, the CET and CVM will continue to blaze the trail for integrating accessibility within academics and the campus culture.
As a veterinary cardiologist and professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), Saunders had seen Birdie’s symptoms many times.
Cases with arrhythmias, or slow, irregular heartbeats, come into the SAH on a weekly basis; if caught in time, the condition is typically fixed with a treatment that is routine to Saunders but often a surprise to the general public—by implanting a pacemaker.
These surgeries are usually minimally invasive with a quick recovery time, but in Birdie’s case, it would take a team of specialists an entire night to heal her heart.
A Miraculous Recovery
In May 2019, Birdie’s owner, Katherine McLeod, noticed that Birdie was acting sluggish and behaving abnormally.
“It was really odd. It was like she was just cranky,” McLeod said. “Over the next couple days, she got pretty lethargic and acted like she didn’t want to go outside or do anything. She was still eating and drinking, but she clearly didn’t feel well.”
McLeod’s local veterinarian in Waco discovered that Birdie had an abnormally slow heartbeat and recommended a medication for treatment. But the medicine only helped for a few days, so when the lethargy returned on a Saturday afternoon, McLeod knew that her best option was to bring Birdie to the SAH, where she entrusted Saunders with Birdie’s care.
“Birdie had a really low heart rate called third-degree AV (atrioventricular) block,” Saunders said. “The middle part of the heart stopped working, so the top and bottom couldn’t communicate well.”
This miscommunication contributed to Birdie’s slow heartbeat, lethargy, and overall unwell feeling.
“Typically, you want to put a pacemaker in through the jugular vein in the neck,” Saunders said. “That’s the ideal way to do it. So, we took her back to do that, but the pacemaker electrically would not capture her heart. This can happen in rare cases, and we have to quickly adapt.”
Saunders moved to the next option, which involved surgically screwing the pacemaker into Birdie’s heart through her chest. Thanks to help from Dr. Whitney Hinson, a small animal surgery resident, they finally got the pacemaker attached and working properly.
But because of the unexpected issues with the pacemaker, Birdie remained under anesthesia for longer than they initially planned and more complications began to arise.
“We were in surgery into the middle of the night at that point,” Saunders said. “Dr. (Bradley) Simon, the anesthesiologist, stayed with us the entire time, and we ended up having to spend even more time trying to get her to wake up after the surgical procedures because her lungs were slow to reinflate.”
Finally, Birdie improved. By the next day, the pacemaker had brought Birdie’s heart rate back to normal speed and she was able to go home to Waco with her family.
“Dr. Saunders called me that morning and said miracle of miracles, basically,” McLeod said. “She said, ‘You can come get her. She’s doing great.’ You could tell in her voice that she was excited.”
Giving Dogs A New Leash On Life
While Birdie’s case had several setbacks, pacemaker implants are typically much less complicated, according to Saunders. She sees pacemaker cases at least once a week, on average, for a variety of dog breeds and ages.
“Everybody is always stunned when I say I’m a veterinary cardiologist,” Saunders said. “People always say, ‘What? People put pacemakers in their dogs?’ Yes, we can do that, and we do it a lot. That always surprises people.
“It’s exciting with older dogs because people often think their dog is just getting older and they are cautious about spending the money to put a pacemaker in at that age,” Saunders said. “I tell them we’ve paced a lot of older dogs and people frequently tell us that their dog’s energy is way better; what they have attributed to aging was actually low heart rate. I think that encourages people to move forward and then it allows the dogs to have their activity back.”
For Saunders, being able to perform those life-changing procedures, and getting to work with a variety of other SAH services in the process, makes the high-stress career worth it.
“People don’t realize how high-stress it is to be a cardiologist because it feels like life and death all of the time,” Saunders said. “But in the moment, you have to keep thinking because you really have a patient’s life in your hands; you just have to keep problem solving until you get it.
“I think it helps the more experience you have, but you also have to be really level-headed,” she said. “You have to keep making decisions because when you look around, everybody’s looking to you to make them.”
At the SAH, Saunders finds relief from her stress in the daily student interactions and opportunities to pass on her knowledge to the next generation of veterinarians.
“As you go along in your career, you realize that you were once the one being helped and now you can help other people reach their goals,” Saunders said. “It is really rewarding. The students identify where they want to go and then you can help them along that path.”
Bonding Over Beagles
Tabone was excited to have the opportunity to scrub in for surgery and help care for Birdie post-operatively, especially because of her love for Beagles.
“I was the student on call the weekend Birdie came in,” Tabone said, “and I always joke that if I’m going to get called in, I hope it’s a Beagle, because I have an overwhelming attachment and love for this breed.”
Tabone, who has three of her own Beagles, fell in love with Birdie and was thankful to be involved in her case.
“I enjoyed getting up early every morning to care for Birdie,” Tabone said. “I can’t describe it, but I feel there are patients we’re fortunate to have a special connection with that we can’t predict, and I immediately felt that with Birdie.
“It was incredible to see the transition she made from being very gloomy to being excited and ready to go home with her family,” she said. “I was really lucky that I got called in for this case.”
Birdie’s case was also meaningful for Tabone because it was her first clinical experience and her first opportunity to be hands-on in a surgical setting; when Birdie arrived at the SAH, Tabone and her fellow fourth years had just begun their first week of clinical rotations.
“We had a really unique cardiology rotation, from a student perspective, because all of our residents were gone for their board exams, so it was just the students and Dr. Saunders,” Tabone said. “We got to be one-on-one with her for two weeks, which I found incredibly amazing because of the amount we learned from her and how hands-on we were with all of our cases.”
Tabone also interacted with McLeod and her family to keep them updated on Birdie’s progress. Even after Birdie returned home, Tabone made a habit of checking in with McLeod to make sure Birdie was still feeling well.
“Birdie’s mom mailed a letter to the teaching hospital, and I’ll definitely keep it for my entire career,” Tabone said. “She had the most kind and sincere things to say about me and the work that Dr. Saunders did. I plan to have it framed in my office and when I’m having a not-so-great day, I can read it and think of my experience with Birdie and her family; it’ll forever be great motivation for my career.”
Likewise, McLeod was extremely grateful for Tabone’s genuine love for Birdie and the fact that she went above and beyond in caring for both client and patient.
“Amanda is going to be one heck of a veterinarian,” McLeod said. “Whatever she decides to do in whatever field, I would go to her in a heartbeat just for her bedside manner. She’s going to have a big-time career.”
Going Home An Aggie
Back in Waco, Birdie returned to her normal, active, friendly self within a week.
“Anytime you want to take her on a walk, she gets all fired up about that. She loves her treats and all the different food that she gets,” McLeod said. “She’s great with Skittle (McLeod’s other Beagle); they’re best buds and they’re very happy to be back hanging out together.
“I pray for my dogs every day and I’m so thankful that Birdie’s still here and that she’s healthy,” she said. “It’s just really incredible.”
As a huge Baylor fan, McLeod had no experience with Texas A&M before Birdie’s procedure at the SAH, besides rooting against the Aggies on gameday.
“It was funny. When we went to pick Birdie up, she had her maroon bandages on and what I like to call her ‘Aggie haircut,’ because they had to shave parts of her,” McLeod said. “I said, ‘What? Come on, man, no green and gold bandages?’ The hospital staff said, ‘Hey, you’re at A&M.’
“I said, ‘You know what? Forever we will root for the Aggies—unless they’re playing us, which is very unlikely these days,’” she said. “But it’s funny now—any time I watch football, I say, ‘I’m for A&M. Just for A&M.’”
Dr. Dusty Nagy’s holistic approach to veterinary care was borne from her personal experiences with chiropractic and acupuncture treatments.
Story by Courtney Adams
The familiar sound of a mooing cow echoes through the clinic. This time, the noise is not coming from a patient but from Dr. Dusty Nagy’s cellphone.
A bovine lover to her core, Nagy’s passion for her profession radiates from her everywhere she goes.
A clinical associate professor of large animal clinical sciences (VLCS) at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), Nagy spends her time teaching future veterinarians and treating patients in the clinic, sometimes in uncommon ways.
As a new faculty member, Nagy’s unique work in animal chiropractic medicine and acupuncture makes her an integral part of the team.
Currently, Nagy is the only veterinarian on staff to offer chiropractic care to patients. However, she hasn’t always been a chiropractic “believer.”
In fact, she used to be skeptical of the practice in both humans and animals.
That was until a few years ago, when back pain had taken over Nagy’s work life; she said she had not slept through the night in years.
“My husband and I were trying to figure out how I could retire early because I just couldn’t work anymore,” Nagy said. “It was just too painful.”
One day, Nagy was examining a cow when she suddenly felt the all-too-familiar debilitating back pain.
“All I was doing was palpating a cow. I wasn’t even doing something stupid, by my standards,” Nagy said, with a laugh.
In agony, she fell to the floor, where she would stay for the next two hours.
To appease her technician, Nagy went to the hospital, only to be offered pain medication, a remedy she did not desire. Upon returning to work, the receptionist, who had been badgering Nagy for years to see her chiropractor, had already made Nagy an appointment.
“I looked her dead in the face, and I said, ‘I don’t even care if they kill me. I will go because I can’t do this anymore.’ And I went and I got the most thorough exam I had ever gotten from a doctor that I can remember,” Nagy said.
After her initial appointment, Nagy returned to the chiropractor a couple of days later for her first adjustment. For the first time in years, she slept through the night.
“It turned me into an absolute believer that when applied appropriately, chiropractic treatment can be useful. My experience and outcome made me go, ‘You know what? Maybe I should learn more about this,’” Nagy said. “I decided to learn acupuncture because with production animals, we do not have a lot of options for pain control, and I thought that this would be a good tool to add to my toolbox. What I realized in class is that acupuncture can be used in animals for a variety of conditions.”
Today, Nagy uses acupuncture and chiropractic treatments on many animals; she has seen how both can help improve the quality of life and longevity of her patients.
“Most often, I think people seek out acupuncture for animals in pain or those with behavioral problems,” she said. “I still use acupuncture primarily as an adjunctive treatment along-side western medicine, most often for pain control. When others ask me for an acupuncture consult on a case, it is often for patients that have failed to respond adequately to western medicine and we are attempting to exhaust all of our options.”
Finding Her Path
Nagy grew up in an environment that prepared her for the busy lifestyle of a food animal veterinarian working in an academic setting.
Nagy’s father encouraged her at a young age to remain busy; she was told to find a job—or he would find her one.
So, Nagy spent much of her free time working on farms on the outskirts of the Maryland town in which she lived. Caring for the animals sparked her interest in being a veterinarian.
“I was one of those who decided I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was really small,” Nagy said. “And it stuck. I love what I do; I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
She completed her bachelor’s degree in three years, splitting her time between Colorado State University and the University of Maryland before going directly into Cornell University’s veterinary program. She says she found the first year of veterinary school to be an uphill climb.
“I’m not sure I was ready for that kind of commitment,” Nagy said, remembering how she struggled her first year. “As the years went on, vet school got a lot easier.”
During her last year in veterinary school, Nagy decided to pursue a post-graduate internship and was matched with the University of Missouri, which wasn’t her first choice, but would ultimately turn out to become home.
“It was the program I liked the most, but I didn’t want to go to Missouri,” Nagy said. “I had always thought of it as a fly over state.”
Nagy was only supposed to stay for a year, but toward the end of her internship, the University of Missouri asked her if she would be willing to stay for a residency.
She eventually decided to stay, and about a year and a half into her studies, the program hired a new section head.
“My entire life course changed from the second he walked into the building,” Nagy said. “He tried to convince me to roll my master’s into a Ph.D., and I told him no until the very end of my residency.”
Not only did Nagy go on to complete her Ph.D., but when her husband, who is also a veterinarian, was given the opportunity to complete a diagnostic imaging residency at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Nagy’s section head allowed her to accept a faculty position there while completing her doctorate.
Making The Move
After Nagy’s husband finished his residency, the couple contemplated their next step. Nagy interviewed at other places, but “Missouri just really still felt like home,” she said.
And so back to Missouri they went, and there, Nagy was happy, working with people she liked.
“By all accounts, I was going to be there until the end. That was my life plan to stay there. I never, ever thought about moving,” Nagy said.
Throughout her career at Mizzou, she occasionally received calls from colleagues at Texas A&M about job opportunities. During a 2018 call, Nagy was intrigued by the CVM’s new curriculum for veterinary students, but she was still not interested in moving.
That changed when Nagy finally decided she would visit the CVM. Although she viewed the trip more as a way to rid the recruitment phone calls than find a new job, it took only half a day to feel like she would be a fool not to pursue a position at the CVM.
So, what changed Nagy’s mind?
“It’s a great place. There’s so much opportunity here,” Nagy said. “The support is phenomenal. This is an opportunity to finish out the rest of my career in a place of resources.”
Now that she’s at the CVM, Nagy said she looks forward to building a new reputation with her students and clientele in the years to come.
“I was really well-loved by the students at Missouri, and sometimes you go, ’Well, here I am in a brand-new place, and can I actually recreate that? Do I actually do a good job or was it just an urban legend they all believed?’” Nagy said. “You know, it’s not a bad thing to have to prove yourself every now and then.”
Search and recovery dog Remington is now enjoying retirement thanks to the care he received from the Small Animal Hospital’s Oncology Service.
Story by Megan Myers
It was a training day like any other when Rachael Crivelli noticed that her dog Remington, a search and recovery canine for the Navasota Fire Department, developed a limp after slipping during an agility course obstacle.
Remington was still limping two days later, but Crivelli’s local veterinarian was unable to provide a diagnosis.
Soon after, Crivelli met Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), at an urban search and rescue (USAR) training event and was encouraged to take Remington to the Texas A&M Small Animal Hospital (SAH), where a team of specialists could work to discover the cause of the limp.
After several tests and visits with various SAH services, Remington was diagnosed with a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, a common, but often misdiagnosed, form of cancer.
Crivelli, who had worked with the 8-year-old Labrador Retriever mix for nearly his entire life, was heartbroken by this diagnosis. But knowing how much Remington had done to serve others, she decided to do whatever it would take to get him back on his feet.
“They say a dog will let you know when it’s time to go,” Crivelli said. “Remington was letting me know he had a lot of life to live.”
A Life Of Service
Crivelli felt a call to serve and began her career as a firefighter following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
She rescued Remington when he was only 4 weeks old and soon after began training him for an important role—locating human remains, whether it be a deceased body or the smallest drop of blood, following a crisis like 9/11.
Together, they have volunteered to search for human remains at crime scenes and disaster sites across the state, even contributing to a 30-year-old cold case in South Texas.
“We have searched a burnt house that somebody was suspected to have been murdered at and Remington assisted in locating the exact room where the person died,” Crivelli said.
“We deployed during Hurricane Harvey and searched in neighborhoods for anybody who could have been deceased,” she said. “Luckily, we didn’t have to locate anybody during Hurricane Harvey.”
In addition to this work, Remington also served as a mascot for New Caney Fire Department for several years and then for Navasota Fire Department until his cancer diagnosis and subsequent retirement.
“He would go to public relations events to greet members of the public,” Crivelli said. “Having a K-9 allowed firefighters to be more approachable; people or kids who might have too much anxiety to approach firefighters normally were always more comfortable with Remington around.
“He also was a great comfort after making tough calls,” she said. “We would come back from a CPR call or a fatality wreck and it was interesting to see Remington go up to all the firefighters and let them pet him. He knew when people needed loving from a big furry teddy bear. Even on searches, he would comfort the searchers, as well as the victim’s family.
“That’s what I miss most with him being retired,” Crivelli said. “He was a comfort dog more than a search dog at times.”
Fighting For Remington
Remington’s tumor ran from the spinal canal to where the femoral nerve entered his right hind leg, causing him significant pain and requiring an intensive surgery of several hours for removal.
“This type of tumor is not very common but often misdiagnosed early on because initially, the signs are so gray,” said Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, an assistant professor of surgical oncology. “It’s very common for these dogs to be lame for up to six months and have several rounds of X-rays, yet their veterinarians never find anything wrong. Eventually, when they come in here, they are very painful or the atrophy is so severe that it is now obvious.”
Crivelli, a cancer survivor herself, knew that Remington had more life in him and deserved the opportunity to beat his cancer.
“His job was to assist families and law enforcement with justice by helping provide answers,” she said. “He fought for those who couldn’t fight, so I had to give him a chance to fight for himself.”
Wustefeld-Janssens and a team of oncologists and neurologists removed the right side of Remington’s pelvis and his leg, opened the last three intervertebral spaces, and cut the femoral nerve as close to the spinal cord as possible.
“The cutting of the nerve is a really important step because, number one, we hope to remove the entire tumor, and, two, if there are no pain signals back to the spinal cord, these dogs feel much better,” Wustefeld-Janssens said.
After surgery, Remington recovered quickly and was soon cruising on three legs. As is typical for dogs who have undergone an amputation, he improved greatly once the source of his pain was gone.
“Dogs are incredible in that we can remove half of Remington’s pelvis and a big part of his back, and then two weeks later he’s running and jumping over small walls,” Wustefeld-Janssens said.
Supporting Our K-9 Heroes
Luckily, Crivelli wasn’t alone in her support for Remington. After he was diagnosed, she reached out to Project K-9 Hero, a national nonprofit organization that helps fund medical care for retired police K-9s and military working dogs.
“I purchased a bag of Sport dog food and on the back of it was a story about Project K-9 Hero,” Crivelli said. “It’s for police and military dogs, but Remington’s a search and fire dog. I thought, ‘I’ll just try,’ so I filled out their application and two hours later I got a call from the founder, Jason Johnson, who said Remington was accepted to the program.”
Project K-9 Hero covered Remington’s full surgery cost with funds raised entirely through donations. As a K-9 Hero, Remington will also receive free food and medical care for the rest of his life.
“We felt that because of his age and because of how much life he had left in him, providing the surgery was going to allow him to live a high-quality life for the next couple years, hopefully,” Johnson said. “We’re honored to serve heroes like Remington, heroes who dedicated their careers to protecting our communities.”
With 34 deployments and six confirmed finds on his résumé, Remington has earned the right to a relaxing semi-retirement from his search and recovery career.
He now spends most of his time at home with Crivelli’s family, while continuing to greet citizens and help the Navasota Fire Department with public relations. He also is serving as a Project K-9 Hero representative to help other K-9s receive the same support he did.
“I’m grateful for Texas A&M surgeons, students, and technicians, and for Project K-9 Hero’s financial support,” Crivelli said. “I feel I made the right decision to have a very major surgery done. I don’t think he would’ve survived this surgery if we went anywhere else.
“Remington appears to be feeling better than he has in years,” Crivelli said. “He is playing ball, swimming, and just loving life.”
Dr. Michael Golding’s approach to his work both in the lab and the classroom is predicated by asking the questions very few people consider.
Story by Courtney Adams
Today, anybody who sells alcoholic beverages must adhere a label to their product with the following statement: “GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.”
The statement focuses on women—with no mention of men.
This oversight is to no fault of the U.S. Surgeon General because it is widely accepted that fetal alcohol syndrome can be blamed solely on the woman. However, Dr. Michael C. Golding and his research team at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) are challenging that very principle.
Becoming A Scientist
Growing up on a farm in Canada, Golding did not envision himself as a researcher.
“I’ve always been fascinated with understanding how things work and why, so I think that component of being curious was always with me,” he said. “But I don’t think that I ever consciously wanted to be a scientist.”
Intending to go to medical school, Golding attended college at the University of Western Ontario as a biology major. A developmental biology course he took during his third year, however, changed his career trajectory.
“The lecture the professor gave on this thing called Spemann organizer (a cluster of cells responsible for the induction of the neural tissue during development) just blew my mind,” Golding said. “This led me into this fascination with development and understanding how it is that our bodies are organized and programmed.”
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 2000, Golding decided to pursue his Ph.D. and left Canada to study under Dr. Mark Westhusin, a professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP), with whom Golding spent his early years examining the development of cloned embryos.
After completing his doctorate, Golding left Texas A&M to complete two postdoctoral fellowships, one at Cold Spring Harbor Labs and one at Children’s Health Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario, before eventually coming back to Texas A&M.
Fighting The Dogma
Golding, now an associate professor in VTPP, currently focuses on the effects that male alcohol consumption has on the development of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Characterized by various mental and physical defects, FAS signs can include facial deformities, learning disabilities, and growth abnormalities.
“It became very clear to me as I started this research that there was a piece of this that was missing,” Golding said.
So, in 2012, he asked a simple question—Does a father’s drinking affect the development of the fetus?
Because the idea challenged a societal norm, he was met with some pushback and funding was difficult to come by at first.
“I would get comments back on my grants, ’Why are we doing this? Fetal alcohol syndrome is the woman’s fault,’” Golding said. “They were just of the mind this is not something that should be investigated.”
But Golding was determined that he had a question worth asking.
“I took the components that they liked and stitched them together into a smaller grant,” he said.
Finally, in 2014, he received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to initiate his research, a project in which Golding simply gave alcohol to male mice and mated them with naive female mice.
“The fetuses that were sired by the alcohol-exposed males were smaller, and their placentas were abnormal,” he said. “We had this just very blatant, not complicated phenotype.”
The grant lasted for two years, but it took another three to convince anyone that this was worth exploring further.
“That’s where we started, and we’ve been chasing that ever since,” Golding said.
In June 2019, the Keck Foundation granted $900,000 to Golding and his colleagues to continue the research.
“The big thing that they wanted was something that questioned the paradigm,” Golding said. “I put up the Surgeon General’s Warning and I was like, ’Look, this is what I’m questioning; it’s absolutely going against the dogma.’ They loved it.
“Ultimately, I want to try and figure out how dad’s drinking fits into the larger picture of fetal health, adolescent health, and then, ultimately, adult health,” Golding said. “Any offspring is the sum total of their experience in utero—their mother’s exposures prior to conception or during pregnancy, her diet, and I want to find out what dad’s role is in that piece of the pie.”
Currently, Golding has three graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory. Together, they are working to define the signaling (communication within the cell) and epigenetic mechanisms (those arising from nongenetic influences on gene expression) for how alcohol interferes with developmental processes.
“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘How much do you have to drink to see a problem?’” Golding said. “The truth of the matter is we have no idea how alcohol is doing this, and that’s kind of what the central pillar of my research is trying to figure out.”
“Dr. Golding’s pretty open to challenging the standard,” said Yudhishtar Bedi, a Ph.D. student in Golding’s lab. “When we do find data that says something—the opposite of what other people have found and maybe two or three labs have found—he doesn’t back down from it. He’s always showing me the way to be, I guess, fearless in a way.”
Students working in Golding’s lab are also motivated by the potential for their research to benefit the public.
“I feel like a lot of the things that we’re doing right now have a lot of real-world impact,” postdoctoral fellow Nicole Mehta, Ph.D., said.
One may question if Golding’s research has had any influence on his parenting ideology—he has three young children: two older boys and a daughter.
“I don’t think I could disentangle being a dad from being a scientist,” Golding said. “I cannot simply say to my daughter, ‘OK, you need to be healthy,’ whereas to the other two, ‘You can go out and do whatever you want.’”
Teaching The Next Generation
When Golding is not in the lab, he can be found teaching classes at the CVM. Currently, he teaches “Fetal and Embryo Physiology,” a course both undergraduates and graduates can take together, and “Epigenetics & Systems Physiology,” currently only offered to graduate students.
In his classes, Golding says he enjoys dispelling myths students have picked up over the years about reproduction.
“I consider it a special thrill,” he said. “They have certain facts and statistics that they’ve picked up on the playground through school that are absolutely not true.”
One former student, Katie Poulter ’15, remembers Golding’s class as detailed and difficult, but that Golding was willing to spend extra time on anything that was troubling for students.
“I could tell he loved what he was teaching about,” Poulter said. “That made a big difference.”
When teaching complicated subjects such as human development, Golding tries to tell stories to help students remember the details for years to come.
“I make sure I have a section on Spemann’s organizer,” he said. “It’s good to go back to my inspiration.”
Golding’s teaching philosophy speaks to his desire for his students to succeed.
“I consider the teacher to be a person who’s giving their sales pitch—‘I want you to become like me,’” he said.
In his research lab, Golding teaches by training the next generation of scientists.
“He’s so nice and down to earth. He tries to get to know us and have that mentor/mentee relationship that everyone wants,” said Kara Thomas, a biomedical sciences (BIMS) master’s student in Golding’s lab.
Golding likes making students into skeptics.
“The other component of my professional life that I really enjoy is to bring students in and say, ‘you were taught these things, but now you need to question everything,’” he said.
“That growth is very rewarding to see,” Golding said. “I have students in the lab who come in and they get onboard with questioning different things and then after a couple years, it’s like they don’t even need me.”
Golding has had two students proceed to prestigious postdoctoral fellowships—one at MD Anderson and the other at University of California, Irvine. A third student is currently working at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
A Great Place To Be Fearless
Golding believes his research would be more challenging without his colleagues at the CVM.
“There’s such a breadth of skillsets and interests here at A&M that you can ask questions, like the ones I’m asking, and you don’t have to go too far for help,” Golding said. “The environment is stimulating, it’s diverse, and it is highly conducive to good research.”
If there was only one concept the public gains from his research, Golding hopes it is that chronic drinking has an impact on not only their own well-being but also their offspring.
“Males have an important role in the health of their offspring beyond simply contributing healthy genes,” Golding explains.
He hopes that one day he will pick up a beer bottle to find the Surgeon General’s warning label has changed to incorporate men, too.