Jessica Diaz is a graduate student in the Neurosciences program at Stanford. She studies the development of a specific type of neuron (a neuron is a brain cell) that projects to the spinal cord, and how understanding this might help inform regenerative therapies for conditions like spinal cord injury. Jessica is also a veterinarian. Here is her story about how she applies what she learned from veterinary medicine to her career in basic research.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to become a veterinarian. As a child, I was always compassionate to animals, and I wanted to be an advocate for creatures who cannot speak for themselves. I also wondered about how the body worked, what goes wrong when people or animals get sick, and how to treat them. While I was still in high school, however, I asked myself whether I would be happy doing routine things for individual pets all day, every day, for many decades, even though that type of care really is beneficial for the health and wellbeing of many pets and pet owners. Would I become bored? When I started college, I still had the goal of ultimately going to veterinary school to become a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), but I wondered about how I might make more of an impact on human and animal health, rather than a single veterinary patient at a time.
Since I was curious about science careers outside of veterinary medicine, I decided I wanted to try working in a scientific research laboratory. After some trial and error in finding a lab that was a good fit for me, I found myself studying hormone levels in the bodies and brains of female rats in a neuroendocrinology lab. Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes the great need for studying both male and female animals and humans, and not just male, as was the norm for study subjects until very recently. I did not realize it at the time, however, this lab was engaging in visionary and innovative research ahead of its time, and as such was not without its critics and nay-sayers. I learned very early in my research career that not only is it okay to spend time finding a lab environment that both works for me personally and does research that I am passionate about, it is vital to success as a scientist. It was also challenging to learn how to deal with the beliefs of some other researchers that females are not worth studying, but it has proved to be a vital skill that makes my science even more defensible, and it is something I will use for the rest of my life.
I did eventually decide to go to veterinary school, but I also wanted to continue doing scientific research. My veterinary school did not have a formal combined DVM/PhD program, but it did have a DVM/MS combined degree program that would allow me to become a veterinarian while also doing independent research in a lab. After the first two years of the pre-clinical curriculum, I went to work in lab studying cardiovascular pharmacology (that’s the study of drugs that work on the heart and circulatory system!) while the rest of my cohort from vet school went into the teaching hospital. As time went on, I was happy learning how to ask and answer research questions to which no one in the world knew the answer, but at the same time, I was hearing from all my friends in the teaching hospital about all the ‘cool’ cases they were seeing and what it was like to be a healer for pets. When my master’s project was complete and I took my turn in the teaching hospital, I loved each rotation more than the one before—my favorite was emergency! I took small animal emergency and critical care a second time as an elective beyond what was required to graduate, and I enjoyed it so much that I even gave up a vacation block to take it a third time. No two days in emergency are ever the same; every case is a new puzzle to solve. Very often in emergencies when seconds count, we have to make quick decisions and rapidly execute decisive action steps to try to save a life, even before we have a fraction of the information we would like. My original plan was to go back to graduate school to finish a PhD after vet school, but after graduation, I chose to continue in veterinary medicine because I was having so much fun in the emergency room. I completed a rotating small animal internship in emergency and critical care, and then continued my advanced training by starting a residency in emergency and critical care.
Jessica teaching a student to hear the heartbeat of her rabbit!
I practiced for several years as an emergency and critical care veterinarian, and despite having had achieved ‘success’ by doing everything I had ever wanted, I found I still was missing something. I missed that feeling of constantly asking new questions, as every day I was merely practicing the standard of care without working to move the field forward. However, inertia is a powerful force, so it was several years before I made a decision to change careers. Despite my own self-doubts, I decided to leave full-time clinical veterinary practice and go back to school as a graduate student to pursue a PhD. In addition to recognizing the importance of studying both males and females, the NIH is also recognizing the importance of having veterinarians in basic research. I was able to get funding for graduate school through a special NIH training grant specifically for veterinarians pursing a PhD in biomedical sciences.
I am much older than my graduate student colleagues, and reflecting on my life so far, I have spent a significant amount of time in training and not much time working as a professional. It’s sometimes difficult for my friends, family, and others to understand why I am still in school (and I still have doubts myself from time to time!). On the other hand, I’ve loved the opportunity to continue to learn new fields throughout my career. My father was a child refugee from Cuba—in the 1960s, he was torn from his parents at a young age due to the conflict there, and was sent alone to the United States in the hopes of a better life here. Both he and my mother have worked hard to ensure their children would never have to experience something like that. Drawing from my father’s strength and the constant support of both my parents, I have been able to propel myself further than I ever thought that I could, both professionally and as a person. All I can say is that it is okay to work to try to find your own true path in life, no matter how long it takes nor how circuitous the route.