Friday, June 27, 2014

Vet School Application: Getting Started

I thought that I would put up a couple of posts about the process of applying to vet school. It is far more complex and time-consuming than applying for a typical graduate program, even one at a top tier school. 

Almost all AAVMC-accredited vet schools use the same online application. This includes 28 US schools, 5 Canadian schools, and a variety of other international schools (UK, Australia, Mexico, etc.). The application is managed by a clearing house called the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS). (Most of the schools also have supplemental applications that you have to obtain from and return directly to the schools. I'll try to address these in a future post.)

If you clicked through on that VMCAS link, you might have noticed that the VMCAS site is rather thorough. One might even say that it verges on the overly wordy. There is also a 64-page instruction manual to help with filling out the various parts of the application. After looking through it all, a common theme quickly emerges. 

There are deadlines, and they are firm. I don't think this is surprising or unrealistic: we are dealing with the administrations of more than 50 universities. You can't stop the grinding of those gears for one person.

But apparently there are plenty of people who try to do just that. The website is full of bold, red, boxed text reminding applicants of deadlines. The instruction manual has reminders in almost every section. The most critical, rate-limiting step is the VMCAS verification of your transcripts.

Even though you have the transcripts sent directly from the schools you attended to VMCAS, i.e., official transcripts that you don't touch, they check every single course. You, the applicant, have to physically create an entry in the application then type in the school, term, year, your status (freshman, senior, etc.), course number, course title, type of course (selected from two lists provided by VMCAS), grade, and credit hours for every single college course you ever took, regardless of its relevance to your vet school application. VMCAS then checks what you typed against the official transcripts they receive. Not only does the entry of these data take a lot of your time, it takes a human employed by VMCAS some time at the other end to compare the two. If you cut things too close, your application may not be approved for release.

Even more alarming, there are people who cut it so close that the VMCAS website has warnings that it can take several minutes for the final credit card payment to be processed. This means that there are people who are literally clicking the "submit" button one or two minutes before the September 2 midnight deadline.

I am not sure that I would risk something I have worked so hard for on poor time management. That just doesn't look very professional, does it.

I have already started my application. I filled out some of the easy bits first then realized that the second rate-limiting step is the references. They need time to prepare their evaluation--and if they don't meet their deadline, it can't be because I didn't give them enough time. So I spent a few days getting my four references set up. To my great pleasure, all four have confirmed that they received the VMCAS email. That part is now in motion. I can't really influence it too much after this point, although if they haven't submitted their letters, a gentle reminder near the end of July isn't out of line.

Another section of the application asked me to list the schools that I want to send my final, completed, approved application to. There is of course a fee for each school you select. I didn't want to be stupid with my money but a second and a third honest evaluation of my spreadsheet kept turning up the same schools. In no order, they are: Oregon State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Illinois-Urbana, NC State, Cornell, and University of Guelph-Ontario. (I wanted to add Tufts to that list but they do not use VMCAS; to apply there I would have to fill out a completely separate application and get my references to write more letters; this may not be reasonable.) I will get an excellent education at any of these schools. And only if, hamdallilah, I get an offer from more than one of them, will I worry about ranking them. To be honest, financial aid might be a deciding factor in the final decision.

What I didn't realize was that by adding these schools to my VMCAS application, the system generated an email alerting them that I was applying. I've already received emails from two of the schools. Generic emails, of course. They don't know me, they can't see my application yet. They only know that I expressed interest in their programs. On the one hand, it is flattering to be contacted by a person with a name and an email and phone number--I can get back to them with questions. On the other hand, I am keeping my eye on the end game: an email is nice but I want an offer of admission. With some financial aid attached.

Having been through graduate school once, and going through it again now, I am perfectly aware that a lot of the requirements are hoop-jumping: can you follow instructions? Can you meet deadlines? Grad school of course brings more to the table than just that. Particularly for the PhD, you are tested on your ability to conceive, propose, execute, analyze, and communicate a research project. I've passed all those tests, I know what how the game is played. Even though the vet school application will take weeks to complete, I think I am up to the challenge.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Liver Shake

Yeah, that sounds really appetizing, doesn't it? But that is pretty much what I made yesterday. Today I made abdominal fat pad shakes. Tomorrow it's thigh meat shakes. Mmm, mmm!

How does one make a liver shake, and why do you want to do it? The why is easy: making a liver (or heart or thigh) shake is the first step in a total lipid extraction of our tissue samples. From there we can do all sorts of fancy analyses of different types of lipid (AKA fats). 

The how is a bit more complicated. Fats are typically extracted using organic solvents. I am using a mixture of chloroform and methanol, a fairly standard mixture for lipid extraction from biological samples. I took a piece from each of our sample livers, chopped it up, weighed it, added the solvent, ran it through a "homogenizer"--an expensive, lab-bench-top puree device (the end result is the liver shake), and let it sit overnight. 

I then filtered out the solid bits (bits of cell walls, proteins, fibrous bits--the liver is full of nasty fibrous bits), pretty much anything in the liver that wasn't dissolved by the solvent.

The next step is pretty cool. What we really want is lipids and chloroform. But the chloroform and methanol are mixed. To separate out the methanol, we add a weak salt (sodium chloride, table salt) solution. Some tidy organic chemistry happens, and the less dense methanol/salt/water separates to form a white, cloudy layer above the clear yellow chloroform/lipids layer.

We did this exact same procedure, minus the lipids, in the organic chemistry lab I took last summer. I was pretty excited to see my advisor demonstrate the procedure on one sample--I could have written out the balanced equation for the reaction since separating two organic solvents by adding a salt is standard stuff. She was pleased that I was able to put it all together so quickly. Anyway, she's told me that her goal is to turn me into an organic chemist for the summer! So far, so good. 

Our goal is to complete all of the lab work for both feeding trials by the end of August. Then we can focus on the numerical analysis of everything in the fall, I can start writing it all up over the winter break, and maybe even finish up by April or May. That would be setting a land speed record for a master's research project, especially one involving live animals.

And no, I haven't lost sight of the end game. I took the GRE last week, and started my online vet school application over the weekend. I'll be posting about that soon. I totally understand now why I was told, over and over, that it would take weeks to complete (I never doubted this information, but it's good that I have confirmed it for myself).

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Passing It On

I spent another Sunday with the Pro-Bone-O folks. Today, I worked directly with a vet that I met last summer. I spent a day in her clinic. Today, I saw an entirely different side of her. She is a specialist, only seeing clients by referral and typically clients who are already very sick. Today, I got to see her practice vet medicine in the trenches. I was really impressed. She seemed more relaxed even though the pace in the free clinic is frenetic, the scene chaotic,  an utter contrast to the almost funeral-home-hush that reigns in her regular clinic.

Last time I managed to avoid having to vaccinate any cats. Perhaps you didn't know but cats are aliens. Their physiology is more or less mammalian but that is just a clever ploy by their leaders and scientists to fool us into thinking that cats are like us. Lots of vets and vet techs will just nod knowingly when the subject of weird cat diseases comes up. Vaccinating them is no exception. They typically get three vaccines: rabies, feline leukemia, and a combo shot with all sorts of things in it. While rare, it is not unusual for cats to develop sarcomas at vax injection sites. Rapidly growing, invasive, lethal sarcomas. For this reason, cats should receive their shots low on their limbs. A sarcoma on their neck, they are dead. A sarcoma on their rear leg, they will live a full life as a three-legged cat. The shots are given in specific limbs so that if problems develop, everyone will know which vaccination it was. 

I studied up on cat vaccinations last night and again this morning before the clinic got started. I also took a Sharpie and put a little coded cheat sheet on my arm:

rabies, right hind leg (RH); feline leukemia, left hind leg (LH), combo, right front leg (RF)

Dogs also get their shots in standardized locations but that is more for convenience and communication and to prevent screw-ups such as double injections, etc: rabies in the right shoulder (Rabies, Right), and distemper/parvo in the left shoulder.

A woman who is training to become a CVT and I each took a room. We handled clients who needed to see the vet about something in addition to basic vaccinations and flea treatment and nail trims. We worked very well together. She would have the vet in with a client while I was finishing up with another, cleaning my room, then getting a new patient set up. We kept the doc hopping! Two OSU vet school students took the third room and handled clients who only needed routine care that didn't require the doctor's time or eyeballs.

I was right: my luck did not hold. My partner was unwilling to inject cats but she was quite willing to hold them. As a result, I vaccinated around 10 cats today. That's a lot in one day. I wasn't perfect, of course not. Three times, I managed to push the needle entirely through the little fold of skin I had lifted up, squirting the medicine all over the table. One cat was so furious at the entire scene that I was forced to inject him intramuscularly in his two rear jabs. He was wrapped up in a towel like a burrito and there was no way I could get any loose skin. Easier to just feel for the muscle and poke him that way.

"Measure twice, cut once." I checked my arm before every single shot to make sure I was going to poke each cat in the right place.

We of course had some interesting clients. One woman was tweaking so hard on meth that she was compulsively clenching and grabbing at her cat, making it nearly impossible for us to work on him. She wasn't a threat to us, just difficult to deal with. And another guy, upon finding out that I didn't live in Eugene, almost started crying. "You come all the way here just to help us?" he said.

And that's the message for today, besides hoping that I didn't break any cats by vaccinating them incorrectly. There was a time when I was in a really bad place. My friends helped me out--I will be eternally grateful to them for it. I'm lucky that I can now pass some of that on by helping someone else. I have learned, am learning, skills that can help other people and their pets. That doesn't make me special. But it seems like it is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sample Collection Day

Yesterday was day 35 of my first feeding trial. For several reasons that I won't get into here, my advisor and I decided to terminate the trial after five weeks, not six. In commercial production settings, broiler chickens would have been euthanized on day 42; that loss of a week of mostly fat production won't affect our results. We got a final weight on all the pens and remaining feed. We also selected eight birds from each of the three diets from which to collect samples.

Despite the tone of the title of this post, collecting samples from poultry feeding trials is not benign. In fact, it requires that the chickens be euthanized and cut up, with specific parts removed, weighed, and bagged for later analysis. Since the weight of the parts is normalized to the weight of the individual chicken, we got a final "live weight" on each bird and euthanized them separately, one by one. The most humane method, and in fact the method required by the university laboratory animal protocol, for euthanizing small animals (mice, rats, birds) is with CO2 gas. While the trauma isn't zero, it is much less than the animal would experience from other more, well, let's say, hands-on methods.

You can do the math--we processed 24 birds today. Thankfully, my advisor wrangled a couple of undergrads into helping us. We assigned B* the very important job of recorder: he wrote down weights of everything on prepared spreadsheets. He also helped us keep track of which bird was being worked on and which bird was in the CO2 box waiting to be processed. I started out weighing parts, putting them in ziplock bags then into a cooler filled with ice, but when the second undergrad showed up, I was promoted to the job of parts collection. My advisor took considerable time to show us all the various organs and some unusual variations that turned up in one or two of the birds. She also showed me how to quickly disassemble a whole chicken.

When I was a kid, you could still get your meat from a butcher, but those styrofoam-plated parts wrapped in shiny plastic, lined up so neatly in the supermarket, were quickly becoming the norm. In short, I've never had the opportunity to cut up an entire chicken--one that still had guts, feathers, skin. One that was still warm. One that died after I put it in a metal box and turned the valve on a gas cylinder. It was quite an experience. There is of course a method but there isn't a lot of finesse. A fair bit of hacking and cracking is involved.

It was a tiring, messy morning. A shower and a good meal were necessary before the metallic taste left my nose and throat. And to be honest, it might be a few days, maybe a week or two, before I can eat chicken again. In fact, I think this is what surprised me the most about this morning. The birds weren't pets but I have cared for them daily for weeks. They weren't individuals. Still, they were living creatures. We were all appropriately respectful (no chicken corpse dance routines or chicken head ventriloquism, for example), but there is no escaping the fact that we killed and cut up 24 chickens this morning.

On the other hand, knowing how to humanely kill and butcher an animal is a perfectly respectable and useful skill. My research has fairly direct applications to human and poultry health and welfare. It wasn't a pointless exercise, or one done with glee or pleasure.

There are pictures but I have put them below the fold. If you are squeamish, DO NOT click the "read more" link. I won't force anyone to look at the reality of broiler chicken research. 

* It feels weird, not using full names. Echoes of living and blogging in the Magic Kingdom. But there are plenty of people who have radical ideas about animal research. No need to stir the flames.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Do You Think Carb Loading Would Help?

The spring term ended last week. I only had two finals, fortunately on two different days, so the studying wasn't too terrible. I'm extremely glad to put the microbiology class behind me. It required a tremendous amount of tedious memorization with little context. I hate that sort of class. No learning was involved.

You'd think I could take a break now. Nope, I'm now preparing for the GRE, which I will take on June 19. It's computerized now. I'm sure that makes it easier to prevent fraud and to change the questions frequently but I'm pretty old fashioned when it comes to calculating and critically reading text. I prefer to put pencil to paper in both cases. 

I have two practice exams that I got for free when I signed up for the GRE. I just completed the analytical part of one of them, and to my great distress, I ran out of time! I randomly marked three questions towards the end because it was clear they would require more time to solve than I had left. I've still got some time to condition myself--it's a lot like an athlete running a marathon. I need to find my pace. More practice will do it. Fortunately, I've given myself a reasonable amount of time, and there are exams available on the internet (for a small fee, of course).

A new part of the GRE is two written essays, each to be completed in 30 minutes. I don't have any particular problem with this sort of thing in general, but to be honest, when I compare my essays to the ones in the study book that I purchased, they sort of fall flat. Despite my best efforts, I write like a scientist. I qualify (could, would, might). I avoid flowery adjectives and adverbs. My sentences tend to be short and reasonably declarative. I absolutely refuse to use the passive voice, however, so there is at least that in my favor. And I can use punctuation correctly. So perhaps I'll muddle through on the essays.

There won't be much time to catch my breath after the GRE, though. I have to begin my vet school application right away. I've heard over and over that it takes weeks to complete. Ghastly. The online application opened on June 2 but I decided to focus on one task at a time. I suppose this continuous cycle of studying and prepping is good practice for vet school.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Zucchini Loaf

Summertime means zucchinis!

I believe that I have posted at least one recipe from Laurel's Kitchen before. I was introduced to the concept of vegetarian cooking when I lived in a co-op as an undergraduate, and I decided right away that I needed to learn more. I purchased a paperback copy of this cookbook in the early 1980's. That same paperback is now held together by rubber bands and is worn and stained from long, repeated use. 

The authors do a very good job of considering nutritional balance and content. One of the recipes I return to often is for Zucchini Oat Flake Loaf. It has a "comfort food" texture and mild flavor. There is just enough fat for a good mouth feel but not so much that you feel guilty, and lots of good fiber for your lower gut microbes to chew on.

Plus, this recipe is a good way to use up some of those extra zucchinis that you home gardeners will soon be buried beneath! The zucchini loaf freezes well. It might be a bit hearty for summertime fare but you can make a lot of it in the next couple of months and enjoy it this winter! Here is my slightly modified version of the recipe.

Prep time: about 30 minutes
3 cups grated zucchini (3 medium sized ones usually does the trick)
2 cups uncooked rolled oats
1/2 chopped onion, sauteed (dicing the onion results in better distribution)
1/2 cup grated white cheese (I like Parmesan but Swiss will work too; can reduce to 1/3 cup without loss of flavor or texture)
1/2 cup wheat germ (I've substituted bread crumbs with no loss in flavor or quality; however, I would not use wheat flour here because it will make the loaf gummy--trust me on this)
2 eggs, beaten
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375F. Sauté the onion in a bit of oil until soft. Allow it to cool. Grate the zucchini into a large bowl. Add all of the ingredients and mix well. Gently press into well greased loaf pan. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes.

The original recipe calls for 1/4 tsp nutmeg. I made it that way once and found the taste combination to be unpleasant. But go for it if you like nutmeg.

I rarely make more than one loaf pan at a time but this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled to fill a large casserole. If you choose to go for volume, you may need to reduce the cooking time because the depth in the casserole will be less than in the loaf pan.


Monday, June 09, 2014

Helping Out

Even though the poultry research in which I'm currently immersed is more than enough to boost my vet school application chances, I still keep an eye out for interesting volunteer opportunities. Just such a one came along this past weekend.

I spent most of my Sunday in Eugene working with the group Pro-Bone-O. Silly name, utterly inspiring and humbling mission. I've linked to their site; I strongly encourage you to take a look. But if you are too busy to click, here's the elevator summary: twice a month, they provide free veterinary care to the animals of the many homeless people living in or passing through Lane County, Oregon. 

Last weekend, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel when they had to ask for some pre-vet undergrad volunteers. Normally, the clinic uses students in the OSU vet school or people who are already CVTs (certified vet techs). But it is the end of the term (it's finals week now) and I guess they couldn't rouse any vet students. So I jumped at this chance to learn some "shelter medicine".

There is certainly a triage feel to things. There are plenty of co-ordinators who organize and prioritize all the folks who show up. All we vet-types had to do was show up--wow, that's an understatement. There was a steady stream of people with their pets from 9:30 to 2:30--around 40 or so. There was only one vet volunteering that day but our OSU contingent added three people who served as vet techs, and a retired CVT showed up making it four. We ran two tech rooms and one vet room so we could work with up to three clients at a time. No breaks, barely enough time to catch your breath before you went out to get the next person.

I thought it would be eye-opening for the pre-vet sophomore who was in our group to assist the vet (I was not wrong in this). I worked with the retired CVT. She was absolutely fabulous--despite my early fumbling, she allowed me to draw all the vaccinations, vaccinate all the dogs (I asked her to do the cats because I'm not quite sure of myself with them), and clip all the nails (even the black ones!). By the end of the day my scrubs were so foul that I took them off right inside the front door when I got home. I didn't want to take one step further into the house--butt juice, pee, mange, dirt, hair.

The problems were pretty routine--vaccinations, nail trims, flea treatment, the occasional skin issues (fungal infection, allergies), an interesting dry eye situation. But the people that we worked with were not routine in the slightest.

One girl brought in this lovely kitten, probably with a lot of Maine Coon in him, with these fabulous white tufts of fluff shooting out of his ears. She was tweaking so high on meth she could barely focus. But kit was duly vaccinated. We had to adjust treatments based on what people could actually do--some people lived in fixed places but some lived in camps. A very tired, very young man, an Afghan vet, brought his dog in. He didn't want to talk to us so we talked to his dog. They were clearly living pretty rough. We saw a lot of people whose luck simply hadn't held out--lost the job, lost the house, living in their car. One woman living in a shelter had adopted a tiny little chi who had been abandoned on the highway. This one woman with a feisty JRT named Belle showed up with her new dog, a 90-lb, mostly white pit bull named Darwin. Though enormous, he was an utter sweetheart...and he was a rescue. A young black man showed up with a tiny black kitten, probably no more than 4 weeks old. Somehow he had managed to find kitten formula and a little bottle and he was hand feeding her. He had a pink fleece blanket tucked into his backpack and her tucked inside that. Tiny kitten...another rescue, from a box in a parking lot. Many of the animals we saw were rescues--rescued and given homes and love by people who had very little themselves.

Pro-Bone-O is set up next to the St. Vincent de Paul service station which provides water, showers, and some services to homeless people. The free clinic is run out of an actual vet clinic that on weekdays provides low-cost vet services. But two Sundays a month Pro-Bone-O takes over and offers free basic vet care.

The vet that we worked with was really amazing. There is no stocked pharmacy. There are drawers filled with donated meds, some from clinics, some from people whose animals had died, some purchased with donated money--a complete grab bag of stuff. The vet had to mix and match her treatments. She might not have found her preferred drug but there was probably something similar that she could use. I was really impressed with her creativity. Even in the midst of that day of chaos, she took the time to show us all a demodexx mite under the microscope.

I was so impressed with the experience that I have now signed up for two more Sundays this summer, and depending on my schedule this fall, maybe a couple more before the end of the year. I learned an incredible amount of stuff, almost too much to process after just one time. 

And the entire day in fact reminded me why I got the crazy idea of becoming a vet in the first place. I may be distracted by poultry at the moment, but there is a lot of fulfillment in supporting the human-animal bond and in doing this kind of personal service.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014


I was filling out a health questionnaire that is required of everyone who works with animals on campus, and it asked for the date of my last tetanus booster. Um....1998? Maybe?

I realized that wasn't good enough--I really need to be current on that because, well, chickens. You're supposed to get the booster every 10 years anyway.

So I popped over to the Student Health Center after class yesterday. I absolutely LOVE socialized medicine, which is what college students have access to. You pay a fee each term and have full access to all of their services. Lots of their services (such as counseling) are available to all students even if they didn't pay the health center fee. You might have to pay for some medicines but most are subsidized to very low costs. Sure, it's not open at night or on weekends. Sure, it's on campus and I don't live on campus. But I am on campus every day for class. Yesterday, I walked in, said that I needed a tetanus booster, was in with the nurse in just a couple of minutes, talked with her for a few minutes, got the shot, and was out the door. Total time: 15 minutes. No money changed hands. No insurance cards had to be provided. I paid up front for access at the start of the term, that is, I paid upfront for health care, and that is exactly what I got. (Health insurance is most decidedly not the same thing as health care.)

Sadly, I seem to be having a bit of a reaction to the vaccine. I don't remember being such a delicate flower when I've had the shot in the past but maybe they changed the vaccine. I'm older, too, and that could play a role. Anyway, after the shot, I met with my advisor for an hour, worked for an hour, went home, had lunch...and pretty much blacked out. I recall stumbling to the bedroom as tunnel vision closed down on me. I apparently managed to get Harry onto the bed. I woke up almost three hours later! Wow, that little shot knocked me for a loop.

And today, I can't lift my elbow above my shoulder. It's not bruised or swollen--can't even see the prick site. But my whole upper arm hurts like crazy when I move it or touch it (tetanus, anyone?). Reactions to vaccines are rare but that doesn't mean they never occur. It certainly isn't life-threatening and I suspect it will go away with time. But I guess if it isn't better by morning, I'll head back over there and have a nurse take a look. But I can do that! I've got access to on-demand health care!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Growing Chicks

Today is day 20 of the first feeding trial I am conducting for my master's research project, so we are almost at the halfway point. We are using "life stage" diets, which means we change the diets to meet the changing metabolic needs of the chicks. They were on starter diets; today we switched them all over to grower diets.

They were without food for about two hours while we emptied the feeders, weighed what was left of the first diet, then weighed out the new diet and filled the feeders and put them back in the pens. Two hours without food to a genetically selected eating machine is an eternity!

Here's a photo of one of the pens letting us know they are quite happy with their new diet.

They are going through a bit of an awkward phase at the moment. No longer cute and yellow and fuzzy, they are growing so fast that their feathers are not quite keeping up. Everything should fill in during the next week but they all have bald patches. And you can see that most of them are starting to get a bit, well, round. It's not fat--they are growing breast muscle at an amazing rate. The actual science part is happening inside the chicks as they process their diets (we are feeding two experimental diets and a control)--we won't really know the results until we analyze the samples we will collect at the end.