When you earn a DVM degree, many career options become available. Alexa Hunter of Folsom, Calif., is spending 12 weeks this summer exploring one possible path. A soon-to-be third year veterinary student at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, she has teamed up with professor and Veterinary Pathobiology department head Dr. Jerry Ritchey to look at myocarditis in dogs as part of the Center’s Summer Research Scholars Program.
“Myocarditis is just a fancy way of saying it’s an inflammation within the heart muscle,” explained Hunter. “In a previous study, several cases of dogs with myocarditis have been pulled for different research. We decided to look further into these cases. Were there any trends between the cases? Is there a seasonality when myocarditis comes up? Is there maybe a breed disposition to it? Also what are the different etiologies or the pathogens that cause the lesion?”
Hunter’s research project has two parts.
“The first part is looking through data. We call it data mining, collecting all of these different aspects to the cases,” she said. “The ones we are looking at for trends date back from 2007 to 2017. Then part two is more bench top science.
“When you get an animal to necropsy or animal autopsy, you look at each of the organs. You look at it grossly, or with your eyes basically, and see if there is anything wrong with it. And with the heart, usually there is not, not that you can see anyway. So you take a section of that organ, in this case the heart, and dunk it in formalin, which fixes the cells. Then you put it in paraffin wax, which helps the piece of tissue keep its structure.
“Then that is what is used to make thin slices that go on slides for the pathologist to read to see any microscopic lesions. And unfortunately, that’s where we find the myocarditis usually. The problem with that is now our cells are dead and they are imbedded in wax so we can’t just take a swab of it and get a culture to see what the etiology of the lesion was.”
So Hunter is using these paraffin imbedded formalin fixed samples and running them through PCR or polymerase chain reaction.
“We will pull the DNA from these samples and run them through a sequencing lab to see if we can match up any etiology with these samples,” continued Hunter. “I’ve done my data mining and we’re working on the statistical analyses. On the research part of it, I’m in the midst of doing various PCR reactions. It’s a very finicky recipe that you have to tune just right in order to get the DNA you want.”
“Compared to other conditions, myocarditis is not very common,” said Ritchey. “We collected about 75 cases in the past 10 years. The significance of myocarditis is just how bad it is when the patient has it because it interrupts heart function and you know we can’t do well without our heart working properly.”
Hunter chose this particular research project because her two favorite classes of veterinary school thus far have been parasitology and pathology. She spent last summer working with Dr. Susan Little in veterinary parasitology studying ticks.
“I really wanted to also explore pathology,” said Hunter. “I approached Dr. Ritchey to see if he would let me take a glimpse at what it’s like to be a pathologist. We’ve been doing this project. He has also allowed me to go onto the necropsy floor and learn what it’s like on that aspect of being a pathologist.”
“Alexa’s strength in this project is as she said, her interest,” added Ritchey. “I’ve known Alexa since she was a freshmen here at OSU. She’s in the pathology club and she’s talked to me about her interest in pathology. Alexa had some PCR to do. I have students do PCR all the time. Very rarely does it ever work right out of the gate. Alexa seemed to be able to just do it right from the get go. And the look on her face and almost surprise that this thing was working from the beginning was priceless.”
And what does Hunter like most about the Summer Research Scholars Program?
“I love that it takes a group of students, who are willing to try something new, and explores the area of research aside from just clinical practice. You delve deeper,” she stated. “Veterinary school can be very overwhelming with so many different classes. We take about 20 credit hours every semester. It’s nice to have a summer where we can still do veterinary medicine but it’s focused. We get to learn something that we don’t get to learn about in class. And we get an entire summer to dedicate our time to just one project.”
“What these kids do for me, honestly, is remind me how fun my job is,” said Ritchey. “I see the excitement in them and it gets me excited. It reminds me that everything I do each and every day is brand new. I don’t think we have enough students who either know about the program or apply for it and think about this other aspect of the veterinary profession, which is research or specialization. I just ask for kids to think about it. Talk to the kids who have participated in the program and give it a whirl next year.”
The Summer Research Scholars program is made possible with funding from the OSU Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, Morris Animal Foundation, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, PetSmart Charities, and the office of Research and Graduate Education. This year eight students are paired with Oklahoma scientists who are providing a well-mentored opportunity in the field of veterinary biomedical sciences. The program includes a weekly seminar series, opportunities to present data orally and as posters, and field trips to various research facilities to explore career opportunities in veterinary biomedical research. The program finale is a presentation of each participant’s data during the Center’s Research Poster Day and a trip to the National Veterinary Scholars Program Symposium in College Station, Texas, where veterinary students from all over the U.S. will gather and present data from their summer research project.
If you would like to support veterinary research, please contact Ms. Chris Sitz, senior director of development with the OSU Foundation, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 405-385-5170.