The (Academic) Road Less Traveled

Pair of students work on dual degrees through MS/DVM program

For Jill Abel and Brianne Bishop, these days represent the quiet in the middle of the storm. This fall the two are taking nine credit hours in addition to serving as teaching assistants and conducting field trials related to their master’s research as graduate students in the Division of Animal Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

That may seem like a full schedule, but compared to last fall, it’s a fairly light load for the two students who are pursuing their master’s degrees in reproductive physiology and their doctoral degrees in veterinary medicine through the College of Veterinary Medicine. The students are pursuing dual degrees through a joint initiative known as the MS/DVM program.

Through the MS/DVM program, graduates are able to able to work with beef and dairy cattle producers to offer a comprehensive listing of services as large-animal veterinarians.Through the MS/DVM program, graduates are able to work with beef and dairy cattle producers to offer a comprehensive listing of services as large-animal veterinarians. The cattle shown here are from the Thompson Research Center, one of the main places where the students from the Division of Animal Sciences conduct research. Photo by Logan Jackson.

“To me, it’s just been a great partnership with the College of Veterinary Medicine,” said David Patterson, professor of reproductive physiology who helped form the program. “I think the program has really opened doors for our students.”

In the short history of the program, which is thought to be the only one of its kind in the nation at the moment, only two other MU students have gone through the five-year regimen. The program was created to address the changing needs of the large-animal veterinary industry. Abel and Bishop are the first two students who have enrolled in this unique academic program at the same time.

“I think it’s great that the vet school and animal sciences can work together to help support us and that they recognize that this is an area of need,” Abel said. “And it’s been nice to have someone going through the program at the same time. We’ve been able to help each other out along the way.”

Cameron Locke, who completed his undergraduate degree in animal sciences earlier this year, became the fifth student to enter the program when he began this fall.

Twice the interest

After beginning the program in the fall of 2013, the duo is currently on a hiatus from veterinary classes that will last from Jan. 1, 2015, to Jan. 1, 2016, as part of the arrangement for the program. During the break, Abel and Bishop are in the process of finishing all of the requirements to earn their MS degrees before walking across the street and completing the DVM portion in 2018.

Brianne Bishop, Jill Abel and David Patterson gave a joint presentation on enhancing pregnancy rates with split-time artificial insemination at the recent Thompson Research Center Field Day. Photos by Logan Jackson.Brianne Bishop, Jill Abel and David Patterson gave a joint presentation on enhancing pregnancy rates with split-time artificial insemination at the recent Thompson Research Center Field Day. Photos by Logan Jackson.

From early in her undergraduate program, Bishop talked with Patterson and Mike Smith, professor of reproductive physiology, about the idea of pursuing dual degrees. She also spent time visiting with then soon-to-be Dr. Neal Martin, the program’s second graduate. Bishop and Martin became acquainted through her family’s Columbia-area-based business, AbraKadabra Cattle Company.

“I could always see the track that Neal was on and I know he really enjoyed it,” Bishop, said of Martin, who currently runs a mobile veterinary clinic out of his hometown of Centralia (Mo.) after completing the program in 2015. “It was always there as an option for me.”

Abel, on the other hand, did not start entertaining the notion of pursuing dual degrees until after she completed the F.B. Miller Internship in reproduction in the spring semester of her senior year (both students finished the same program in May 2013). During the experience, Abel and Bishop were trained how to artificially inseminate cattle on ranches in Missouri, Indiana and South Dakota.

“What really, as far as I’m concerned, sparks the interest in students accepted into the College of Veterinary Medicine to then pursue a graduate degree in reproductive physiology, is the internship in reproduction,” Patterson said. “When they have a chance to participate in the internship, their experience is very hands-on and, in many cases, students don’t realize they have that interest until they get involved with it. Once they do, it creates a situation where they want to learn more.”

Having two students wanting to pursue dual programs at the same time created an unprecedented situation. Patterson went to Dr. John Dodam, who chairs the Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery at CVM, and was instrumental in setting up the initial program in 2006 with then-student Dallas Wilson when Dodam served as the college’s associate dean for academic affairs.

Carolyn HenryCarolyn Henry

Dr. Carolyn Henry, the associate dean of research and graduate studies at CVM, quickly entered the conversation when she realized how the MS/DVM program would fall right in line with another one of her titles on campus: the One Health/One Medicine facilitator of Mizzou Advantage. Before long, an arrangement had been made for a significant portion of funding to be covered by Mizzou Advantage for both students.

“The core of Mizzou Advantage from the start has been creating new interdisciplinary networks and I’ve also had a real interest on how education fits into that, not just research,” Henry said. “I think that’s the nice thing here is that we’re very creative when it comes to how can we change our curriculum. Whenever I talk to folks in industry, in government, I say ‘Rather than us creating a product and then trying to convince you that it’s what you need,’ we want to come to you and say ‘What skills would you like our students to have?’ so they can hit the ground running, and that’s kind of the tact that we’ve taken for the past five years.”

Henry added that the veterinary industry as a whole is in a place that needs to consider training students for new jobs — and focusing on areas that generate a good return on investment such as artificial insemination, ultrasound, embryo transfer and other reproductive specialties, given the high amount of debt that the average veterinary student faces upon graduation.

“It’s generally going to require something beyond the DVM degree and why not get it while you’re here and have all of the expertise available to you?” Henry said.

Neither Bishop nor Abel is exactly sure what direction they hope to take in 2018, but they have a few general thoughts on the matter. Bishop’s future interests include beginning her own veterinary practice that incorporates reproduction and herd health or veterinary consulting. “There are just a lot of options for me after completing both degrees,” Bishop said.

Abel’s goal is “to help producers make more money by implementing technologies including AI and ultrasound into their management systems.”

A new path

In 2006, it all started with an idea. Wilson, a standout student in animal sciences from De Soto (Mo.), had been accepted into both the DVM program and the graduate program in animal sciences. “So given his skillset, we said ‘Why don’t we see if we can get you into a dual program and do both?’” recalled Patterson, who has served as the advisor of all five program participants.

Patterson and Wilson arranged a meeting with Dodam. Both parties worked together to develop a plan in which a dual program could be made to work through a combination of dual credits in both programs and collaborative measures related to academic timing and acquiring the appropriate funding.

Wilson was a little uncertain how his plan would fall on the ears of those in the room: “We weren’t sure how everybody would take it, but it came off really well. Everybody stepped up and helped me out.”

Dallas Wilson, who became the first MS/DVM program graduate in 2011, now runs a successful mobile veterinary services clinic for cattle in eastern Missouri. Dallas Wilson, who became the first MS/DVM program graduate in 2011, now runs a successful mobile veterinary services clinic for cattle in eastern Missouri. Photo courtesy of Dallas Wilson.

“Everybody was in agreement that it was a good idea to pursue this program and it went pretty smoothly,” Dodam remembered about that meeting. “The individuals who were involved in that initial planning for those graduate degrees worked very well together and allowed us to get the program initiated.”

As a student, Wilson had envisioned developing his own bovine-based reproductive veterinary practice. His idea centered on incorporating estrus synchronization, artificial insemination (AI) and ultrasound techniques to a complete menu of services for his clients. When he became the first program graduate in 2011, he did exactly that. He set up base in Dittmer (Mo.) not far from where he grew up, and quickly started meeting with area producers.

Using connections gained from Patterson and Wilson’s own father, Dean — who retired two years ago with MU Extension — Wilson was able to quickly make inroads throughout the state with producers. Clients soon became impressed with his ability to offer both AI and ultrasound to determine the gender of calves on large numbers of cattle.

Since graduating in 2011, the growth of the Wilson Veterinary Clinic has been (in his words) “exponential” as evidenced by the fact that he was on his fourth Chevy Colorado pick-up truck since starting his practice, which currently is about 90 percent beef cattle and 10 percent dairy.

Often working seven days a week and putting an average of 70,000 miles a year on the road, he has built relationships with close to 50 steady clients throughout the state. Wilson heavily relies on his wife, Andrea, who graduated with an animal sciences degree in 2010 under her maiden name of Bartlebaugh. “I would say I run around crazy and she keeps me organized,” Wilson said.

When Wilson first started out, he never imagined that AI would be such a large part of his business. Now, he performs the service on about 5,000 head of cattle in Missouri each year. “That is a service that producers really want the veterinarian to be a part of,” he said. “It’s an added thing and you are already there doing the pregnancy checks and those type of things. It just works nicely with a practice.”

Potential for growth

When it comes to pulling off such a highly collaborative effort between two schools, it takes the master planning of someone like Patterson, whom Dodam and others give the most credit to being able to make the unorthodox arrangement work. It’s important to find a balance between time for classes and clinics on the vet school side and the time required to complete graduate work with classes and research. In many cases, the research involves extensive field trials conducted at the Thompson Research Center in Spickard (Mo.) and cooperating ranches in Missouri, South Dakota and Montana.

“Anytime we can train a veterinarian with more expertise in animal science, we will produce a veterinarian who provides excellent service to livestock producers. It’s a natural combination, but it also requires that the graduate advisor understands there’s a limited period of time available for this training,” Dodam said.

“It has to be done in a way that doesn’t tremendously disadvantage either the professional or graduate parts of the curriculum. Dr. Patterson has been particularly adept at making that situation work.”

John DodamJohn Dodam

Dodam and Henry both are supportive of the program’s expansion either to other animal sciences specialties away from reproductive physiology, such as genomics, metagenomics and nutrition — to even the possible formation of a program involving dual doctorate degrees.

“We are getting more students who do realize the value of this type of program,” Dodam said. “The program is only limited by the number of students who are interested in pursuing that graduate program and the number of mentors who are willing to mentor.”

Added Henry: “I think this is a flexible enough of a program where we can modulate it by how the market is turning from year to year.”

Wilson and those currently in it underscore the amount of work and commitment involved. Henry said that when considering candidates for the program, prospective students are expected to demonstrate a combination of adaptability, drive and a high maturity level “to be able to multitask and stay on track.”

“Vet school is challenging enough, but adding a graduate program to it creates a whole additional layer of complexity relative to satisfying the course requirements, and as importantly, grinding out the research, and getting the thesis completed, and defended and published,” Patterson said.

“Vet school doesn’t really give you time to chill, especially when you pursue a graduate degree at the same time,” Bishop said with a laugh.

As Dodam pointed out to Wilson and the other students after him, one of the tougher aspects of the program is having to remove one’s self from his or her DVM classmates during the one-year hiatus and then finishing up with another class.

“You become really close with people in your vet school class because you’re with them so often and then by the time you come back for the next class, they’ve already formed those bonds that you weren’t a part of because you were in the class before, so you’ve got to prepare yourself for that,” Wilson said.

It’s a decision that requires some due diligence and self-reflection.

“When you begin thinking about a dual-degree program, talk to people who have already done it and ask questions,” Abel said. “The MS/DVM program is a big commitment, but it’s totally worth it, if it’s what you choose to pursue.”