Graduate students Sam Brill (top left), Carly Dearing (top right), Laurel Haines (bottom left) and Kate Williams will have more than half of their DVM tuition covered, thanks to a new NIH award. Photos: John Eisele/ CSU Photography
Story by Jessica Cox and Mary Guiden
Four Colorado State University graduate students studying to become veterinary scientists will benefit from a new National Institutes of Health award designed to foster the next generation of leaders in biomedical research.
NIH’s Medical Scientist Training Program award has typically funded medical students who are also pursuing doctoral degrees. But in 2019, NIH opened up the application process to other dual degree programs, including those granting DVM-Ph.D. degrees. The ultimate aim of the program is to train veterinarians for research-related careers in academia, industry and government.
Dr. Sue VandeWoude, CSU Distinguished Professor, said that landing this award is an incredible milestone for the university.
“This is a very prestigious acknowledgment,” she said. “NIH has recognized the importance of our training for clinician scientists, and veterinarians are uniquely qualified to contribute to the research enterprise in so many ways. It’s a testament to the investment that’s been made by the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, over many years. And it also recognizes the mentors and faculty who have invested in our students’ careers.”
CSU is one of three programs across the country to receive this type of funding from the federal government to support graduate students pursuing a DVM-Ph.D. dual degree.
Through this award, NIH will support more than half of the cost of tuition for the students’ DVM degrees. They will also receive a stipend of $25,000.
VandeWoude, also the director of the One Health Institute at CSU, said the award will help with recruiting new veterinary scientists and will also provide some leeway to expand the program.
“This award puts DVM-Ph.D. programs on the map,” she said. “It will help increase the recognition that these programs are rigorous and important for the biomedical research community.”
Sam Brill, second year DVM student
Doctoral research with Dr. Doug Thamm
Sam Brill wanted to pursue a translational medicine research project, and when he came to CSU to begin the DVM-Ph.D. program, that’s exactly what he found.
He is focusing on canine osteosarcoma and melanoma research with Dr. Doug Thamm, a veterinary oncologist at CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center and Dr. Terry Fry, a pediatric oncologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“This project will allow me to work on bridging human and animal research, and it will give me a taste of therapeutic development,” Brill said.
Through his research, he will help to genetically engineer T cells using chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). T cells typically play an integral role in human and animal immune response, but when the body is compromised by cancer, they do not work as well as they are supposed to. Through a process called CAR-T cell therapy, the cells are modified, giving them the ability to target a specific antigen.
“With cancer there are a lot of ways tumors are able to evade T cells, and then they’re not able to recognize tumor cells as tumors,” Brill said. “With CAR-T cells, we can actually help them recognize and kill tumor cells.”
Brill comes to CSU from Johns Hopkins University, where he spent two years as a research technician studying simian immunodeficiency virus, similar to HIV, which affects monkeys and apes. In addition to research skills, a passion for the appropriate care of lab animals, and his interest in translational medicine, he also brought his four-year-old cat, Niña.
“This work will give me an opportunity to practice communicating to both medical doctors and veterinarians, to help human medicine inform veterinary medicine and vice versa,” Brill said. “I want to work on building up the strengths of both types of medicine.”
Carley Dearing, second year DVM student
Doctoral research with Brent Myers
While completing a master’s degree at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Carley Dearing fell in love with research and neuroscience. Her life path then changed to becoming a clinician scientist, someone who contributes to research and society in a broad manner.
“Completing a dual degree will, hopefully, mean that I get to make an impact in people’s lives as a clinician and in our society by contributing to the advancement of clinical neuroscience,” she said.
Dearing hopes to become a board-certified neurologist with a neuroendocrinology research program.
Her research is in neuroendocrinology – studying how the brain regulates hormonal activity in the body – with a focus on stress and behavior. She said she wants to help better understand how males and females differ in their physiological responses to stress.
Working with Brent Myers, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Dearing said she wants to gain the skills needed to be a translational scientist and veterinarian, and she wants her research to be impactful. “Brent is an amazing mentor and I am grateful that I get to work with and learn from him,” she said.
Dearing said the NIH funding is beneficial both personally and for the DVM-Ph.D. program at CSU.
“For me, this funding is an amazing opportunity to be able to put more energy into research and becoming a veterinarian,” she said. “It gives me the financial stability to be able to accomplish more and to a higher standard. Also, having the full support of the college is an indispensable blessing throughout this very difficult and challenging program.”
Dearing is half of a power research couple; her husband, Thomas, is pursuing a doctoral degree in control systems engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. They also have two cats.
Laurel Haines, second year DVM student
Doctoral research with Dr. Dan Regan
Pursuing two degrees at once wasn’t originally part of the plan for Laurel Haines. But when she discovered she had a passion for veterinary pathology as well as immunology research, she was determined to find a way to study both.
Luckily, CSU offers a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine – Ph.D. dual degree program.
With a biology degree in hand from the University of Vermont, Haines spent two years working as a research associate for Matrivax, a biotechnology company, solidifying her expertise and interest in infectious disease and immunology research. Her professional experience will be an asset, as she spends time working in Dr. Dan Regan’s lab studying metastasis of canine osteosarcoma.
“I’m researching the immunology of metastasis, and what happens in metastatic sites that make them suitable for tumor growth before the tumor cells even get there,” said Haines. “One reason I was interested in joining this lab was because it has a great translational model. I care a lot about human and animal medicine.”
Haines has started working on the Ph.D. half of her degree program, but she’ll get to dive into the veterinary education this fall. Throughout her six years at CSU, she’ll get to experience pieces of both programs simultaneously, a balance Haines is excited about.
“I really love how we’re able to be engaged in both graduate and veterinary lives throughout the program. It’s nice to have a foot in each door,” Haines said. “It’s a unique combination of degrees and I’ll be well equipped to consider a lot of different careers.”
Kate Williams, first year DVM student
Doctoral research with Dr. Nicole Ehrhart
Kate Williams said she loved being in the lab as an undergraduate at Tufts University, where she was involved in multiple research projects.
“I could not imagine a career that did not involve research,” she said. She also wanted to have an immediate impact in animal health by practicing veterinary medicine. When she learned about the existence of DVM-Ph.D. programs, she knew that a dual degree program would be the best path for her to pursue a career as a veterinary scientist.
Williams hopes to develop a novel therapeutic for the treatment of age-related skeletal muscle dysfunction, sarcopenia, which currently has very few treatment options. As part of her research, she will explore how cell communication becomes disrupted in muscles as we age and determine whether certain cellular signals that are released during physical exercise can be collected and utilized as a treatment to prevent sarcopenia in dogs and humans.
The funding she’ll receive will enable her to continue working toward her Ph.D. research while she is in veterinary school, without the additional burden of taking out school loans or finding a part-time job in order to pay rent. “This will ultimately free up more time for me to make progress on my Ph.D. during veterinary school, and will greatly reduce my financial stress,” she said.