Interview with Andrea Winkel, DVM Student

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Andrea Winkel, DVM Student

Editor's Note: This interview was published in 2006. Since then, Andrea Winkel has graduated with her DVM and is now serving as a veterinarian in the U.S. Air Force.

A self-described "lifer" when it comes to animals, Andrea Winkel is exploring a wide range of veterinary career paths available to students.

The second-year Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine student is a dual-degree candidate for a master's of public health degree via reciprocal agreement with the University of Minnesota. Her undergrad MSU bachelor's in zoology and hands-on internships and volunteer activities have combined with her initial vet school experiences to cement her determination to become a veterinarian and an advocate for the profession.

Andrea held veterinary student leadership roles in the MSU Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association (SCAVMA) and attended the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Veterinary Leadership Experience (VLE) in Washington, D.C. as well as the SCAVMA President's meeting at the 2006 AVMA Convention in Hawaii. In the fall of 2006, she attended the AVMA Faculty-Student Leader Conference.

In addition to her SCAVMA involvement, Andrea sits on the boards of the MSU Canine Club and the Zoo & Wildlife Club, and is a committee member for the Hill's College Feeding Program. She additionally belongs to the Food Animal Club, the Student Chapter of the American Animal Hospital Association Companion Animal Club, the Student Veterinary Emergency & Critical Care Society, the International Veterinary Student's Association and the Pathology Club.

Andrea's hands-on training has included a summer internship at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens and a summer volunteer positition at the Marine Mammal Center in California. As an undergrad, she gained animal experience as a sales associate at a Petco retail store and as a veterinary assistant at Black Veterinary Hospital.

"You have at least two summers (in vet school) to explore your options, so even if it means you are required to take out more loans, don't waste your summers with silly jobs," she advises.

Education Information & Advice

What led you decide to study to become a veterinarian?

I've wanted to be a vet since I was a little kid, I'm one of those lifers.

My mom is a physician's assistant, so I've always been around medicine. I had a particular love for animals and I got along well with animals, so veterinary kind of fit. In high school there were some other options too, but they were all generally science- based.

Despite all of the discouragement from people who said things like "it's difficult to get into" and "you'll never make it," I kept coming back to veterinary medicine. It progressed over the years and I got more serious about it. By the time I got to college, I knew I was going to be a vet.

How did your BS in zoology prepare you for vet school?

Technically, zoology is the study of animals, so I figured anything I could learn ahead of time would be beneficial. There was also an animal science degree at Michigan State, but to me, zoology is more science-based with biology and chemistry. I also viewed zoology as a back-up plan if I didn't get into vet school, because vet school admissions are crazy competitive.

Tell us about your veterinary school education so far. Are you considering a specialty?

Currently I'm a second-year vet student, I've had one year under my belt, and I'm still dealing with the book work. My specialties or interests in veterinary medicine are all over the place, but I have particular interest for pocket pet exotics like ferrets, rabbits and other rodents plus reptiles. I'm also interested in zoo medicine exotics and wildlife, which is how the public health draws in, through wildlife. I really like pathology, too.

You don't necessarily have to know what you'd like to specialize in right away. Because I like exotics, I try everything, including large animal and small animal, so that I'm prepared for private practice.

What can you tell students about your experiences with veterinary-related organizations? How does involvement enrich the educational experience?

I think it's extremely beneficial to get involved. For me, it's a great networking opportunity.

At my school, it's pretty common for people to join lots of clubs, because they also have lots of interesting seminars and presentations. They often are scheduled over lunchtime or dinner time, and they provide food, too, always a bonus when you are at school all day.

It's also a great way to meet your fellow students, because if you are sitting in class all day it's not as easy to meet them as if you are getting out there and interacting on a more social level, so it allows you to get know your colleagues. On top of that, in the first two and a half years of vet school you really don't get much hands-on experience with animals; it's just book work. The clubs offer wet labs, from ophthalmology wet labs to palpation wet labs, all different areas to get you in there and get some hands-on type stuff.

Which of your veterinary student leadership roles has proven the most rewarding thus far?

SCAVMA has been a wonderful opportunity. Everything I've done this summer with it has been great, though it's been crazy. The Veterinary Leadership Experience (VLE) is a series of intense leadership development exercises and strategies; the school selects two students and a faculty member to go for six days. VLE works on developing participants into better leaders and as role models for fellow board members and fellow students.

There are not many leadership training opportunities out there in the veterinary field, and the organization is kind of hoping to spread the word by having a few individuals attend these major conferences. It's very beneficial, and the whole idea is to start to make a shift in the profession; the best way to do it is with the incoming professionals.

What led you to pursue a master's in public health? How does it tie in to your veterinary studies at Michigan State?

It's a dual program for the master's; we get a certain amount of veterinary school hours that transfer for it. Public health is probably the biggest area of job market demand for veterinary medicine, or will be in the next few years. There is going to be an incredible amount of new positions in public health because of the concerns dealing with human medicine as well as veterinary medicine. Something like 70 percent of human diseases generally start in animals first (avian influenza, mad cow, chronic wasting disease) and then spread to humans, so we're seeing more demand for public health specialists. If I wanted to do international travel with veterinary medicine, that would be my way.

How did you choose Michigan State as your veterinary school?

I went to Michigan State for undergrad, and I'm a Michigan resident, so it's a lot cheaper for me to go here. Truthfully, I applied to a few other schools and I liked Michigan State the best. Every school has their issues and their strong points; to me, the facilities here seemed the best, and it is a warm environment, which showed in the interviewing process. I was familiar with it. I would have much preferred the weather in Florida or California, where it's warmer, but as far as schools go, it's a very good school, always one of the top 10 ranking schools, so that always helped on that decision.

Is it beneficial to complete both undergrad and veterinary studies at the same school?

It has worked out for me, though it might be beneficial to experience difference schools. I'll be here for a total of eight years. Compared to other schools in Michigan, Michigan State graduates seem to have more students represented in the Michigan State veterinary programs.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an undergrad and veterinary school? Does specialty matter?

When you are picking your undergrad school, having a pre-vet program available to you is very helpful, even if the school doesn't offer a vet program.

Consider how the vet school program is set up. At some schools, you have to pick small or large animal or mixed track. When you have to follow a track, you spend all of your class time around that particular area. They don't track at Michigan State. I like the fact that it is mixed, you have to know everything when you graduate, so you might as well be taught everything as well.

Different schools have different strengths; for instance, Michigan State has more technology than many other schools. I meet students from the various schools, and I find we all know about the same amount of information. Some of us go into clinics a little earlier than others, but we're all going to be veterinarians. You get experience in clinics, but you really don't get much experience in practice until you get your degree anyway.

People shouldn't rule a vet school out because it lacks a certain specialty.

When you;re finished with vet school, you aren't getting a specialty DVM; it's basically the same DVM and the same education everyone else gets. Specialties at the schools are something to focus on for your internships and residencies.

For instance, I'm interested in exotics, and there are extensive graduate programs or residencies at North Carolina State, University of Florida, University of Georgia or University of California at Davis. At the DVM level, you can consider the resources available at the school, but realistically, you won't really be focusing on exotics as an undergrad.

What are perceived as the most respected and prestigious veterinary schools, departments or programs?

When they rank vet schools, there's not that much difference in the ranking scores of the top schools. I know Cornell is definitely one of the top schools; they do a whole case-based learning type program. The UC-Davis program is a pretty prestigious one as well.

It depends on what program you are looking for. I focus on ones with exotic pets: North Carolina State University, University of Georgia, University of Florida and Kansas State all have really good exotics. The University of Illinois has a good wildlife pathology program.

What can students applying to veterinary programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Animal experience variations are important, because a lot of applicants will go in with only small animal experience or large animal experience; having two or more different experiences really helps. That was the advice I got from people, and I think that it really did help that I had one year of small animal experience and then an internship in Cincinnati at the zoo. There are going to be tons of people will have had only one type experience, it's helpful. If you are interested in public health or other areas that have not always been common in the past and are now getting higher demand, that also helps.

What should veterinary students expect from the curriculum?

Having a science-based major always helps, but some people in my class have engineering and business backgrounds. You are required to take the pre-reqs, but those without more than the pre-reqs may struggle a little bit. For me, having comparative anatomy in undergrad helped a lot for vet school. People who were micro- majors had an easier time with microbiology. They are starting to incorporate it more in the pre-reqs.

For us it's the first two and half years is books, at most schools, it's the first three years. We actually do the last year and a half in clinics, straight through with no summer break, so we have a longer period of time in school compared to many other vet schools.

Look at the program you are applying to; having more time with hands-on and client interaction really develops and prepares students for when they are out in practice. More time in clinic also gives you more opportunity and chances to get off campus and into other interests, at the CDC, at an exotics veterinary hospital, or at a zoo, anything that is not particularly common.

What did you like and dislike about your veterinary education?

There's probably a lot to dislike; it's a lot of work, but at the same time I know I'll get through it. It teaches you to grow up, you have to monitor yourself, no one is holding your hand saying you have to study this, there's no free extra credit; you have to do it on your own.

It kind of sucks, but then again, some schools don't allow students to recycle. We have a 'three strikes you're out' policy, so if you have a bad semester or screw up a class, you can recycle the classes and have the opportunity to improve yourself. They really do believe that if you got in here, you were meant to be here. It's nice after working your butt so long to get into vet school that you don't have to necessarily worry that you are going to get kicked out if you screw up once. You never know what kind of situations life is going to throw at you. We've had people that have had bad things happen or medical issues, so it's great to know the school will work with you.

There is a lot to like, too. The environment in vet school is very exciting, and so is the realization that I will be doctor one day. Some days it can weigh down on you, and you get stressed, but every day at the end of the day I still have the felling this is what I want to do.

One of my biggest complaints in high school and undergrad was "why am I taking all of these classes?" because you feel like you are never going to need them again. Well, everything you learn in vet school, you need. Of course, it does add to the pressure; you have all these classes that you need to learn all the information. At the same time, you know it's relevant. The best thing is knowing how difficult it is to get into veterinary school and feeling a bit privileged that I got in. If I get down on myself about school, it reminds me that I'm lucky to be here. Vet school is definitely not meant for everyone.

What other advice can you give to prospective veterinary students?

Grades aren't everything. Cornell is the only vet school where grades are critical to the admissions process, because they don't do interviewing.

Even once you are in vet school, grades are not everything. The types of people who go into vet school are generally pretty competitive, and have always considered grades "everything." Trying to get that shift to realize that it's okay not to get a perfect 4.0 is tough. But instead of being a perfect 4.0 student and having nothing to talk about, I'd rather be a 3.0 student and have a ton of activities on my resume or CV; that's what a lot of people in the profession would prefer. Once you're here, get involved, it really helps you, to open up, and it makes you a better-rounded vet.

Career Plans & Advice

Tell us about your veterinary career choice. What area of veterinary work do you plan to go into?

I am going to look for an internship when I'm done with vet school; I'm not sure what area I want to go into. Part of me still likes the zoo and aquarium science medicine; my zoology major in undergrad had a concentration in aquarium sciences. I do have a strong interest in that, but as my debt accumulates, I don't know if I necessarily will continue with that option.

I was looking into doing internships in pet exotics, particularly avian medicine, which is the only specialty they offer in pet exotics. Public health is another option, depending on what kinds of jobs are available in public health. Already having my master's in pubic health will set me a bit above the typical DVM coming out of school. If I could find an awesome job in the CDC or internationally, I could see myself doing that as well. There are too many things that seem interesting, without being in clinics yet, it's hard to determine. Check back with me!

How has the "hands-on" experience you've gained through internships, volunteer work helped to mold your veterinary career goals?

My internship at the Cincinnati Zoo in undergrad was a great experience. Because of the concentrations in zoo and aquarium science, Michigan State zoology undergrads are required to do an internship at a zoo. It really showed me the ins and outs of being in the zoo. Some of the students interested in doing zoo medicine aren't familiar with the zoo environment, and I think it's key that you really know what you are getting into and become familiar with it before you dedicate your specialty and your career toward it. In the zoos and aquariums there are a lot of politics behind the scenes, though that exists at just about any job. I got to see it from a keepers' perspective, but the politics could really change your mind; if you are not willing to deal with it, could make you potentially miserable in your career.

This summer, I volunteered at the Marine Mammals; it offered a completely different perspective than my zoo internship. It was a rescue center for marine mammals, so seeing the funding issues was an eye-opener. Also, when you are working with volunteers to take care of the animals, you see the discrepancy in treatment. Each volunteer crew does the basic husbandry differently, and some things they might not do the best way. From a vet perspective, the volunteers are your clients and the caretakers of the animals, and I could see it as something that would potentially frustrate me.

The veterinary leadership experience and the AVMA leadership convention were great experiences as well; they really helped with my leadership development, really helped with my networking, and meeting veterinarians all ready out in the profession and in the various industries, like in the drug companies and along those lines. I've gotten to meet so many people; because I went to one event, I'm part of this special group. I can call or e-mail any one I met there this summer and ask if they have a job or a summer experience available or know of one, and they at least will try to help. You make that type of connection when you are out there getting involved with people.

How should other students approach hands-on opportunities?

Get involved, whether you do it at a national level or just your school level. Tap into your resources; the first resources at hand are your own faculty. Get to know your faculty; they are going to national conferences, they have contacts. It really helps to have a mentor in your school. My mentor helped me find my volunteer experience this summer. The veterinarians that are out there are so willing to help us; I don't think enough students take enough advantage of using all of the resources that are out there. All you have to do is look.

You have at least two summers to explore your options, so even if it means you are required to take out more loans, don't waste your summers with silly jobs. I would strongly suggest that it's in your interest to get hands-on experience before you commit to a career path that you may not know all of the details about. Expectations and the reality can be different. The more things you can do, the better.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the veterinary profession in order to be successful?

I'm very passionate about it; I don't know that it necessarily requires it. I've been told that someone could do well at it without a passion, but I don't know if you would love it as much. It is a lot of work for you if you are passionate; if you are not passionate about it, you might not be able to justify the amount of work to get to it. You have to have a degree of passion for the profession.

What are some veterinary field trends which could help potential veterinary students plan for the future?

Something key about veterinary medicine is that it is all considered one profession, one medicine. The AVMA membership holds something like 80 percent or of all the veterinarians in the country, while other professions' organizations are typically 30 or 40 percent. The veterinary profession's big push is to stay under one medicine, and in order to do that, you have to have the lines of communication open. The profession is concerned that as veterinarians become more specialized, we will end up so specialized that we don't even communicate any more. So the biggest trend being recognized in the profession is the need to further develop veterinarians' leadership and communication skills with clients and amongst colleagues to keep the profession together.

The old school is that science-based people are introverted-type people who generally stick to themselves, and they don't communicate well with each other. In a profession where you have to work with others, whether it is your clients or your fellow veterinarians, it really helps to have communications skills in order to make everything work well. If you have poor communication with your clients, you are opening up to risks for the patients and for malpractice-type lawsuits from clients. If you can't communicate well with your colleagues within your practice, it can create an uncomfortable situation and make you potentially hate your job. Keeping the lines of communication open is essential, and so is keeping in good communication with other colleagues around the country. If you have an abnormal case come in which you haven't had much experience, it's nice to have a friend in California that you can consult; if you aren't communicating well; it won't be so easy to do that.

Another trend is to extend veterinary communication to the human medicine because of the increased emphasis on public health. The human animal link, plus there is big concern with the human-animal bond, and animal welfare stuff are all huge issues that will be best addressed with strong leadership and communications skills. Just from what I've seen of students at other schools, I don't think there will be a lack of communicators in our profession.

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