All creatures great and small need scientists as well as practising vets

Too many veterinary graduates forgo research to pursue a career in the clinic, finds Matthew Reisz

January 19, 2012

A new teaching and research centre at the Royal Veterinary College aims to remove the barriers between undergraduates and postgraduates that have long held back the profession.

Many recent architectural projects within higher education have been designed to facilitate inclusivity, chance encounters and interdisciplinary collaborations.

But the centre, designed for the college by Architecture PLB - which opened last month and forms the entrance to the Hawkshead Campus near Potters Bar - has more specific goals.

Stephen May, deputy principal of the college, said that since the 1980s there had been concerns that too large a proportion of veterinary graduates had gone into practice rather than research. "The vast majority of our students come to university with a clear picture of the veterinarian as a practitioner and ambitions to pursue a practice career," he said.

Because of this, "both the profession and governments in the US and the UK feel that veterinary scientists are failing to make the contribution that they should to complex world problems, in particular food security and food safety, but also environmental issues involving animals".

Where there is no one to fill the veterinarian's seat in major interdisciplinary forums, it can lead to "a lack of appreciation of the unique contribution that veterinary scientists ought to be making", he said.

The college has attempted to address this in a number of ways. But Professor May said that "although we expose our students to basic sciences and try to inspire some to consider research as an alternative career option, years of experience suggest that the classroom is not the place to achieve this".

Along with an emphasis on research projects in the undergraduate curriculum, he sees an important role for architecture in promoting a "convergence" of research and teaching.

A summary of a workshop held in early 2009 noted that "labs are currently behind closed doors and no persons not directly involved with working in them get any idea of what they are like. Although pioneering work has been and still is carried out there, the college does not publicise this with its buildings."

The conclusion was that there was "very little connection between students and researchers", and that physical adjustments were needed to address this issue. Professor May said the new centre was designed with this in mind, housing research laboratories for academic staff, postdoctoral workers, PhD, MSc and undergraduate students - including veterinarians, veterinary nurses and bioveterinary scientists.

As "another piece of the jigsaw in exposing students to 'real research'", the building will provide a space where undergraduates can pursue their own studies while also bringing them into contact with PhD students and postdoctoral workers.

Professor May said the latter group could become role models and, in some cases, informal supervisors to help the undergraduates achieve their goals.

If the centre succeeds in its aims, it should bring significant benefits to science and society as more veterinary students decide to pursue academic career paths.

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