One of the things I most enjoy about teaching veterinary students is coming across students who are streets ahead of me in their understanding of the subjects we cover. Not the fundamentals of anatomy or physiology, I must say – I can keep up with them on those basics – but rather the most recent advances in molecular pathology or bioengineering.
When I shared this with one of our physiology professors, he inclined his head to one side, puzzled, and said incredulously, “Really? Surely we should always be ahead of our students?!” You might think so, but isn’t one of the joys of science that it’s always advancing? How sad it would be if some of our students weren’t ahead of us, their teachers!
Isn’t one of the joys of science that it’s always advancing? How sad it would be if some of our students weren’t ahead of us, their teachers!
Imagine what it must have been like to be Stephen Hawking’s supervisor. Frightening in one sense to see before you a young man with new ideas about gravitational singularity theorems – black holes to you and me (I got that from Wikipedia in case you thought I was a closet cosmologist at heart!). But it must have been so exciting to experience new ideas formulating in front of you.
Now, you might say nothing like that is likely to happen in veterinary medicine, and what I’m going to tell you is not, I guess, a Stephen Hawking experience, but at his interview, I knew Andrew (not his real name for fear of embarrassing him) was going to be exciting to teach.
I must admit that interviews at Cambridge – or mine at least – are for students to see if they will enjoy the sort of instruction they get there. Hard work, for sure, stretching them to really think about the subject, but exciting too. But they’re also for me – to see if I will enjoy teaching them over the next six years. Can they be inspired by me, and will they excite me too? Because education is a team effort, really, with input from the student and the lecturer, not just the transfer of information from one to the other. That “banking” style of pedagogy was first exposed by Paolo Friere 50 years ago but sadly is still seen all too often today.
Education is a team effort, really, with input from the student and the lecturer, not just the transfer of information from one to the other
But back to Andrew: at the end of his first year, he came to me, saying he thought he should change to natural sciences. I managed to persuade him that the opportunities in veterinary science were tremendous and that the wide foundation the subject would give him would be a great basis for a future scientific career. Thankfully, he agreed to stay with the veterinary course.
In his third year, when students can focus on one particular area, he chose pathology, as I had done 40 years ago (yikes – was it really that long ago?!). He worked with the transmissible tumour group at the Cambridge vet school, studying transmissible venereal tumours in dogs. Not the sort of thing you can easily chat about at a cocktail party, but I guess Andrew probably managed to!
Work over the next four years led to the ground-breaking discovery that mitochondria can move from one cell (in this case, one from the tumour) to another (here, one from the host dog). Nobody had ever shown that or even thought it might be possible before. So, a few weeks before qualifying as a vet, Andrew had his name on a key paper in Nature Communications, a journal far beyond anything I’d hope to have a publication in. (One to look at if you fancy an interesting read!)
Work over the next four years led to the ground-breaking discovery that mitochondria can move from one cell […] to another
And where was Andrew headed? To some high-powered academic institute? Well, truth be told, he is now completing a PhD with the Oxford Vaccine Group, working on a topic that stretches my brain trying to understand it. But to start with, he moved to be a vet in the Outer Hebrides for his first year as a graduate.
The stories he tells of veterinary medicine on the isles are, on one hand, hilarious and, on the other, taxing. It’s just what I saw in Andrew at that first interview: a phenomenally intelligent young man with a great heart that seeks to care for animals and their owners. And so, while he works at the cutting edge of science in Oxford, he takes “holidays”, if you can call them that, doing locums in those islands of the Outer Hebrides.
But please don’t think it’s only academic stars like Andrew who excite me about teaching. Looking back since 1996, when I started as a director of studies for the vets at Saint John’s College, I’ve had a huge number of graduates going into all areas of the veterinary sphere, from referral equine practice to lab animal science, but mostly in what you might call pretty standard first opinion small animal practice. But all are caring for the animals they encounter with a passion that inspires and enthrals me. And what better reason for job satisfaction could there be?