By the time you read this, I’ll have finished interviewing our prospective vet students at St John’s, Cambridge. Hopefully, I’ll have given some mustard-keen applicants a place to study with us, but sadly I’ll have to have rejected a fair few others – they’ll find places in other vet schools or colleges within Cambridge, I’m sure. So now I can let you into the secret of what I’m looking for in a prospective vet. What would you be aiming to choose given we have 10 times as many candidates as we have places?
We have a hard-core physiologist interviewing the young people first, asking them basic science questions that I must admit I’d have difficulty answering. I make sure a vet is interviewing with him, a brilliant neurologist who is in the middle of some amazing research on circadian rhythms in animals. Then they get to interview with me. I’m delighted to have as my co-interviewer a vet who was a student of mine more years ago than either of us would care to remember, who is now a small animal vet in a practice close to Cambridge. She teaches our first years their anatomy in small groups, so she knows what we are looking for on the science side. But she also has a great understanding of what makes a good practising vet. I ask again – what would you be aiming to see in a prospective student?
How well an A-level student knows their biology, chemistry or physics reflects more on how well their school teaches them than the fire burning within them, to my mind at least
To me it’s not so much what they know – it’s our job to teach them that once they get here. Indeed, how well an A-level student knows their biology, chemistry or physics reflects more on how well their school teaches them than the fire burning within them, to my mind at least. No, I’m looking for enthusiasm and a longing to learn. These students will have six years of taking in information, from the first biochemistry lecture on blood glucose control to the final practical they do on equine lameness. If they aren’t passionate about learning and gaining knowledge that will help them care for and cure animals, they will have a really difficult time studying veterinary medicine. But if right from the start they can revel in learning new information, in seeing how it relates to the animals they are aiming to treat, then every day offers new doors to open.
Let’s go back to that first lecture on diabetes in the MIMS course. “MIMS?” you may ask, “What’s that?” In my days at Cambridge – and I now teach in St John’s in the same room I was taught in back in 1983 – we had classes in biochemistry, physiology and anatomy. These days everything has to be encompassed in an acronym. So biochemistry becomes “MIMS”: molecules in medical sciences. Physiology is “HOM”, for homeostasis, and anatomy has become “VAP” for veterinary anatomy and physiology.
If they aren’t passionate about learning and gaining knowledge that will help them care for and cure animals, they will have a really difficult time studying veterinary medicine
What’s new in diabetes, you might ask? Well, velagliflozin, of course! You might know it better as Senvelgo, a sodium-glucose co-transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitor that is set to revolutionise the management of diabetes in cats. I’m looking forward to working through how it functions next term with our first years. We’ll talk about how the drug works by blocking glucose reabsorption in the kidney, of course, but I always like to give a bit of a historical slant to our discussions too.
Back in 1835, French chemists isolated phlorizin from the bark of apple trees. They thought it might have the same anti-inflammatory properties as salicylic acid from willow bark, but they soon realised that it produced glycosuria rather than reducing pyrexia. When they gave it to dogs it produced not only glycosuria but also polyuria and weight loss, just like naturally occurring diabetes. In fact, physiologists and medics at the turn of the 20th century mistakenly thought that diabetes was a kidney complaint. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Banting and Best showed through their research in pancreatectomised dogs that the primary problem was in the pancreas, not the kidneys.
While their lecturers might concentrate on human biochemistry and physiology (the vets have many lectures with the medical students), a huge amount of research first used animals
At this stage, I like to point out to the students that while their lecturers might concentrate on human biochemistry and physiology (the vets have many lectures with the medical students), a huge amount of research first used animals. So much of what they learn about problems in people is immediately applicable to our veterinary patients.
So, back to cats and diabetes. When the condition is due to reduced production of insulin, as in human type 1 diabetes (which is similar to the condition in dogs), just getting them to wee out more glucose is pointless – the problem is that not enough glucose is getting into the cells as they haven’t got the insulin which normally acts as a growth factor. But in cats, where the condition is generally due to insulin resistance akin to type 2 diabetes in people, hyperglycaemia is a key problem. Therefore removing excess blood glucose through glycosuria works perfectly.
If I can show the students that learning can be such fun, hopefully they can increase their enjoyment of lecture after lecture and hours of reading in the library
Now you might be wondering why I’m so excited by all this – surely ophthalmology is my primary passion?! It’s simple really: just finding out about a new area of veterinary medicine that I knew nothing about is really thrilling. If I can show the students that learning can be such fun, hopefully they can increase their enjoyment of lecture after lecture and hours of reading in the library. And hopefully, in the next few days of interviews I’ll find students who already show that enjoyment of learning too!