Path to Pathology

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

libby_week6_picWhen an animal at the Zoo or Safari Park is sick, a veterinarian can treat it. But, what if they don’t know what is making the animal sick? What if it dies before they can determine the disease that infected it? This is where the pathologists step in to help.

Now, you’re probably thinking what is a pathologist? Well, pathology is a special branch of veterinary medicine that is focused on diseases. It has two different subsets: clinical and anatomic. Clinical pathologists work with living animals. They determine what is making an animal sick through tissue and blood samples. Anatomic pathologists work with dead animals and use tissue samples to determine what killed an animal. Think of it like this: anatomic pathologists are concerned with population health while clinical pathologists are focused on individual health.

Dr. Jennifer Bernard, an Anatomic Pathology Fellow, explained that her job as a zoo pathologist consists of sitting at her microscope looking at the cells of animals that go through necropsy, a lab where technicians dissect the animals in a way that is somewhat similar to a human autopsy. All animals that die at the Zoo or Safari Park are sent to necropsy so that the technicians can take samples from it and determine cause of death. Dr. Bernard also explained that Zoo pathologists, working with nutritionists, animal care staff, and clinical veterinarians at the Zoo, contribute to public health. Zoo pathology is a very important field. For example, in 2006, there was an outbreak of the West Nile virus in New York, no doctors could diagnosis what it was. Who eventually made the diagnosis? Why, the veterinary pathologists at the local zoo! So, these professionals aren’t only helping the animals at the zoo, they’re helping people, too.

Dr. Bernard has always had an interest in zoos and exotic animals. Her interest in pathology began when she was working on a jaguar project in Brazil. She was helping catch the big cats and put radio collars on them so scientists could track their movements. Dr. Bernard also had the opportunity to work on research in a lab at Cornell University. While in school, she even spent a summer in South Africa working with cheetahs. When we met Dr. Bernard, she explained that earlier in the week she had taken her final test to become a veterinary pathologist, like the bar exam a lawyer takes in order to practice, and passed! Now, she has completed all her schooling and passed all the tests she needs as an anatomic pathologist! She said it was a long road, but it was well worth the effort because she is finally able to help the zoo animals she has been fascinated with since she was young.

Dr. Sabrina McGraw, is an Anatomic Pathology Resident. She works with Dr. Bernard and is only a year away from becoming a pathologist! Like Dr. Bernard, she works in necropsy and spends most of her time at her microscope looking at cells. Dr. McGraw grew up loving horses and aspiring to become veterinarian. She went to the University of Florida where she majored in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and minored in Zoology and Chemistry. While in school, she had the opportunity to work on many projects, including a project involving black bears. The biggest danger to black bears is cars. When the bears cross the street in search of food or shelter they may wander in front of cars. Dr. McGraw worked with other scientists to track the movements of the bears and determine popular crossing areas. Once they found the crossing areas they were able to help place corridors under the road so the bears could cross the street without coming in contact with cars. Working on this project sparked Dr. McGraw’s interest in pathology. She enjoyed being able to help not only individual bears but the black bear population as a whole.

Dr. McGraw found population health fulfilling and wanted to work in pathology, but she still wasn’t quite sure. So, she went to work for a crime lab. In the lab they tested samples from racing dogs and horses to look for drugs, ensuring that no animal had an unfair advantage or was harmed. When that job was over, she decided to train as an EMT. She quickly discovered that it wasn’t for her and she left to work on different projects. She worked on a project trapping shore birds and testing them for avian influenza. Another project that she was involved in focused on white-tailed deer and different viruses that affect them. Dr. McGraw decided to go back to school to become a pathologist. She went to the University of California at Davis for three years and is now in her residency. Soon, she will take her test like Dr. Bernard and become a pathologist.

The road to becoming a pathologist is long and can be difficult but Dr. McGraw and Dr. Bernard have braved the difficult path and come out triumphant! Dr. Bernard (and soon Dr. McGraw) has joined the selective world of zoo pathology. There are only approximately 25 zoo pathologists total in the United States, and the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are lucky enough to have 5 of the 25 on their payroll.

Pathologists at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are essential to maintaining the health of collection animals. By looking at samples from animals that died on site, they can determine if the other animals are in danger of infection. Without Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw, a disease that entered the Zoo could be detected too late. Though the path to pathology is long and difficult it is well worth the rewards.

Libby, Career Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014