Pathology: The Coolest Science You’ve Never Heard Of

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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!

wesley_4There are hundreds upon hundreds of different careers at the San Diego Zoo. Although the basic duties, responsibilities, and missions amongst these careers vary, each and every one requires challenging work and tremendous determination. In spite of this however, some careers ultimately seem more glamorous than others. The Zoo is undeniably a beautiful place, but it takes more than just the beauty and spectacle that keeps visitors entertained to maintain the health and prosperity of the collection. And, as opposed to taking care of animals while they are still alive, taking care of them when they’re dead is about as far from “glamorous” as you can get at the Zoo.

This is what veterinary pathologists Jenny Bernard, a pathology fellow, and Andrew Cartoceti, a pathology resident, do on a daily basis behind the scenes at the San Diego Zoo. Pathology, the study of diseases and viruses, is vital to maintaining the health of every single collection found at the Zoo. Through their work studying various tissue samples from dead animals in the collection and figuring out the specific causes of their death, diseases are prevented, diets are perfected, and most issues that have the potential to rise within a specific collection are averted. Despite the lack of recognition that veterinary pathologists receive from the general public, without these brilliant individuals, many animals would have suffered the same fates as their sick companions.

For the general public, the Zoo is a place for observing live animals; therefore, most visitors don’t consider what becomes of them after death. However, when an animal dies at the Zoo, regardless of whether it’s part of the collection or a wild animal, the process it undergoes is extensive and complex. First, it goes to the necropsy department, or the “animal autopsy” department. In this department, dead animals are examined with care for any external or internal proof of disease. We visited this department and witnessed an autopsy on a duck. It wasn’t pretty, but through the examinations, an official cause of death was recorded. So, after examination, if the cause of death is clear by observation, then the case is over. If the cause of death is disease, virus, or unidentifiable by plain examination, then the case goes to next department, histology. In the histology department, microscopic slides are prepared with tissue samples from the dead animals. We visited Histology and prepared slides of our own using Tic-Tacs as a substitute for animal tissue. We placed the Tic-Tacs in small containers and filled them with hot wax. Once they dried, our slides were complete. So, once the tissue slides are complete, they are sent to the pathology department. In pathology, the slides are analyzed meticulously in search of cell mutations, foreign bacteria, or viruses. Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti presented a power-point on the science of Pathology in general and then on three separate example cases which described the different steps in solving them. The analyzing process is often painstaking, long, and difficult for pathologists. However, if the cause of death is found and addressed, this knowledge can often be used to further prevent the same fate from spreading to the rest of the collection.

Although it isn’t recognized as frequently as most animal related careers, veterinary pathology is a brilliant science for brilliant individuals. First, it requires years of schooling in college, veterinary school, and a residency program. Grades are very important during this time because of the intense competition for available spots. After passing a grueling test, you can then become a pathologist. In order to get to this point though, you will have had to master mathematics, laboratory skills(i.e. microscope familiarity, slide analyzing), the basic anatomy of practically every animal species on earth, problem solving, the ability to work and cope under intense pressure and frustration, and in the end, the ability to admit that the problem can’t be solved. All of these traits together are not just encouraged, but necessary to maintaining a career in pathology, which, in my personal opinion, makes people who have or strive for this career my role models.

Death, in practically all of its forms, is tragic. Yet, despite this tragedy, it’s a common, unavoidable part of being alive. Veterinary Pathology serves as an unknown savior for all animals in the zoo. It’s a bittersweet science, and although it deals directly with death, its ultimate purpose is to assist, praise, and ensure life. So, next time you’re visiting the Zoo, don’t forget to acknowledge the efforts of necropsy, histology, and pathology to make the Zoo the beautiful and prestigious place that it is every day.

Wesley, Real World Team
Fall 2014