Path to Pathology

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

Dawn_W5_picThe interns had the pleasure to meet Megan McCarthy, D.V.M., this week. Dr. McCarthy is a Resident Zoological Pathologist at the Zoo’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories, and works mostly in the Clinical Pathology Lab. Pathology is a branch of veterinary medicine, what Dr. McCarthy calls the study of the “essential nature” of a disease. This “essential nature” is basically how a disease functions and how it might affect the subject, zoological pathology being the study of the nature of diseases in animals specifically.

Dr. McCarthy’s job at the Zoo is mostly puzzle solving; her goal is to figure out how a deceased animal died. She and the rest of her team go about this by looking at the past clinical history of the animal, conducting necropsies, analyzing tissue samples (also known as histology), analyzing blood work, etc. Sometimes the cause of death may be obvious during the necropsy, like in the case of an obstructed gastrointestinal tract. However, most of the time, Dr. McCarthy and her associates must go through a long process of deductive reasoning to figure out what went wrong with the animal.

The Wildlife Disease Laboratories not only find the cause of death for a wide variety of the Zoo’s animals, from tiny frogs to elephants, but also native animals that were found deceased in areas surrounding the Zoo. The reason for this is to monitor any diseases present in wildlife that may potentially affect animals within the Zoo.

Zoological pathology is a very specialized field, so there is really no structured academic path to zoological pathology. There are only about 25 full-time zoological pathologists working at zoos in the United States. Dr. McCarthy actually earned her first degree in economics at Yale University as an undergraduate, and then realized she had distaste for working in the field after graduating. She then decided to go to veterinary school at North Carolina State University, with the goal of becoming a zoo veterinarian. While at vet school, Dr. McCarthy learned about and fell in love with pathology and histology. She was able to obtain a residency here at the Zoo through University of California, Davis, and she will soon be taking the Board Exam to officially become a specialist in zoological pathology.

Most of Dr. McCarthy’s work is spent in front of a microscope, which is her favorite part of her job. Dr. McCarthy especially loves histology because she is able to see a “snapshot” of an animal’s life in just a small tissue sample.She also does monthly rounds to check in with keepers, veterinarians, and other staff. Dr. McCarthy also regularly conducts necropsies, in which she examines deceased animals and collects small tissue samples of all of the organs to analyze. By analyzing tissue samples, Dr. McCarthy and her colleagues can identify any diseases in the animal, such as chytrid fungus, an epidemic among amphibians that has caused massive population declines and even extinctions.

If you’re looking into a future in zoological pathology, Dr. McCarthy says that zoos aren’t your only option. Many zoological pathologists also work in education and academia, diagnostic laboratories, and research. Dr. McCarthy’s work at the Zoo is important not only to San Diego Zoo’s animals, but to other zoo animals as well as wildlife around the world. Understanding and treating diseases such as chytrid fungus, is crucial for global conservation efforts and combating population decline.

Dawn, Careers Team
Week Five, Fall 2015