PNAS: Alric, Veterinary Pathologist

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Alric, a veterinary pathologist at a drug company)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am toxicologic veterinary pathologist and work at a contract research organization. We use animal models to evaluate the possible toxicity of drugs in development by pharmaceutical or biotech companies. The main goal is to determine if, and at what dose level, a drug is safe.

2) What is your science background?

I earned a bachelor of science degree at the University of Puerto Rico followed by PhD in neuroscience and veterinary doctor degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

3) What led you to this job?

A tortuous path dictated by family, economics and the desire to become both a scientist and veterinarian.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I work at an office with a microscope where I meticulously examine histologic sections of tissues. From this examination I generate a report. Occasionally I supervise and perform post-mortem examinations.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

I read and diagnose histologic sections of tissues. Once a sufficient number of sections have been read I generate a report detailing any possible effects caused by drug candidates. I also participate in designing new studies and help the lab develop procedures that might be required to evaluate new drugs. For example, I developed a commercial immunohistochemistry service.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

An understanding of physiology is very important to understand the cause and mechanism of lesions whenever possible. Also statistics and sampling theory are important to verify and falsify whether a lesion is related to drug administration.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Veterinary school is required followed by residency and graduate education in pathology or related field. There are also military options but they lack an academic degree. At the end of training most veterinary pathologists become board-certified by passing an examination. This examination has historically been very difficult with a 20% or lower passing rate.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

That reality is independent of our wishful thinking or what bring us comfort. Let the data take you to the most probable conclusion even if you don’t like it or appears to not be beneficial. In the end you’ll be better off.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Take into account your personality and what truly brings you joy. Don’t sacrifice other aspects of your life for a proffession! Be prepared for change.

Balance. It is very likely that at the time when you are required to make career decisions you will not know what you actually want. Tend towards what you enjoy; family, writing, research, etc, without absolutely committing to a specific path. Be prepared for change and embrace it.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

Pay in veterinary toxicologic pathology is very good. It is the highest paid veterinary specialty besides a small number of surgery positions. It also has the benefit of good hours and plenty of job opportunities.