Member Spotlight - Bieneke Bron: Wildlife Work and (Post) Graduate Studies in the United States
05 February 2017
My nose hairs freeze as I bike along the Monona-bay shore. I am on my way to the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus on a below freezing morning, my face covered with goggles and my studded tires gripping asphalt and ice. It is a writing day. The time has come to summarize four summers of fieldwork and countless hours of lab work in to a PhD thesis.
In the fall of 2012, I started my PhD studies in the United States. This was nearly a year after receiving my DVM and a few months after my planned start date due to funding and grant visa regulations, a common challenge.
The frozen Monona bay in the morning sun with the Madison skyline (credit: Katie Wheeler)
What are the options in the United States if you have a European DVM?
- Practicing veterinarian
- Internship (great opportunity while in vet school too)
- Graduate student: Master or PhD programs
Work as a veterinarian: To work as a licensed veterinarian in the United States, you will need to pass a theoretical exam (North American Veterinary Licensing Exam, NAVLE) and if your vet school is not US accredited you’ll first have to complete an ‘education equivalency certification program’ including practical exams.
Do a residency or internship: In contrast to what you would expect, the residency providing institution sets licensure and examination requirements for their trainees. Thus, you can be a wildlife pathology resident without taking the NAVLE. The American Association of Veterinarians would like you to apply through their matching program, but it is absolutely possible to directly connect to a University or a Wildlife Health laboratory and set up an internship and reach out for a residency.
In vet school, I did a 3-month research internship at the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (USGS-NWHC) after contacting the wildlife pathologist there. Recently, a Utrecht University DVM-student did a summer internship at UW-Madison on a Merial Summer Scholarship.
Become a post-doc: What? Yes, your DVM qualifies you to apply for post-doc positions in the United States (a Dr. is a Dr.). This sounds counter intuitive, however, it can be very beneficial to be hired as a post-doc instead of a graduate student (less paper work, no required classwork and depending on the set up cheaper for the grant but more pay for the post doc) especially when you are communicating with a professor, a wildlife agency or some other entity to create a ‘wildlife position’ for you.
Work on a research degree as a Masters or PhD student: There are many possibilities to become a graduate student in the US. You can apply for open positions; you can contact a professor and even write a research proposal together. However, grad school comes with some challenges, aside from your research; the time to degree is longer than in Europe (e.g. ~5-6 years for a PhD), tuition-fees are high (e.g. ~$25,279 for an academic year as an international non-dissertator at UW-Madison), there are classwork and qualifying exams when pursuing your PhD*, and you are (temporarily) emigrating!
The possibilities for wildlife research are plentiful; conservation of ecosystems and endangered species, wildlife management (mostly because hunting and fishing are major values of many US citizens, thus they value their wild game), wildlife diseases (e.g. CWD, WNS, plague, Sin Nombre Hantavirus, avian influenza, brucellosis) and so on. The options range from hands on in the field, or experiments in the lab, to statistics and modeling.
The Awapa plateau, Utah, with hidden prairie dog burrows and our blue fieldwork truck.
There are many funding opportunities in the US: e.g. federal, state, university, corporate, non-profit. Because you need to prove that you are going to be paid, or that you have secured funds to support yourself for a minimum of one year or the duration of your stay in order to get a visa, you should talk about funding with your ‘host’ early in the conversation.
As a graduate student or post doc, check if you can apply for fellowships, research or teaching assistantships at the University; or if there are funds for international students and visitors. In addition, you can contact the people you want to work with and suggest applying for external funding together (this is a short shortlist):
In the United States
o Morris Animal Foundation (great for DVMs interested in research!)
o NIH / NSF Research funds in which a graduate student or post-doc stipend can be written, however you are a foreigner and you can not apply for federal graduate student training grants
o Specific organizations in your field to support your research: e.g. Lewis & Clark, Global Lyme Association.
In Europe: Google google and google, contact your (old) university’s international office and look for those organizations that want you to pursue international experiences. The EU has several programs, but they are challenging to weed through.
Fulbright: Very prestigious award in the US and it will help you get your next US fellowship. However, the award amount varies per home country, it comes with many administrative hurdles and visa restrictions, thus before applying look into these restrictions.
I decided to return to the US as a graduate student so I could work towards a research degree. In 2012, two Dutch funds (Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and VSB fonds) and Fulbright supported me. This funding led to a NWHC funded 30% research assistantship at the University to get the tuition fee waived, so I could start grad school. In the spring of 2013, the Morris Animal Foundation supported my fellowship for 2-years (D14ZO-412) and our proposed plague vaccine non-target species research for 3-years (D14ZO-031). The NWHC supported me for another year, I took a supporting teaching assistant position and now I am supported by a dissertation completion fellowship from the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with funding from the Shuman Trust.
Plague, Fleas, Mice and Me
During my veterinary internship, I was part of the oral sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV) research in Dr. Tonie Rocke’s lab at the NWHC. The oral vaccine targets prairie dogs (Cynomys spp) and I had the chance to go out to Utah to placebo bait and trap these squirrel-like animals. For a week I had dust in my mouth and heard the coyotes howling at night. The local wildlife biologist explained to me why prairie dogs are keystone species in the grassland ecosystem and how the vaccine will not only protect threatened prairie dogs, but also aids in the re-introduction of the endangered black-footed ferret. He put all the pieces of the puzzle together: humans, cattle grazing (domestic animals and the environment), wildlife, disease and I was blown away! Yep, one health was a pretty new concept at the time and it-unfolded right there, in front of my ‘naive’ eyes. I was determined to return to the prairie and plague research after vet school.
A prairie dog consuming a biomarker colored bait (credit: T.E. Rocke) and on the right my study subjects, the non-target small rodents, a deermice (Peromyscus maniculatus) restraint for sampling (credit: C. Tremper).
Plague can decimate complete prairie dog colonies, but we still don’t fully understand what drives these outbreaks and how the pathogen, Yersinia pestis, survives on the prairie between die-offs. Thus, when the vaccine efficacy trial started in seven US states, I trapped and sampled the other small rodents on 30 paired vaccine and placebo plots on prairie dog colonies for three summers. 1) To learn if vaccine distribution impacts the non-target rodent community and 2) to further assess what the role of the mice and their fleas is in plague ecology?
In 2015 the USGS-led efficacy trial was successfully completed (Rocke et al. In Review) and the photogenic part of my graduate studies was over in the summer of 2016. Now it is time to finish the great graduate school experience and leave the US within 30 days after dissertation completion, on to the next adventure.
Feel free to contact me with any question about the above research or described DVM career options in the US.
Bieneke Bron, PhD candidate* at University of Wisconsin – Madison, working with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center.
The use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
* You are PhD student when you start your PhD, after completing your classwork and your qualifying exams (e.g. general knowledge exam, defense of your research proposal) you become a PhD candidate, a dissertator, and you have ABD-status (all but dissertation).
Photo credit: Sarah Dreitlein