AASV Straight Talk
What’s your story?

Everybody has a story. For most swine veterinarians, it begins with childhood roots to a farm and entering veterinary medicine with a food-animal focus. But some had different paths to the swine industry.

From Sandy Amass

“I grew up in Baltimore. We had dogs. There were lots of stray dogs around and the feral cat colonies lived in the sewer system. When I was 7, my mom took me to a farm to see where our food came from. I remember leaving my mom, who was standing out in a field waiting to see a calf born, to explore a corn field and getting very lost. I guess I saw pigs because there is a picture of me looking at some nursery pigs, but I don’t remember this. I do remember that the steaks that night were the best I had ever had! The first time I actually touched a pig was at the Baltimore Zoo at age 21. The pen had a sign on it: ‘Pigs.’

My brother (10 years older than me) decided that he wanted to be a vet. When he told the family, our Uncle Max said, ‘Why do you want to be a nursemaid to a pig?’ My brother is pretty smart so all the schools were after him. I answered the phone once (I wasn’t supposed to) and a man asked to speak to him. I remember yelling for my brother and telling him some guy named Dean was on the phone and his last name was Purdue. Later, I told everyone I was going to be a dog-and-cat surgeon. My brother recommended Purdue, although he ended up going to Florida. At Purdue, we got teaching animals to take care of from day 1. I was assigned two pigs to care for, Bonnie and Clyde. At the end of the year, I had no money and the small animal clinic wasn’t hiring. I asked Dr Michael Hill if he would hire me for the summer and I got a job with the swine group. One day they took me out to a farm and I was hooked. I wasn’t sure how to tell my family that I had decided to specialize in swine, but they are a nice Jewish family so I figured they’d understand.”

From Alex Ramirez

“I grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, which is currently the second largest city in Mexico, with a population of over 5 million people. As I grew up in the city, my uncles had a ranch that was 6 hours away. They raised cattle, especially bullfighting bulls. I always had an interest in agriculture, so I would spend some of my summers out at my uncles’ ranch. My mother is originally from Iowa, so when it was time to start college, I left the big city to come to Iowa State University. At that time I was interested in becoming a livestock producer, especially related to cattle.

When I had my first meeting with my academic advisor, she asked me ‘Are you pre-vet?’ It had not occurred to me. So within seconds I replied to my advisor, ‘Well, yes I am.’ Interesting how life can help guide you on things that now look so obvious, yet at the time it just had not occurred to me. Once I got accepted to veterinary school, I still had an interest primarily in cattle. When I graduated in 1993, I was looking forward to working in a veterinary clinic in rural Iowa with livestock, especially cattle. It was not that I did not like pigs; I just had no experience with pigs.

As I started working in private practice in northwest Iowa, I got a lot of exposure to pigs. The mid-90s were also a time that the industry was moving towards more producer networking, with sow units being the new thing to do. Due to my computer skills and growing interest in swine, our clinic became involved in providing swine management services to our local producers. Over time I became a lot more involved in swine. I believe this was a combination of my new interest, timing, and opportunity, which all created a niche I could take advantage of.”

From Lisa Becton

“How does somebody from Jersey end up working in swine?

I was born and raised in Westfield, New Jersey, then moved to South Florida when I was 10. My father was a Lutheran school principal, so we moved depending on school locations. We eventually ended up moving to North Carolina where I completed my undergraduate and veterinary education. Other than consuming a fair share of pork products, I did not have any swine experience until veterinary school, and even then, it was after my first year that I developed an interest in swine.

The summer after my freshman year, I was hired as student worker for the North Carolina State University Teaching Animal Unit (TAU) farm. In addition to many other food-animal species, TAU had a small swine operation that was used for teaching purposes. As a student worker, I was responsible for the day-to-day care of the animals, including shipment of animals to slaughter. I had two wonderful mentors who encouraged my interest in pigs: Dr Glen Almond and the late Dr Monte McCaw. Dr Almond provided a great experience collecting samples for sow urinary-health research. That research project provided the opportunity to visit representative sow farms of just about every integrator in the state. In addition, Dr McCaw provided an opportunity to work with Pig Champ® data and help to solve some unique abortion issues at several large sow farms. It didn’t hurt that the pork producers we worked with were fantastic to students and treated us like royalty after our farm visits. Those early impressions of great people, interesting problems, and the ability to make a difference to a farm’s bottom line further strengthened my interest in swine medicine. The guidance from Drs Almond and McCaw helped to shape my interest in swine and set the stage for my career path in swine medicine. Do I ever miss working with other species? Not a chance!”

From Allison Meiszberg

“I was raised just south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and had never actually even seen a pig up close until I came to Iowa. Most of the agriculture in that area is dairy oriented, but I had never lived on a farm, nor did I know anything about agriculture. I was always interested in science and medicine, and in high school, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. The only experience I had was with dogs and cats, so I just assumed that those species were the ones I would work with. I chose Iowa State University as my undergraduate institution because of the vet school. During my sophomore year, I obtained a job as a student researcher in the Animal Behavior Lab under Dr Anna Johnson. Her work mainly involves pigs, so that was the species I worked with. Having no prior experience with swine, I was able to get the exposure I needed by working with swine of all ages in all kinds of facilities, and I realized that working with pigs was very suited to my interests. Having not been raised anywhere near pigs, I was nervous that some of the professors in the swine field might become frustrated with my lack of knowledge and experience, but this anxiety was put to rest when I started taking swine classes and becoming more interactive with swine professors and veterinarians. I realized that professionals in the swine field are very receptive to those of us with little swine background, and they were always ready and willing to help. I felt so welcomed by these individuals. They have given me the opportunity to learn and do so many things. Because of the openness and willingness of people to help me, I was able to discover a passion that I never knew I had, and I am certain that swine medicine is the right path for me.”

From Dennis Villani

“How did a kid raised in the suburbs become interested in a career in food-animal medicine? Anyone who knew me as a child was keenly aware of my love and passion for the care of animals. At the age of 12, I began working in a busy urban veterinary practice, where I devoted myself fully to one pursuit – becoming a veterinarian. I was blessed along the way with mentors who shared my love and devotion to animals. They recognized my desire to some day follow their example and often spent extra time teaching and training me in the art and science of veterinary medicine.

While working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee, I was then drawn to a job in an animal-science lab, where I worked as an assistant to a biochemist who needed swine embryos for his research. My work in hands-on breeding of gilts and assisting surgeries in the lab piqued my interest in the science and technology of embryo transfer and artificial insemination. This experience was the springboard to a 19-year career in swine-production medicine.

I have always believed veterinary school prepares students with foundational skills in clinical assessment and problem solving. After entering Washington State University’s veterinary school, I sought out individuals who were recognized leaders in the expanding practice of swine-production medicine. These mentors were invaluable in helping shape me as a swine veterinarian.

I have never considered my nonagricultural background as a disadvantage to veterinary practice. Relying on a strong science-based education and fearless pursuit of challenges, I am not limited by traditional animal-production paradigms. In sharing my story and the influences that shaped me as a veterinarian, my hope is to inspire others emerging from nontraditional backgrounds who also have an interest in pursuing a career in swine-production medicine.”

From Jason Verbeck

“Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.’ Over the past 12 years, this type of luck has helped guide me through a winding path to veterinary medicine. I graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1998 and began my career as a communications officer. In 2002, I earned a Masters in Business Administration degree. At that point, I had 5 years on active duty and was still searching for a true professional passion. With a pre-med background from my undergraduate degree, and no interest in human medicine, veterinary medicine seemed like a viable option. While on active duty for another 3 years, I utilized my spare time to gain exposure in the veterinary profession. Dr Glen Wittnam gave me my first opportunity to shadow a veterinarian and really opened the door for my entrance into the profession.

Food-animal medicine became an interest to me as a result of my childhood experiences growing up in the country around feeder cattle and other agriculture. I was lucky enough to get involved in AASV as a first-year student and quickly realized that the level of mentorship and genuine concern for the ‘next generation’ was second to none in the veterinary profession. Specifically, Dr John Waddell and Dr Craig Rowles provided my first opportunities to learn swine production and medicine. Their mentorship and continued support solidified my interests in swine medicine and directly impacted my decision to seek out employment exclusively as a swine veterinarian. Thanks to them for their selflessness and generosity.”

From Angie Delks

“I had always worked with small animals and knew I didn’t want to do that when I got into veterinary school. I worked in the zoo as an undergraduate doing research and enjoyed that, but knew it was hard to get into that area so I went into veterinary school with an open mind. I met Dr Sandy Amass my first year. I spent the summer working with her, doing research and farm visits. I really enjoyed this and realized it was a perfect fit for me. I then eagerly spent all my free time riding with veterinarians and going to farms to learn the industry. I tracked food animal and focused on pigs. I stayed active in the AASV and student opportunities to form my network. That is what got me where I am today!”

-- Tracy Ann Raef