Why do you do what you do?
I was born in Mexico City, but from a young age I liked open spaces. When I was 8 years old, my family moved to the south of the city, where it was less populated. Around my home were corn fields, with cattle and sheep grazing openly everywhere, owned mainly by small producers who milked 10 to 50 cows. On Saturdays, an open market sold farm animals, from donkeys to cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and hens.
After finishing college, I applied to the veterinary school at the National University of Mexico. At that time, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had a postgraduate program, and many of my professors were veterinarians returning with masters or PhD degrees from universities all around the world, so I got a first-quality veterinary education. As a student, I was invited by Dr Aline Shunemann to join the pathology department, where she was head. Under her supervision and example, I not only learned pathology, but developed an interest in understanding why animals become sick and die, and a willingness to accept challenges. Nothing is true unless you can prove it. Teaching young veterinarians has been my passion.
Originally, I wanted to be a large-animal veterinarian working with cattle, but eventually I found swine medicine more challenging, and it became my specialty. When I finished my veterinary degree (DVM), I received a scholarship to study pathology at the Royal Veterinary College in England. I graduated with a master’s degree, studying central nervous system (CNS) lesions in experimental cytomegalovirus infection in piglets, comparing the lesions with those caused by other swine viruses. This experience later helped me to identify a new CNS swine pathogen, “blue eye paramyxovirus.” You need to be prepared to recognize and understand something new and different.
When I returned to Mexico, the ministry of agriculture was opening regional diagnostic laboratories to form a network covering different regions of the country, and I applied for a position as pathologist at the central diagnostics laboratory. Research was my life. I wanted to understand how infectious and non-infectious agents act to produce disease. Sometimes I would wake up at night with the answer to my questions or with the diagnosis I was looking for.
Since I graduated, many new pathogens have appeared, and some that had been considered opportunists have become recognized as important pathogens. I learned how production systems modified the behavior of some pathogens, and how swine veterinary professionals had moved from clinical practice to swine production. We needed to learn new skills and understand the importance of production practice and the environment on disease control and prevention. I have had many challenges, but the most important one has been porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus: it always has the last word. Just when you think that you know how to control it, something new happens. While it is surprising how much information we achieved in a short time to understand this disease, some questions still need to be answered to control and eradicate PRRS. In my opinion, a good vaccine (heterologous, potent, innocuous, and effective) and a test that allows differentiation of antibodies from natural infection and antibodies of vaccination are still pending.
Over time, Cristina, my best partner in life, married me and we raised four great kids. We wanted to give them the opportunity to follow their dreams, so I had to leave my research at the university to get the resources to send them to university. The most difficult decision in my life was leaving my research and my students at the university, but family is first.
I became an international consultant on disease control and swine production, which gave me the opportunity to visit most of the world’s swine production areas and to enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. By comparing production systems in different environments and seeing the work of other professionals, my learning experience was continuing.
I have had the opportunity to participate in professional organizations, including the Mexican Swine Veterinary Association, the International Pig Veterinary Society (where I am past president), and the AASV (where I recently served as District 10 representative). All this has given me a sense of pride in being part of a great profession. Taking part in the AASV has helped me to grow and learn. It is an excellent, well-organized swine veterinary association, by far the largest in the world. The AASV participates in swine production and disease control, working alongside researchers, producers, and government agencies, keeping lines of communication open with the public and helping to make the best use of information in any problem or situation that arises. The association’s constant support of research and efforts to encourage a new generation of veterinarians will guarantee the long life of this association.
Alberto Stephano, DVM, MSc
International Swine Consultant