The Veterinary Pathologist
Sitting Down With… Nicola Parry, Independent Veterinary Pathology Consultant at Midwest Veterinary Pathology, Lafayette, Indiana, USA
Michael Schubert | | Interview
What led you to a career in animal health?
Even as a little kid, I always wanted to be a vet. Apparently, I was never the stereotypical little girl who played with dolls – I only wanted animal-related toys! My desire to be a vet stemmed from more than just liking animals, though. I grew up with a granddad who loved animals and gardening, which often led him to find injured animals outside. I’ll never forget watching him warm a hypothermic fledgling. He rigged up his own double boiler system by stacking two pans, added warm water to the lower pan, and placed the bird in a container suspended in the upper one so it would benefit from the warmth below without overheating. His resourcefulness and practicality inspired my interest in becoming a vet.
Why specialize in pathology?
Before starting vet school, I had intended to work with small animals (predominantly dogs and cats) as a general practitioner – but my training opened my eyes to the broad range of specialty areas in which vets can work. I really enjoyed the training and found many areas of interest, including pathology. I had worked in the pathology department before starting vet school and continued to do so in school holiday breaks.
I enjoyed discovering the wide reach that pathology has both within and outside the veterinary profession; it’s a specialty that cements many areas of patient care in daily practice. In addition to its key role in diagnostics, pathology protects and advances both animal and human health – especially through the critical involvement of veterinary pathologists in evaluating the safety of drugs and medical devices, and through their work in public health and One Health initiatives. Pathology also serves as an important link between the basic and clinical sciences.
For me, the best part of my job is knowing how integral it is to patient care and how my daily work interfaces with that of fellow vets and professionals in other disciplines. Veterinary medicine is truly a team sport and, in diagnostic pathology practice, I get to communicate with a range of professionals. On occasions, I might communicate directly with an animal’s owner. And, because I also work in research pathology, I frequently communicate with researchers about their projects.
How has veterinary pathology changed over the course of your career – and how might it continue to evolve?
When I look back over the past 20 years, I think the biggest changes relate to the advances we’ve experienced in science and medicine. Improvements in areas such as genetics, genomics, and proteomics have improved our understanding and diagnosis of many cancers and other diseases. Advances in technology outside the medical field have also affected the practice of pathology. Importantly, digital pathology, or virtual microscopy, has flourished, especially since the commercial introduction of whole-slide imaging (WSI). At the same time, improvements in computational technology and storage have allowed us to efficiently process large WSI datasets.
But we still need to learn a lot about things like the genetics and genomics of animal cancers or the role of epigenetics in animal diseases. I think growing efforts in these areas will allow researchers to develop tools to improve our understanding, and I think this will have significant implications for advancing the use of precision medicine in our animal patients. For example, we have only one targeted cancer therapy available for dogs right now – but no doubt that will change.
Specialized imaging technologies would also benefit our profession. Methods like imaging flow cytometry and histology-directed imaging mass spectrophotometry are currently too expensive for routine use, but they are used in research and may eventually enter the veterinary diagnostic space. Innovations in artificial intelligence will also eventually help to support the work that we do by improving our decision-making in certain areas and helping us work more efficiently.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
This year, I was awarded Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), which is given in recognition of outstanding contributions to the veterinary profession. It’s an amazing honor, and I feel grateful and humbled to have received it.
What has been your most unexpected case?
In the first year of my residency at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, a giraffe at Philadelphia Zoo died unexpectedly. The zoo’s pathologist was out of town, so they called our department and I went with a couple of other residents to help with the postmortem. As you can imagine, performing a postmortem on a giraffe is a little more complicated than performing one on a horse. Although the principles of the examination are the same, the sheer size of the animal requires a supersized, all-hands-on-deck approach. I think we had at least eight people working as a team on that giraffe. And, although we pathologists are very accustomed to using power tools to complete postmortem examinations, an animal the size of a giraffe certainly raises the stakes on that front. Let’s just say this was the first time I’d ever used a chainsaw during an examination!
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