The unconventional path: Meet veterinary student Alyson Brown
Alyson Brown’s path to the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) was not a conventional one. Growing up just outside of Saint John, New Brunswick, Brown always knew she wanted to help people whether through human or animal medicine. It wasn’t until she was well into her undergraduate degree at the University of New Brunswick Saint John that she had an opportunity to work with Dr. Jim Kieffer, a fish physiologist, who specializes in shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon.
“I instantly fell in love with fish,” says Brown. “Dr. Kieffer showed me all of the exciting and fascinating things about fish including physiology, biology, and behaviour. I knew that was what I wanted to do, whether it was becoming a researcher or veterinarian or both.”
Brown had grown up with a family friend who owned a veterinary clinic, and as a child, she spent many hours playing with the cats and dogs and in the process learning more about veterinary medicine. In high school, she worked at the clinic part-time, something she continued to do throughout her undergraduate studies.
“I just knew that working with animals was what I wanted to do,” explains Brown. “I felt that focusing on fish and small animals could be a lovely combination.”
So, she set her sights on AVC’s highly competitive doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) program. The College is one of five veterinary colleges in Canada and the only institution offering a DVM program in Atlantic Canada.
The power of persistence
“I had to apply four times before I was accepted at AVC, but I knew that was what I wanted so I just kept trying,” says Brown. “I saw every unsuccessful application as an opportunity to gain experience and knowledge, and to enhance my skills.”
Part of enhancing her skills was moving to PEI and earning her master of science degree from UPEI. Brown studied under Dr. Mark Fast, professor of fish health and immunology, and chair of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at AVC.
In the fall of 2018, Brown’s persistence paid off, and she officially became a veterinary student at AVC. But as she was completing her second year, her unconventional path to AVC became an unconventional path at AVC when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the world ground to a halt.
“It was a scary and strange time for students for many reasons. Being a vet student is demanding and requires a lot of hands-on learning so adapting to an at-home learning environment was intimidating and a huge learning curve,” she says.
“But AVC is like a family, and the faculty and staff supported us the best way they could in such challenging times. There was an overall sense of caring, understanding, and compassion about how the student experience had changed. They really tried to make our experience as exciting, unique, and positive as they could.”
Together though apart
Brown’s classmates were forced to adapt during a critical time of their education. Third-year is the time when DVM students learn surgical skills like spaying and neutering and other technical hands-on skills like drawing blood. It is a time when students can become confident in their physical competence and exams.
“It’s one thing to suture at home, but it’s another to do it in-person where you feel the pressure of being watched by an instructor who is offering feedback. We were nervous that we might lose those skills or be delayed,” says Brown. “But AVC found a way to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, keep us safe, and still hold in-person labs up to two times per week. It ensured that we would still develop our competencies in those skills and not fall behind in our education.”
Now a fourth-year student, Brown is immersed in clinical rotations, and she is happy she never gave up on her goal of being a DVM student.
“I love it because veterinary medicine is so diverse—you aren’t just the doctor. You are also the pharmacist, the radiologist, the counsellor, and so much more. You truly get to do it all, and every day is different.”
She is still unsure what the future holds for her, but she is interested in diagnostics—specifically bacteriology, virology, parasitology, or aquatic veterinary medicine. As for her unconventional path? She wouldn’t change it even if she could.
“I am grateful it took me as long as I did to get into the AVC. I gained more knowledge and life experience that helped me become more prepared for the program and how to handle the twists and turns in life. Now, I can’t imagine it any other way.”