Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Veterinary Medicine -- The much loved, but underappreciated cousin in the STEM family

On LinkedIn, some fantastic veterinarians and thought leaders are discussing a really interesting topic -- how to increase diversity in veterinary medicine.  Among other active interventions, it was suggested that we increase the exposure that the profession gets among under-represented minorities in the United States in an effort to help them come through the pipeline. Some unique programs in this direction have already taken off.  Check out what they do at Purdue University and at People, Animals, Love

While principally in agreement with this strategy and appreciative of programs as well-planned as the two linked above, I am not always sure that this is the most efficient, universal, long-term strategy to guarantee inclusiveness in our profession.  Sure, I worry about the lone, racial minority or ethnic vet-wannabe kid growing up isolated, suffocating and trapped in a culture that values a degree in medicine, dentistry, law, pharmacy, engineering, business administration, accounting (yes, even accounting!)  before it values a degree in veterinary medicine, -- in other words a redux of my teen years -- but I worry that too many localized resources invested towards a distant outcome with an unknown probability may not be necessarily defensible (if using public funding) or self-sustaining (if not using public funding).  (How precarious funding can get is something I have picked up from my days studying environmental education programs.)  In lean times, the best we can hope for, and strategize, is to join hands with other groups working towards increasing minority representation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects and streamline efforts.    
However, in this post I necessarily step away from the good work of leading, avant-garde local efforts, and attempt to raise questions on the profession's (abysmal) publicity in the larger, over-arching society -- i.e., exposure outside of targeted, localized efforts to attract and retain exceptional individuals from minority backgrounds; exposure that can guide exceptional individuals with leadership qualities from all backgrounds at all stages of a career in veterinary medicine.  More precisely, I have been thinking about why it is that we don't seem to receive, and benefit from, mainstream media attention the same way that mainstream professions get exposure.  Leaders and high-profile people from other professions -- politicians, doctors, researchers, lawyers, writers, economists, investment advisors -- manage to become household names and get more and more exposure with each passing day.  This must surely have some dampening effect on exceptional incoming cohorts of future students as well as on those of us who have already chosen this profession? 

For example, I would love to read (and pass on) career-advice columns from veterinary leaders to my friends in software and management fields the same way they casually send me article links from their worlds. I want to profile-watch people closer to my heart and profession than the mainstream ones I get accustomed to recognizing on TV, facebook, newspapers and magazines.  I would love to discuss who is the latest woman veterinary leader who says 'women can't have it all' and dissect why she is right (or wrong).  I want to get a glimpse of the early careers of the veterinary leaders and heroes I know about -- what difficulties did they encounter? What sacrifices, if any, did they make? What decisions did they take at crucial points that led them to where they are today?   

Perhaps not everyone is comfortable talking about setbacks along with their successes, but somehow there seems to be a market (speaking / talk-show circuit, book deals) for such information when they are from the banking, corporate management or tech world.  Where are the Sheryl Sandbergs/Anne-Marie Slaughters; the Arianna Huffingtons/Katrina vanden Heuvals; the Sanjay Guptas/Francis Collins of our veterinary medical world?  

Will a teen who hopes to be the first one ever to go to college in her household easily identify, idolize someone -- a contemporary, universal icon -- who has made a career out of working with/for animals?  Did I, as the first female to go to college in my family and second only to my father, recognize any veterinary public figures or know any close enough to be mentors? Answer: No.  (Just as I did a couple of decades ago growing up in India, James Herriott and Jane Goodall are the only universal ‘animal people’ names that friends' kids come up with when I quiz them now.)  This is partly the reality of our outside world -- kids believe and affirm that they love our profession, but media-industry adults with an eye on ratings don't see fit to promote us.  Perhaps, we are not captivating or charismatic enough.  But have they ever met our very own charming, gracious and articulate Dr. Karen Bradley?  Did they give a bigger chance (exposure, if you will) to Drs. Baxter Black and Kevin Fitgerald -- celebrities in their own right?  Do they know who is America's Favorite Veterinarian this year?  How do we rectify this under-appreciation, this lack of recognition, given our limited resources? 
How do we identify and promote the names and profiles of the top 100 veterinarians in global veterinary history?
How do we ensure that at least the top 10 become household names?  (Here you can find one list although it is missing other well-known namesIf you type in 'Legends' as a keyword search on the AVMA website, you will find these profiles.)
How do we ensure that at least one veterinarian is mentioned among the 'Healing, Feeding and Educating the World' category of Forbes list of 'The World's Most Powerful People?'
 And if we are successful in doing all this, will we also necessarily have to make further specific efforts to attract a diverse group of applicants as well as future leaders? (Perhaps yes, but that would be for different reasons and not for lack of exposure…) 

Yet, despite all my passionate questioning, there's a voice inside me that simultaneously wonders, 'Why must we try to be mainstream?  Why should we compete for visibility with other professions?  Isn't there a reason why veterinarians, as a distinct demographic group, and the veterinary profession are unique?'   

But those are, perhaps, questions to be answered another day.