Vet Research – What IS it exactly?

vet, researcherThere appears to be some confusion out there as to what exactly ‘veterinary research’ is, something that has become apparent through reviewing UCAS personal statements for prospective vets. Here I hope to provide a helpful overview so that it is clearer what we actually mean by scientific research, of which veterinary research forms a part.

The main points about what we mean by scientific research are:

1. It is the application of scientific method to gather data with which to test hypotheses and attempt to explain the natural world.

2. There is a generally accepted ‘method’ by which research is carried out, with the first step being the identification of a problem, followed by a literature review, in which the investigator identifies flaws or holes in the previous research which then justifies the need for further research. Designing the study then involves posing specific research questions, designing experiments to generate the required data, collecting said data and then analysing it, before interpreting, reporting and evaluating the study’s findings.

3. Scientific publication is the submission of original research, or possibly a review based based on and drawn from original experimental studies, to a journal, such as Nature or Science, whereby the paper is reviewed and critiqued by your scientific peers. This is a vital part of the scientific process as it lends credibility to research and the resultant findings and conclusions. If the reviewers feel that there are holes in the method or the analysis, interpretation and discussion of the findings fall short of the high standards understandably expected then they will reject the paper for publication in that specific journal. The scientist – note that most scientific research, and the papers that result, are very often collaborative, by which there is usually more than one author, albeit with one acting as ‘lead’ author – then has the option of submitting the paper to another journal for consideration, either tweaking, adding or otherwise ‘improving’ the paper or simply submitting it in its original form. This process can be extremely frustrating and drawn out for those on the front line of advancing our understanding of the world, but it is a vital process and is infinately preferable to the alternative, which is to simply be allowed to ‘publish’ whatever you like without any pause for serious thought about the methods, data and findings of studies.

Vets’ Roles

Vets are incredibly important to scientific research as a whole, with many working in fields that do not necessarily have a direct, obvious link to animals, but which nonetheless increase our understanding of medicine, science and the natural world as a whole. Learning research skills and understanding the process is a very important part of a vet’s training as the skills learned are applicable to all aspects of veterinary, whether conducting original research yourself or increasing your knowledge through the reading, assessment and understanding of journals, whether primary papers (eg Nature) or the veterinary press, such as the Vet Times. Scientific research training nurtures and develops the curious nature of vets and the ability to ask sensible questions, consider methods and ultimately judge outcomes and conclusions on their relative merits. Intercalation offers vet students an incredible opportunity to really delve into original research in a specific field, and any vet who has intercalated would agree that their understanding of science and it’s methods are greatly enhanced during this year.

I hope this has gone some way to clear up the question of what exactly scientific research is and if you have an interest in learning more then I recommend following this link to Wikipedia’s explanation.

To Blog or Not to Blog: That is the Vetty Question.

Chris the Nerdy Vet & his laptopI was recently asked about blogging by a prospective vet student and whether it is something that is advised to do in the lead-up to an application to vet school. A number of students, for whom I have been reviewing UCAS statements for vet school applications, have included a link to a blog of their experiences during work experience placements and their thoughts on a variety of matters relevant to their application. The questions that instantly spring to mind are:

 

 

1. Will it increase your chances of successfully being called for interview?

2. How can you go about contributing to ‘the blogosphere?’

The answer to the first question is, in my opinion, NO. I do not for a second believe that including a link or address to an online blog about anything in your UCAS statement will impact in any way on your being selected by the admissions tutor to attend an interview or be offered a place. This is for two main reasons:

a) The vast majority of admissions tutors that I know barely have enough time to stop for loo breaks between reading one statement after another, especially as they all come streaming in towards the October 15th deadline, and so the notion that they are going to have the time to indulge in clicking through or otherwise navigating to and reading additional material not directly included in your statement is hugely optimistic. All you are likely to achieve is to waste your precious character limit when you could use it to reflect on a lesson learned during one of your experiences. It is this sort of information that vet schools want to see in statements; not hyperlinks and computer code. Incidentally, the UCAS website makes no reference to including hyperlinks in your statement in their guide to writing yours. I suggest that this is because it is not worth doing so and in fact the system may even inactivate hyperlinks before statements are sent out to universities as a security precaution, again rendering an inclusion of one pointless.

b) Although the universities access your submitted statements electronically, many admissions tutors will choose to read yours in printed form. Can you imagine spending hours per day staring at a screen and reading page after page of small text? It would wreck your eyes! You can see, therefore, why the admissions tutors would be more likely to want to read printed statements. The immediate problem with this of course is that your fantastically well written link to your wonderfully interesting and insightful blog is, well, just a line of inactive text. It is very very unlikely in this situation that a tutor would then manually type out your link to view its contents.

The take home message here is that if you are under the impression that starting, writing and then providing a link or reference to a blog is going to give you an edge over other applicants then I suggest you think again and instead focus on writing a really strong, reflective, well structured and grammatically correct statement that does not rely on external content to support it.

If, of course, you just want to start a blog for your own interest and those who are likely to view it, then by all means go ahead and get blogging. The fact is that blogging is great fun and a really effective way of communicating ideas and sharing content with others. As a means of recording your experiences whilst on veterinary placements then it is, I guess, the modern day equivalent of the classic diary, albeit with the ability of the world to peer into its pages. One note of caution, however, on recording the details of your various experiences on placements: be certain that you are not going to be compromising data protection or the trust of the vets, nurses and clients that you are gaining privileged access to by publishing information online. This could get you into hot water and, in all seriousness, wreck any chance you have of being offered that coveted place at vet school that you want. If you apply careful thought, however, then blogging can be an awesome activity so go for it.

How do I start blogging?

Good question. There are numerous blogging options available to you from simply writing and sharing notes on, say, Facebook, to signing up for a ‘proper’ blog, such as WordPress, which is free to use*. Other services include Tumblr, Blogger, TypePad, and many many more – a simple search for ‘blogging services’ reveals the plethora of options.

Happy blogging and I hope you have found this post helpful. Feel free to leave any comments below (another advantage of blogging) 🙂

 

* WordPress.com is where you can get yourself a free, hosted blog, meaning that you do not have to worry about paying for, hosting and setting up the software on a dedicated domain (eg ‘i want to be a vet.com’). The alternative option is to go to WordPress.org, where you can download the software for free, but you will then have to put your hand in your pocket to get yourself a domain, as described above. This blog, for example, runs on WordPress hosted on my own dedicated domain, which I pay for each year.

Vet News – What’s Occuring?

Vet NewsWe had a little break for a month – a summer holiday, if you like – but we’re now back with some interesting articles and happenings that should be of great interest to anyone preparing for vet school interviews, or just wishing to explore what is topical in the world of animals right now.

As usual, our super team of Vet News Editors have delved into the top topics this month and have brought you the most interesting selection of news titbits and general interest articles to get your teeth into. As ever, enjoy!

 

FARMING

Foot and Mouth Disease

Els de Vrijer (Vet News Farm Editor)

 

 

 

Two-day ruptured vesicle on a steer with FMD

Farmers all over the U.K. have been urged to “not be complacent” as a Middle Eastern Foot and Mouth outbreak has spread closer to Europe. The disease broke out in Egypt and Libya in February this year, and has now been reported to have spread to the Gaza Strip, right on the border of Egypt. Jef Hammond, head of the Foot and Mouth Disease World Reference Laboratory stated it was only a “small step” from Turkey; a country which would provide the disease with a gateway into Europe.

FMD lesions on the feet of a pig

The disease is caused by a virus, of which there are seven types. This particular strain, the SAT-2 strain, is usually found in sub-Saharan African countries, and is new to Egypt. This means the livestock there have absolutely no immunity. There are few routine quarantine regulations in African countries, meaning that the disease spreads rapidly; for many already poor farmers in Africa it has been devastating, as the only method of foot and mouth prevention is slaughter.

The United Kingdom suffered from outbreaks in 2001 and 2007, which resulted in devastating losses for farmers across the country. This acute infectious disease is easily spread, from fluid in the blisters that is causes, through saliva, milk, faeces and blood as well as through the air. Clinical signs are blisters around the mouth, loss of appetite and milk yield as a result, and foot pain or sudden lameness.

References:

http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/a-z/foot-and-mouth/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17510661
http://www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/14/08/2012/134493/Farmers-urged-to-be-vigilant-as-foot-and-mouth-spreads.htm

 

Further spread of SBV predicted as virus is confirmed to have survived the winter

Emma Plowright (Vet News Farm Editor)

lambsCome lambing season last year, the newly emerged Schmallenberg virus was in the veterinary limelight as farms across east and south Britain were affected. The RVC have now confirmed that the midge borne virus has survived the winter. With warmer weather approaching, it is predicted that the number of midges will rise, leading to more widespread incidence of the disease throughout the rest of the UK.

At the RVC, tests were carried out on approximately 150 cattle and 1000 sheep. These tested for antibodies against the virus which, if present, indicated a previous infection. Between March and June 2012, animals which had previously tested negative now tested positive. This showed that the virus had over-wintered and is circulating again.  Around 3% of the animals tested positive. When the tests were carried out again at a later stage, the numbers were found to have increased further.

Professor Peter Mertens, leader of the IAH vector-borne disease programme predicted that the spread of the disease would start from about now and stated that he saw “no reason why it couldn’t spread to most of the country this year”.  What are the dangers of this? The virus causes mild/moderate symptoms (reduced milk yield, weight loss, fever and diarrhoea) in adult cattle, is not fatal and causes no known long term problems. More seriously, it can also lead to deformed offspring, abortion late in pregnancy and still births in sheep, cows and goats. Lambs born with such deformities are killed. Naturally, this is of greater concern to farmers. Although the disease is currently considered ‘low impact’ and low risk to humans, it could have a devastating effect on individual farmers’ incomes.

A vaccine has been developed and should be available in around four months’ time. However the UK Breeding season is now approaching (most sheep will be mated between October and December). The 30 day period after conception is the time when a ewe is most likely to contract the virus. A period of 3-6 weeks is also exists between vaccination and developing immunity. As the vast majority of ewes will be served before the vaccine is released, or before they have developed immunity, they will not be protected against the disease this breeding/lambing season.

Until an affected lamb is born, it is not possible to diagnose SBV in sheep but as the 2012/13 lambing season progresses it will become clear to what extent farms further north have been hit by the virus. John Fishwick, past president of the BCVA, is encouraging Vets to reassure farmers not to panic and be ‘taken over by speculation’. He stated that he doesn’t believe SBV will ‘be the next mad cow disease’. With reference to the midge borne bluetongue virus, which had a huge effect in 2007, Martens commented that SBV is ‘”still serious, but it is not as bad as that”.

References:

http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/livestock/sheep-leaders-hit-out-over-schmallenberg-threat/48697.article

http://www.nfuonline.com/News/Scientists-confirm-Schmallenberg-still-circulating/

http://www.mrcvs.co.uk/en/fa-main-page.php

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/agriculture/farming/9105909/Schmallenberg-virus-questions-and-answers.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/aug/07/schmallenberg-virus-spread-uk

 

Paratuberculosis/ Johne’s Disease

Georgie Holiday (Vet News Farm Editor)

CowJohne’s disease, or paratuberculosis, is caused by an infection of Mycobacterium paratuberculosis in the ileum of mammals with four stomachs, called ruminants. It is chronic, emaciating, contagious and often fatal.

In order to become immune to pathogens that it encounters regularly, a ruminant has cells in its ileum which pass antigens through macrophages and lymphocytes in order to form the correct antibodies. However, when Mycobacterium paratuberculosis is moved through these cells and engulfed by macrophages, it begins to multiply and eventually kills the macrophage and spreads to the surrounding area. This growing infection causes the mammal’s immune system to release more macrophages and lymphocytes into the area, which thickens the lining of the intestine and causes insufficient nutrient absorption and diarrhea. If they cannot fight the infection off, animals will eventually become emaciated and die.

The mortality rate of paratuberculosis is only 1%. However, it is still a great threat to herds because any animals that are infected, even if asymptomatic, can easily infect others, so the disease spreads very quickly to a large number of animals. When it infects production herds, it causes a decrease in milk production- even if the individual shows no other symptoms.

Paratuberculosis is a large problem for zoos and safari parks because it can infect deer, camels, antelopes and many other wild species. Due to the long incubation time of the disease, infected animals can be moved from herd to herd, carrying M. paratuberculosis with them, for a long time before any symptoms are noticed or a diagnosis is made. Because of this, zoos worldwide have introduced much stricter rules for transference of susceptible species, such as regular screening and long periods of quarantine.

 

Are Cows Paying for Cut Cost Milk?

Hannah Johnstone (Vet News Farm Editor)

Up and down the UK dairy farmers are feeling the harsh reality of a sudden cut in milk prices. The average pint was around 49p with a mere 16p going to farmers themselves, but with price cuts ranging from anything up to 5p less per litre, farmers are bound to struggle.

The government have said they want a ‘fair deal’ for dairy farmers, yet four of the main dairy processors are declaring the latest milk cuts. One including Robert Wiseman Dairies, who state they cut their prices due to “a collapse in the value of cream in each litre of farm–gate milk over the last 12 months”. Luckily not all processors are impacting 27% of farmers; dairy farmers supplying leading supermarkets (e.g. Tesco’s) are not affected as they are paid directly.

Whilst the average number of farmers “pushed to the brink” continues to rise, it is thought that their 150,200 dairy cows will also be affected. This is a huge problem as far as the RSPCA are concerned. They believe that the milk cuts will affect dairy cow welfare; therefore urging shoppers to avoid buying “cut-cost milk”, as after all milk prices are likely to be linked to production costs. Deputy Head of the farm animal science team in the RSPCA and also a former dairy herdsman, John Avizienius stated, “Although a drop in cost of milk and cheap deals might seem like great news for shoppers we are concerned that ultimately it will be cows which will pay the price.” He went on to say how “Farmers cannot produce milk at a loss, it’s simply not sustainable, they cannot survive like that.” Mr Avizienius ridiculed the idea that “milk is cheaper than bottled water at some supermarkets”. Continuous protests from farmers and unions have shown the impact the issue is having on both farmers and the welfare of their cows, surely shoppers may accept paying a few more pence “if it safeguarded dairy cow welfare”.

On a recent open day to Nottingham vet school, I visited their dairy unit, to witness the robotic milking technique used. Having a herd of 200 dairy cows averaging 11,700 litres, the herd is ranked in the top 5% of the UK. Due to expenses the robotic milking machines are found in few dairy units in the UK. But in the near future could this be the solution to sustainable farming or will it just add upon dairy farmers’ problems?

References:

http://www.mrcvs.co.uk/en/news-story.php?id=7416

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18792132

http://www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/08/08/2012/134385/Talks-set-to-progress-milk-price-campaign.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_Farm_(Nottinghamshire)

 

EQUINE:

Ragwort: The Dangers

Pippa Lyons, Vet News, Horse EditorPippa Lyon (Vet News Equine Editor)

 

 

 

Ragwort is a commonly found weed in the UK. It is potentially deadly to animals especially horses and cattle. During the British horse society ragwort awareness week in July the survey identified 20,781 horses grazing either on, or within 50 metres of, fields containing ragwort. Every year animals die painful and unnecessary deaths from damage to their liver from eating Ragwort. The danger that the plant poses is widely known, yet levels in the UK continue to rise.

Horses in a paddock with ragwort, a real dangerAll parts of the ragwort plant are poisonous, including the seeds. Even after the plant dies it remains poisonous, so it can contaminate a batch of hay or haylage. The toxin found in ragwort is absorbed by the intestines and is then transported to the liver where it acts on the liver cells and prevents normal cell division. The liver can still function normally until two thirds has been destroyed. Once this stage is reached, clinical signs begin to appear in a variety of forms.

Many horses will show signs of chronic weight loss, diarrhoea, weakness, general debilitation and jaundice. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done other than treat the horse’s symptoms.

Ragwort poisoning is very easy to prevent with thorough management of pasture. Ragwort should be completely removed including the root and carefully disposed of.

 

SMALL ANIMALS:

‘Colour Prejudice’

Ilakiya Guruswamy (Vet News Dog & Cat Editor)

“The more we understand about genetics, the more difficult it is to defend some breed standards’ colour rulings…”

This is the opening line of an article written by journalist Jemima Harrison, best known for her documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a BBC1 film that brought to light the shocking health and welfare problems in pedigree dogs.  The article explores the problems that arise when breed standards that were drawn up before coat colour genetics was properly understood are still enforced today.

 

A very brief version of ‘Colour Prejudice’ by Jemima Harrison, published in Dogs Today, Aug 2012

The Kennel Club has strict rules on coat colours that specific breeds can have. In some cases, this works out for the best, as some colours are linked with health problems, and because some colours arise due to ‘under-the-table’ crosses with another breed.  However, in most cases it is irrational colour prejudice, or in the words of Ms. Harrison, ‘doggie racism.’

The main issue concerning coat colour at the moment is with brindle Salukis. There are speculations that brindle Salukis are mutts, and are most likely a cross with a Greyhound, Lurcher, or other sighthound. There is even talk that the brindle colouring originally came from Bulldogs, and that these Salukis may have completely the wrong-shaped bones as a result. There is no evidence to support these claims.

A scientific report commissioned by the American Saluki Club last year has concluded that there have always been brindle Salukis in the Middle East/Asia, and it is likely that the dogs imported into the UK that formed the founding stock of the breed also contained brindle.  This controversy started when a Saluki bred in the UK was imported to Australia and gave birth to brindle pups. A descendant of this line, also brindle, went on to win a big show in 2010 in the US under American Kennel Club rules. The colour is not disallowed in the US by the AKC, but in the UK, it is categorized as ‘highly undesirable.’ Hence there are no known bridle Salukis registered as KC stock.

Some genes that code for colour are associated with health problems. Too much white, particularly on a dog’s head, is linked to an increased risk of deafness- although this does seem to vary from breed to breed. The reason white dogs suffer is because of the role pigment plays in the development of the auditory system. The Dalmation has a high rate of deafness as it is, essentially, a white dog, and large patches of colour which could help reduce deafness (such as a patch on the ear), are considered a fault.

A condition called Colour Dilution Alopecia (CDA) –or ‘blue dog syndrome’- can lead to hair loss and skin problems. It’s caused by the gene that dilutes the base colours of black or brown, to produce blue and lilac dogs.  If two merle dogs are bred together, there is a risk that the puppies will be born deaf or with severe eye abnormalities- including no eyes at all. And yet merle is a popular colour with breeds such as Shelties, Smooth, Rough and Border Collies, and Australian Shepherd. Some breeders even risk merle to merle matings to ensure merle pups, almost inevitably resulting in some of the litter being deaf or blind.

The colour rulings seem completely inconsistent and illogical, with working-line Bearded Collies carrying the merle gene being prevented from registering as KC stock, and with only solid black, solid brown, or black and white Newfoundlands being acceptable, whereas brown and white Newfoundlands, which have no health risks associated with their colour, are banned.

 

And now something a little fun….

The cow that blogs? I’ve never heard of herbivore.

Emma Plowright (Vet News Farm Editor)

Missed out on dairy work experience? You could still get an insight into dairy farming and the issues that farmers are faced with. Lady Shamrock, a dairy cow from Leicester, has been cleverly QR coded by her owner in an attempt to increase young people’s interest in and awareness of dairy farming. When the code is scanned on a smart phone, it directs the reader to a website which contains the cow’s blog, explains the daily routines of a dairy cow and provides lots of information about British dairy farming. Since the code was painted on, visits to the site have rocketed by 150%.

Lady shamrock’s blog is available here: http://www.thisisdairyfarming.com/news-and-press/news/lady-shamrock.aspx

Computer literate cow

A-level Results Not What You Wanted? :( What Next?

vet surgeonToday was the day that thousands of A-level students finally saw an end to two years of hard toil and anxious nail biting, with the publication of results and for those prospective vet students, either the fulfillment of a long-awaited dream of a place at their chosen university to train as a vet or the crushing realisation that they had missed out.

Hopefully, if you’re reading this and have applied to vet school then you’ll be in the former group, in which case massive congratulations and happy planning and preparing for some of the very best years of your young lives. If, however, you have had a shite day and are wondering what on earth you’re to do now that your world has just imploded then read on…. this blog post is for you.

Now I am going to try really hard not to be one of those annoying, patronising people who may be busy trying to tell you to “chin up” and that “things will be ok,” because although in the long run they are actually spot-on, the truth is that you’ll be raging inside at the moment and will probably be looking for anyone and anything to strike out at. Failing to achieve a big goal sucks! Period. I had a similar experience with my intercalated degree result and although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that was in any way on the same level as not getting into vet school – afterall, I was already at vet school – it was like a punch to the guts and felt really shitty. The emotions that I suspect you’ll be going through over the next few days will range from disbelief, anger, a feeling of having somehow been cheated, panic at what you will perhaps see as the end of all things, followed, hopefully, by a gradual acceptance of the facts, a measured period of reflection and self-appraisal and then, eventually, a sense of renewed purpose and determination to either change course – something that many people do without ever looking back – or focus on a renewed, stronger application the next year.

Now that you’ve raged and gotten the perfectly normal and acceptable reaction to devastating news out of your system, it is time to breathe deeply, take stock and assess your options. But what are these options? Well, you have a number of them you’ll be pleased to hear…

1. Call the vet schools anyway – hopefully you’ll have thought of doing this earlier today, or certainly first thing tomorrow, because at the end of the day stranger things do and have happened than you actually being accepted with lower than desired grades. You never know, especially if you don’t ask. You may have wowed the interview panel so much when they met you that the university simply couldn’t imagine NOT having you grace the hallowed halls of their esteemed institution in which case, hurrah, and wipe away those tears so that you can replace them with fresh joyous ones. However, don’t get your hopes up here as the chances of this happening are very very slim. The fact remains that vet schools are massively oversubscribed and if you miss out on the grade offer then there is likely to be someone who didn’t receive an offer but did achieve the grades who will swing on in there and take your place. Harsh but true I’m afraid. Worth a try though.

2.Consider studying veterinary overseas – this may sound like a very extreme measure, and I guess it sort of is – but a number of UK students are following their vet dreams at vet schools outside of the country, with one Vet School reader currently studying in Poland. Now, at the time of writing I have no idea what the practicalities are of contacting these vet schools to make such enquiries, but you’re all intelligent and resourceful enough to be able to seek out the necessary contact information and make the required calls or send emails. You’ll never know unless you ask.

3. Suck it up, assess the damage & focus on a different career, or a slightly longer, less direct path into vet school – life will go on after epic setbacks even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time. You will be ok in the long run. There, I’ve said it. Once the dust has settled, ascertain where things have gone awry. Was it one subject that let you down? Could you retake it and apply again next year? Maybe you’ll decide that you’d still be happy to go to university this year but do a different course, such as your ‘insurance’ course. You could then either look at applying to study vet as a graduate in a few years or, as many do, follow a different career path and live happily ever after. If you don’t have a non-vet university place lined up then you could join the Clearing process and hopefully get yourself onto a good degree course at a great uni. You can call the UCAS helpline on 0871 468 0 468 for more information.

3. Shrug it off and move on from education into the big, bad world of paid employment – you may very well decide that, on reflection, you’re no longer keen to stay on in further education in which case there are more and more options available to young people to help you gain a foot on the employment ladder. Many of the country’s top employers offer really great training programmes to school leavers, with the advantage being that you get paid, gain invaluable employment experience and learn new schools all at the same time. As such, not achieving your initial goals at A-level do not necessarily mean that you are resigned to a life of menial, poorly paid work. Quite the opposite. Some time spent searching online and talking to your school or college careers advisors will, in this case, prove valuable.

Although the above list of suggestions do not, I am sure, constitute an exhaustive set of options, I hope they offer some food for thought and go some way to highlight that even if things haven’t gone as planned for you today, you have options and it is not yet time to turn the lights off on your dream of a place at vet school. Good luck and all the very best.

How fast is Terminal Velocity?

Freefall, skydiveThere are several ways to answer this question. One is to look it up on Wikipedia, which is probably the most sensible method; the other is to do what I did in July and fling yourself repeatedly out of a perfectly good aeroplane and fall, yes fall, towards Earth eventually reaching, you guessed it, Terminal Velocity (120mph).

Skydiving is awesome! That is my overall assessment and it is a sport that I would encourage everyone – assuming you are fit, healthy and meet the minimum weight requirements – to have at least one experience of. For most, their introduction to this gravity defying – or rather, obeying – past-time is to sign up for a tandem skydive, whereby you are strapped to the front of a very well qualified and experienced instructor who is then responsible for controlling your freefall, parachute deployment and safe landing, leaving you to scream/ hold your breath/ grin/ laugh ecstatically and generally have an amazing time as you experience the ultimate rush followed by an incredible view as you literally float back down to terra firma. Many do just the one jump, satisfied that they have tried it, hopefully enjoyed it but ultimately have no desire to repeat it, whereas some, such as myself, become well and truly bitten by the bug and vow to return to the skies.

My experience of skydiving started when I was 18 and traveling in New Zealand. It was there that I did a tandem and bungee jump (body painted with the Union Jack incidentally) in the same week and vowed immediately to learn to jump solo by the time I was 30. Fast forward several years, during which time I tried out indoor skydiving – a great option for those who don’t like the idea of falling towards the ground for real – and my approaching thirtieth birthday. There was only ever one thing I was going to do and that was train for my solo skydive license.

The first decision was where to go? I was vaguely aware, through some basic research, that Spain, especially the skies around Madrid, were great places to learn, and that the US was also a popular destination for both rookies and experienced jumpers alike. It makes perfect sense actually if you think about it: to jump you need clear skies, and both are examples of places that offer plenty of these. Of course you can train in the UK, and that was an option, but as well as wanting to get my license I also wanted a real adventure, and that was only ever going to come about by leaving my home shores. As it turned out, a good friend of mine is now living in the beautiful city of San Diego, California and rather handily it turned out that they do quite a fair bit of skydiving in California. In fact, a little bit of internet research and emailing later and I had myself booked in for my first lesson with Skydive San Diego, south of the city and toward the Mexican border. Flights booked, insurance purchased and with a spot of surfing in between, I arrived all fresh-faced, eager and full of anticipation for my very first day at ‘Freefall School.’ The education had begun!

You may be asking yourself some of the following questions…

1. What exactly is skydiving?

Well, at its most basic it is essentially jumping out of an aeroplane, freefalling towards the earth for a variable period of time, depending on, among other factors, your initial altitude, and then significantly slowing your descent by deploying a parachute, thus enabling you to steer yourself safely down to a predetermined landing area on the ground. And then to do it again and again and again.

2. Is it the same as jumping off bridges, buildings, cliffs etc?

Err, no. You’re thinking of BASE jumping, which is essentially when you jump from something, in effect, fixed to the earth, ie you don’t need a plane, helicopter or balloon to get to your jump point. You don’t “start out” BASE jumping – not unless you wish to have a very very short parachuting career and life – and it is most definately a branch of skydiving that people “graduate onto,” should they wish to really take their adrenaline addiction to another level. The amount of time in freefall is usually significantly less than normal skydiving, as you’re so much lower, and BASE-jumpers will often deploy their chutes as they jump. Having said that, there are some places you can jump, such as some massively high cliffs in Northern Europe, or styles of jumping, such as wingsuit flying, that will enable you to ‘freefall’ for longer and maximise the buzz. Check out the videos online – they make for epic viewing!

3. Why do people skydive? Are they mental?!

That’s one theory, yes. Everyone who skydives will do so for their own unique reasons and you’ll have to ask them. For me, it is a multitude of factors that attracted me initially to the sport and has well and truly gotten me hooked. The nervous anticipation of what it is you’re about to do as you climb into the plane and ascend towards jump altitude is surreal and strangely meditative. You simply cannot afford to let your mind be preoccupied with anything other than your skydive and so its a great way of clearing your head of all of life’s deluge of, ultimately, unimportant details and concerns. Climbing is a little like that as well. In fact, any activity that relies on your complete and utter focus is a great way to relieve stress and free your mind from its usual baggage. Once you step to the door, your heart starts pumping and you have a choice to make in that moment: jump or don’t jump. Simple. This is then followed by sheer unadulterated ecstasy as adrenaline literally courses through your veins, permeating every inch of your being. The strange thing is that although you know that you are in fact hurtling towards the ground at terminal velocity, the fact that the ground isn’t rushing up to meet you as it does with a bungee jump, results in you feeling as though you are, genuinely flying. This is a phenomenon that is amplified when jumping with other skydivers, as you just get to do the kind of crazy moves, such as flips, that you would never be able to do normally. Then there’s the oh-my-god-hold-your-breath moment as you deploy your parachute and wait for it to fully open, thus ending your freefall and taking you into the final phase of your jump, which is the canopy descent back to your life on the ground. The feeling of achievement and satisfaction that comes with touching down safely is hard to rival through any other activity. So, for me, skydiving is the ultimate way to simultaneously relax and get that awesome adrenaline buzz all in one. Some might call it ‘Healthy Heroin.’

 

DISCLAIMER: Anything written here is based on my own, personal experiences of skydiving and do not constitute in any way professional instruction or advice to go and jump out of a plane. If you happen to feel inspired to do so then do the sensible thing and consult a skydive centre with proper, real, qualified instructors.

Everyday is Different

WANTED: Vet to spend their days undertaking awesome work with some of the most interesting animals on the planet in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, at one of – if not the – premier zoos in in the world.

San Diego Zoo, Dr Meg Sutherland-Smith & Chris Queen
Dr Meg Sutherland Smith & ‘Nerdy Vet’ Chris outside the San Diego Zoo Hospital

Sound like the kind of job you are aiming to get one day? Well, this is the job description that Dr Meg Sutherland-Smith, Veterinarian at San Diego Zoo, gets to live every day of her working life, ensuring that the myriad species that call the zoo home are kept happy and healthy. I was extremely fortunate enough to be able to accept an offer to take an afternoon tour of the main zoo hospital during my recent trip to California, and it was an opportunity that I was happy to stay grounded for, cutting short my skydive training in order to head into Balboa Park to meet with Dr Sutherland-Smith and take a peek behind the scenes at a truly wonderful institution.

The zoo’s hospital sits at the west edge of San Diego Zoo, between the main enclosures and Balboa Park as it continues toward Downtown San Diego, and the drive past many of the park’s stunning sights, such as The Globe Theatre, is a treat in itself. I met Dr Sutherland-Smith at the main gates and was warmly welcomed in to see what it takes to keep so many amazing creatures fit, healthy and happy. Despite literally arriving looking as though I had crawled off the beach, following a dash into the city from Skydive San Diego’s dropzone, I was welcomed as a fellow veterinarian and made to feel like one of the team from the outset. It was instantly clear how passionate Dr Sutherland-Smith is about the work her and her team do at the zoo and I got the distinct impression that she finds every tour she gives as enjoyable as those whom she is showing around, which is impressive considering I must have been the thousandth eager young vet looking to nose behind the scenes.

Our tour took in the entire facility, including the main prep and surgical areas, all impressively kitted out with some state of the art equipment, such as a mammography machine, used a lot to radiograph (xray) birds in exquisite detail. Much of the kit employed in the hospital finds its way there through the very generous support of a number of dedicated individuals and groups, with the standard of care that the zoo’s animals can expect rising all of the time. San Diego Zoo is clearly committed to furthering the education of it’s visitors and veterinarians, with the ability to be able to watch procedures being undertaken from the library or even via a state-of-the-art video link, which I got to see in action.

San Diego Zoo, CCTV
Dr Sutherland-Smith using the hospital’s amazing CCTV system

A tour of the enclosures saw me blessed with being able to see a number of fascinating animals, including a fishing cat which was recovering from recent spinal surgery, and he certainly let us know what he thought of us staring at him! One of the most useful bits of new equipment, and one that makes a huge difference on a daily basis at the zoo is a sophisticated closed-circuit video system, enabling keepers and vets to keep a very close eye on their patients without needing to even be anywhere near the pens. The ability to survey and then zoom in on even the smallest of species makes the camera system indispensible as a monitoring tool. Having the ability, for example, to be able to monitor recovering birds, who will often mask illness or abnormal behaviour if they sense the presence of humans, has really enabled the team to progress the standard of care offered to their patients. Aside from its obvious uses it’s also just a very cool bit of kit to use!

San Diego Zoo is home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals, housed in more than 100-acres and representing some 650 species and subspecies. The zoo also boasts an impressive botanical collection, with over 700,000 exotic plants growing in its Balboa Park site. If you would like to know more about internship opportunities at San Diego Zoo, including veterinary externship programmes, then check out the website. My sincerest thanks go out to Dr Sutherland-Smith, Donna Vader and the entire team at San Diego Zoo for making my visit a reality.