"This is a win-win": USDA, Veterinary Scholars Program collaboration forging brighter futures for students and animal health

Sabrina Swistek's research will help researchers explore what potential illnesses need to be considered in processing insects as a food protein source.

They started the summer with hopes of gaining exposure to the day-to-day work of researchers at the forefront of monitoring detection and prevention of zoonotic diseases, advances in agricultural science and wildlife conservation. But by the end of their summer program, they gained  far more experiences and insights than they imagined.

Twelve talented and curious veterinary students from leading veterinary schools across the US were the first cohorts in a multi-year collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the Boehringer Ingelheim-sponsored Veterinary Scholars Program.

Over the course of this summer, these students had the opportunity to work directly with USDA scientists at eight ARS sites across the country researching diseases that could affect livestock and public health as well as advancing sustainable approaches for agriculture and food production.

Boehringer Ingelheim and USDA covered all expenses for the students, including a monthly stipend and transportation to the USDA centers. Students also were given the special opportunity to present their research at the 2022 National Veterinary Scholars Symposium held in early August.

Morgan Hulbert

Morgan Hulbert, now a third-year veterinary student at Cornell University, was looking forward to learning more about theileriosis, an emerging threat to horses and livestock, and the opportunity to spend some time in the Pacific Northwest. Under the direction of USDA veterinarian and scientist, Dr. Lindsay Fry, Morgan helped explore the susceptibility of Theileria parasites to various drugs. Theilerioses are a group of tickborne diseases caused by protozoan parasites which are more commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. 

Not only did Morgan have the chance to contribute to research that may help limit the spread of this deadly disease, she worked side-by-side with other researchers in the lab and learned about their different career pathways. Her mentor, Dr. Fry, began her own career in clinical practice and today also serves as an adjunct professor at Washington State University, to help solidify the many career options in veterinary medicine and infectious disease.

“This experience both expanded and refined my thinking around career path. Infectious disease research is a huge field, and now I have a better sense of opportunities within the field and appreciation that the career pathway does not have to be so direct and narrow,” Hulbert reflected.

“I also saw firsthand the importance of balancing both the long-game mindset and hitting near-term milestones in research, and the implications that short term actions and developments can have on your ultimate conclusion.”  

The learning and benefits were not unidirectional, Dr. Fry observed. “Morgan really brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the lab. Students ask the most amazing questions that make us think in a different way, and everyone in the lab appreciated that fresh thinking and unbiased viewpoint.”

Veterinary Scholar Program student Mark Harden

Having worked with avian rescue organizations in the past, Tuskegee University veterinary student Mark Harden was intrigued with wildlife conservation and started the summer unsure about what he wanted to do with his veterinary degree.

He wanted to see if he might like research as a potential career pathway, as well as to network and make connections. The result: a newfound love for research, interest in zoonotic disease, as well as an expanded network with many USDA connections.

“The greatest thing I gained this summer was learning what I want to do with my future, including clarity around next steps for future education and options for gaining experience,” Mark shared.

In addition to gaining lab and research skills this summer, he learned much more about anatomy, pathology, surgery and bioinformatics.

His mentor, Dr. Cari Hearn, who is based in USDA’s Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory in East Lansing, Mich., knows firsthand the value of this special summer experience, having participated in the Veterinary Scholars Program at Michigan State University when she was a veterinary student. And, while working toward her PhD, Dr. Hearn also served as a mentor in the Veterinary Scholars Program at Michigan State University.

Read more: Veterinary students conclude summer research experience with capstone presentations at 2022 National Veterinary Scholar Symposium

“That experience really hooked me on bench research, and it prompted me to pursue an NIH-funded viral immunology training fellowship,” Dr. Hearn reflected. “I know firsthand that students don’t know what to expect when they come in at the start of the summer. I encourage them to ask A LOT of questions, to think critically, and to approach their research with an open mind.”

Sabrina Swistek, a veterinary student at Mississippi State University, previously had some experience with research in an academic setting and wanted to work in a completely different environment with  researchers in the Foreign Arthropod-Borne Animal Disease Research Unit in Manhattan, Kansas at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

Sabrina Swistek participates in Boehringer Ingelheim's Veterinary Scholar Program's collaboration with the USDA.

While NBAF is not operational yet, Sabrina’s work was literally field-based this summer. As part of research into whether the large quantity of insects collected for pathogen surveillance could be a source for future food protein, she helped catch wild insects and studied the various pathogens they carried. This will help researchers explore what potential illnesses need to be considered in processing insects as a food protein source.

“I gained much greater appreciation for the extent of work – physical work sometimes – and detail involved in research, as well as insight into the many responsibilities of a scientist who leads a lab, including the importance of strong collaboration and ways to foster a good team environment,” said Sabrina.

“I also appreciated the chance to network with students in the Veterinary Scholars Program at nearby Kansas State University, and I participated in some of their programming. The many opportunities to learn from and share with others this summer – with USDA research teams and other veterinary students – went far beyond what I had anticipated and also allowed me to grow my communication and problem-solving capabilities in ways I had not expected.”

The broad exposure to many teams and variety of learning moments was intentional, and the result of the decades-long experience her mentor, Dr. Lee Cohnstaedt, has in guiding students from high school to PhD candidates.

Read more: A few ways we support U.S. livestock, including with the USDA

“This isn’t about just one summer; it’s a long-term play. We are developing a robust talent pipeline, honing their research skills and teaching them valuable skills they will need to lead innovation, prevention and cures in the future,” Dr. Cohnstaedt explained. “This is not necessarily about advancing science in the near term, it’s about providing a good experience where they can learn and grow.”

“No matter what career path they choose, the soft skills that are learned in real-world settings, such as leadership skills, how to apply business principles to research, how their specific skills fit into a bigger picture, how to ask for help, and how to work with a diverse team are of critical importance,” he shared.

The Boehringer Ingelheim Veterinary Scholars Program was established more than 30 years ago to introduce veterinary medical students to biomedical research in real-world settings such as academic labs across the country, the NIH and starting this year at USDA. Boehringer Ingelheim Veterinary Scholars are assigned a mentor and laboratory. Each scholar conducts a hypothesis-driven research project. The research project is typically conducted over a 10-12-week period during the summer, with students presenting their work at the annual National Veterinary Scholars Symposium at the conclusion. More than 5,000 students have received stipends from Boehringer Ingelheim to conduct research since the program started. More information is available at http://veterinaryscholars.boehringer-ingelheim.com/.

“The need for veterinary expertise – particularly as it relates to livestock – is significant today and likely to be even more so in the future. Today’s veterinary students are the ones who will be on the front lines of monitoring and protecting animals and humans from tomorrow’s emerging diseases and increasing the efficiency and sustainability of our livestock industry,” said Steve Boren, Vice President of U.S. Livestock Business for Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. “It’s critical for us to invest in the growth of today’s veterinary students, to offer them hands-on learning opportunities such as the Veterinary Scholars Program, so that they can gain the experience and perspective needed to spark innovation and practical solutions to future societal needs.”

2022 National Veterinary Scholars Symposium
2022 Veterinary Scholar Program participants attending the National Veterinary Scholar Symposium at the University of Minnesota.


“This is a win-win for USDA and the veterinary students,” explained Dr. Roxann Motroni, DVM, PhD, USDA Agricultural Research Service national program leader for animal health, who has championed USDA’s collaboration with Boehringer Ingelheim and the Veterinary Scholars Program. “All of our mentors and research teams who have worked with the Veterinary Scholars this summer enjoyed sharing with them our work at the forefront of emerging diseases and potential solutions for sustainable agriculture, and likewise we have all grown as a result of the fresh perspectives, many questions and ideas the students have raised with us.” 

“We are all looking forward to continuing our connections with this summer’s Veterinary Scholars, and someday in the future, hopefully working side-by-side with them.”