Veterinary Medicine

Protecting the World’s Food Supply, One Student at a Time: An interview with Jacque Pelzer, DVM

From building surfboards to helping veterinary students achieve their goals, Jacque Pelzer’s career path was less than conventional.
Graduating from high school at the tender age of sixteen, the Richmond, Virginia native found herself ill-equipped for the social challenges of college. “I went away to school for a semester, and being sixteen and never really being around boys or alcohol… that was a big adjustment period for me, so I went home after one semester,” she explains. To regroup, she opened a surf shop in North Carolina. “I worked there for about 3 years building boards and living the beach life, and then woke up one day and though you know, I’m not getting much intellectual stimulation here, I think I want to go back to school. I was ready, both mentally and intellectually I was ready at that point.”
Pelzer returned to college, successfully graduating a few years later from Virginia Commonwealth University and continuing on to vet school at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, where she now works as Director of Admissions. Prior to taking on that role, though, she forged her own successful veterinary career, working as a food animal practitioner in southwest Virginia.
A Bad Break, a Good Change
Twelve years later, she sustained a significant injury and found herself unable to continue with her practice. “It probably would’ve been a bit of a struggle for me (to keep practicing), physically,” she admits. “I really love what I do now – working with pre-vet students who are so excited and passionate about what they do… They remind me every day why I went into the profession. I love working with animals and I do miss it, but I also love watching students from the time of admission grow through that 4 -year period. Graduation is a very emotional time for me.”
Pelzer believes veterinary students today have more opportunities than ever before. “When I went through school, there wasn’t really that much available to us in regards to career development. I didn’t really learn a lot about the profession until I was already graduated and working… I think that students now are exposed to so much more and have many, many choices. It’s not just clinical medicine but all these other areas, too, that are just as valuable. That’s the great thing about this profession – there are so many different things that we can do, as veterinarians.”
Thinking Outside the Box
Sometimes, a non-traditional career path can help you see unique possibilities in the paths of others. Pelzer’s view is that veterinarians have an integral role to play in society as the protectors of the world’s food supply, and that by accepting this charge, new opportunities will arise. “We can (provide this service), for example, by working with homeland security. There’s a theory that the next attack on the United States would be on our food or water supply – wiping out huge populations of animals and crops even. It’s not about meat inspection, like a lot of people think, but rather having oversight over the food we ingest every day, plants and animals.” And that’s not the only non-traditional career paths for vet students to ponder. “You could consider working for the FDA in terms of drug safety; working with the CDC in terms of disease outbreak… think about the Zika virus. Those are veterinarians who are at the forefront of that issue, as well.”
The veterinarians of tomorrow will need diverse skills, which is why Pelzer and her peers stress the importance of demonstrating certain characteristics when applying to vet school. “Programs all have different philosophies about (what you should do to differentiate yourself from other candidates); I will say there are some like-minded admissions people and that some of us recognize that it’s not just the academics, we’re looking for characteristics above and beyond your grade,” she says. “So, things like communication skills, critical thinking, problem solving… those are the other attributes we’re looking for.”
This can be difficult when faced with a more traditional admissions application, she explains. “Unfortunately I think we’ve created an application process that makes everyone look the same. So when we put out the green hoop, the yellow hoop, the red hoop, everybody jumps through them, and they jump through them really high, and that makes everyone look the same on a piece of paper. That’s why the most critical piece on the application is the personal statement. It’s going to differentiate you- and I recommend sharing something really personal, not just repeating what we can already read about you in the rest of the application.”
Treating the Elephant in the Room
One benefit of veterinary medicine is that there is no limited licensure in the field. This means that even if you go into vet school imagining a future treating family pets, and then later decide you’d rather treat elephants, it’s entirely possible to do so. “When we graduate students we’re saying to society, you can practice medicine on any animal from a little lizard up to an elephant, if you want – you are licensed to work on all species. Working on zoo animals does take additional training, you have to do an internship and zoo animal residency, but you can actually apply what you learn in the 4 years on an exotic animal.”
The ability to use your training for a variety of careers is a plus in today’s job market, but Pelzer warns that vet students do need to think about the financial challenges of their chosen profession.
“All health professions are very expensive to train for, but veterinarians don’t have the earning potential in the areas we want to be in. For example, private practice – our earning potential just isn’t that of a human physician. Society needs veterinarians, we will always need them, not just for pets but in all those areas I talked about before – so I think we need to acknowledge that the number one challenge for veterinarians is student debt, and we need to put it on the table and talk about it; that programs need to come together and come up with some solutions to that issue,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Pelzer maintains that there’s a place for anyone with the passion and drive for veterinarian medicine. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your goal, because you can,” she says. “I know I heard it, when I was in undergrad – I’d hear stories that you still hear – ‘oh, you’ll never make it, why do you want to be a veterinarian?’ But if that’s your dream, and that’s what you want to do… We all talk about a plan B, but I don’t think any of us actually have a plan B. So if veterinary medicine is your goal, you should reach out to the people who can support you and help you to get there.”

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Suzanne Barston is a Chicago-based writer and journalist specializing in the areas of healthcare and science.