By Peter Rochman
BASSETERRE, St Kitts — Dr Tracey Challenger always wanted to be a veterinarian.
The Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM) graduate says that as a child in primary school her family always kept sheep and pigs. Rising early to take care of them before and after school was part of life – something that would influence her future career choice.
“I wanted to be a vet since I was ten-years old, there’s no question about it,” explains Challenger from her office at the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources, where she is now the chief veterinary officer (CVO) for the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis.
In fact, she reminisces about her very definite early career aspirations saying that as a youth she played in the large tree outside her current office.
From that leafy vantage point, Challenger could see the departmental veterinarians arriving for work.
She even remembers cheekily calling out to them, “one of these days, I’m going to be the boss up here.”
And now she is.
Challenger attended primary and high schools in Basseterre, later traveling to Jamaica and the University of the West Indies to complete a double major undergraduate degree in Zoology and Botany. It proved to be the required strong academic underpinning for her chosen veterinary career path.
“I always loved the sciences,” Challenger offers.
A scholarship from RUSVM helped her fulfill her early childhood veterinary dreams.
As part of its long-term partnership with the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis, RUSVM provides up to four full scholarships each year. Qualifying local students follow a veterinary medical degree or another degree program offered through the DeVry family of institutions.
The scholarships represent a practical commitment by RUSVM to the people of the Federation to help build strengths in a highly skilled area – one that benefits all parts of society.
“By training local nationals to become world-class veterinarians, we can contribute to building sustainability in many sectors in the Federation. From agricultural practices, to animal welfare, husbandry, food safety and clinical practice, we’re committed to ensuring our students have continuing access to best practice veterinary education offers,” said Dr Elaine Watson, RUSVM dean.
“The scholarships represent a firm commitment to ensure this valuable educational partnership continues to directly benefit students in the Federation,” she stressed.
Since its inception, RUSVM has granted four veterinary scholarships, totaling more than US $450,000, to St Kitts and Nevis students.
While Dr Tracey Challenger was the first-ever Kittitian to attend RUSVM in 1996 and attain her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), Ninian Cameron-Blake is the latest recipient to take advantage of a RUSVM scholarship.
Cameron-Blake is an eighth semester RUSVM student currently finishing his DVM degree.
As part of fulfilling his academic requirements, he must complete three semesters of clinical training at an American Veterinary Medical Association accredited school of veterinary medicine in the United States completing a series of clinical rotations.
Cameron-Blake is now training at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge.
The soon-to-be veterinarian is enthusiastic about his current posting.
There is excitement in his voice as he describes his daily veterinary duties, which include rotations such as surgery, ophthalmology, emergency and medicine services.
“You can take all that you know to practice. All that we’ve studied at Ross, it’s just all coming out in the practice.
“Everybody in the LSU hospital has so much energy. It’s like a swarm of bees going for that case. Everybody wants to be involved and interested and it’s such a nice feeling to be part of that,” Cameron-Blake said.
Cameron-Blake’s early education was at Basseterre High where he credits a good science program to get him pointed in the right academic direction. He later finished his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry overseas in Ireland and Scotland.
And where do the roots of his veterinary ambitions come from?
A simple answer – growing up with lots of dogs and cats around.
“We always treated them as our best friends. Most of my human friends had dogs and cats too, and so I have always been around animals. When I would visit with overseas friends and relatives during the summers, I would go on farms… I would always be there with the cows, horses and sheep… I was always interested in it.”
And like Challenger, Cameron-Blake’s strong foundation in science made him an ideal candidate for a RUSVM scholarship.
“I knew that I always wanted to be in sciences. I had always gone down the science route. I did biochemistry in hopes of starting marine biology,” he said.
However it wasn’t until career week where students get real work experience at the end of high school that Cameron-Blake had what he calls his “mind switch”.
By the end of his placement with the local St Kitts veterinarian, he knew for sure what his choice would be.
“I was completely turned. I loved veterinary medicine and I wanted to get into it ever since,” he confesses.
“Before that, I always had the interest but at the end of high school was what changed my mind definitely, that I was going to be a vet,” Cameron-Blake says emphatically.
That week of practical experience “really turned my mind,” he adds, “because it was getting to see what vets actually do out in the field. Seeing it for yourself actually being done… seeing animals being treated and getting better.”
Cameron-Blake suggests students from St Kitts and Nevis should consider veterinary medicine and the RUSVM scholarships.
“Yes, definitely. I would encourage anybody who is interested in doing veterinary medicine to pursue it. However it is very, very intense so anybody who wants to go into it, they have to be determined and they have to be willing to just give it their all because it is a very challenging course and it’s essential to stay focused,” he stresses.
Meantime, in urging people with a science background to consider veterinary medicine, Challenger adds that a vet degree is also a “good jumping off point” for other steps in their careers.
She says that veterinary work is multi-faceted and very hands-on.
As CVO, Challenger has learned that “skills came out of me that I didn’t even know that I had.”
She enjoys the “outcomes” of what she has been able to put in place in her veterinary career including projects like working on a new abattoir for St. Kitts and the administrative parts of her work.
However, she now has a different perception of what things are really like after graduation – and definitely a very different perspective from the one atop that tree outside her office.
“Treating sick animals, that’s all that I would have to do.”
Being CVO has a lot more to it.
Challenger suggests in jest that her list of job duties now stretches “from here to Nevis!”
Meantime, Cameron-Blake says his learning days at RUSVM have put him in a good position to take advantage of his clinical placement at Louisiana State University.
“I’ve heard from the LSU students that the Ross students are way ahead of them with the practical work.
“It kind of makes me smile, because I think that we shine in that area – the practical side of the medicine,” he said.
Cameron-Blake is thinking about his career prospects after graduation with a number of possibilities in mind.
He might consider private practice but hopes to one-day work as a faculty member, preferably at RUSVM where he enjoyed his time as a student.
His future plans include helping farmers with better practices, sustainability and education about their animals.
And, as he enters the home stretch as a student, there is a moment of reflection on what exactly he has been able to achieve.
“It’s just nice to be experiencing all of this, to be a part of the community and to know that ultimately, I will go back home and share some of the knowledge I’ve gained through Ross and, hopefully, help to improve animal care in the Federation.”
For Cameron Blake, the RUSVM scholarship offers a tangible means to help his country.
“Oh yeah, definitely, I don’t know if I would be able to do it otherwise. This is a really life changing thing for me.”