Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
April 18, 1997

Pathology class alters her path

By Steve Jones
Work can be a mystery for Monica Howard and her veterinary medicine students.

Howard is a veterinary pathologist whose students perform necropsies on animals to determine causes of death. Sometimes the cause can be puzzling. But most of the time, the postmortem examination provides answers.

"Ninety-eight percent of the time, we can tell," she said.

The few exceptions can be frustrating, like the time several sows were afflicted with an ailment that prevented them from getting up on their feet and walking. The cause in some of the pigs was attributed to a spinal cord abscess, but the definitive answer eluded them. Howard and other ISU pathologists theorized the problem was an undetermined biochemical process.

The postmortem examinations are important. A farmer whose livestock are sick or dying wants to know why, to prevent further economic loss. Money isn't the only reason for a necropsy. A central Iowa animal shelter recently sent a puppy that had become ill and died. The dog's littermates also were getting sick, and shelter officials wanted to ensure the problem didn't spread. (Howard determined the pup had distemper.)

The necropsies also are good learning experiences. Howard said students must use the knowledge they've gained in other subjects, such as physiology, anatomy and parasitology, to succeed in pathology.

"Veterinary pathology is a demanding curriculum, but it's an excellent opportunity for the students to incorporate everything they've learned thus far," Howard said.

Most of the necropsies are done on small animals, including pets and laboratory rodents. Howard also sees livestock, horses and wildlife -- local and exotic. Last year a senior, who had worked in marine biology on the West Coast, had a dead seal shipped to campus. At Howard's request, former students working as veterinary practitioners have sent her interesting cases to challenge students.

Howard insists that students do thorough jobs and document everything. Pathologists often are called to give depositions in lawsuits involving livestock or valuable thoroughbred race horses and breeding animals.

A Tennessee native, Howard went to veterinary medicine school at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Like most D.V.M. students, she had visions of becoming a clinician and running her own animal clinic. In her second year, her career goals changed when she took her first pathology course.

"I knew then that's what I wanted to do," she said.

After graduating from Tuskegee, Howard entered a residency/Ph.D. program in veterinary pathology at Oklahoma State University. Then came a two-year post-doctoral research position in Philadelphia at SmithKline Beecham, a pharmaceutical and healthcare company.

When she came to ISU in 1990, Howard believed she was going to concentrate on research. Then she started teaching and her career interests shifted again.

"I never knew I could like teaching so much," Howard explained. "It's so rewarding. It's also very demanding. You're obligated to be innovative."

For her efforts, Howard received a teaching award in 1995 from the ISU Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In 1994, she was the college's first recipient of the outstanding adviser award.

"She takes a really big interest in each of her advisees," said William Reece, who heads the college's advising program. "She communicates with the students even before they come to campus, then keeps tabs on them when they're here.

"It was no surprise that she received the first advising award," Reece added.

Howard's advising goes beyond helping students choose electives. She has lent a sympathetic ear to those not doing well in class or facing personal crises, such as divorce. She said she tries to supplement the college's student services programs to ensure her advisees have a positive experience at ISU.

"I get all of my advisees together and try to get a 'big brother, big sister' interaction among the classes," Howard said. The networking particularly helps the underclass students find summer jobs, navigate difficult classes or learn about job interviewing.

Howard tries to interest students in pathology careers, and she knows some eventually will come around. Although she's an exception, most pathologists worked in veterinary practices before going into pathology.

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