Q&A with Joan Hendricks

According to Joan Hendricks, dean of Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, people go into veterinary medicine because of a couple reasons. They love animals, probably first and foremost.

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According to Joan Hendricks, dean of Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, people go into veterinary medicine because of a couple reasons. They love animals, probably first and foremost. They also have a fascination with science and desire to understand how things work—whether it’s canine vision, equine orthopedics, or cell and molecular biology.

These medical professionals, Hendricks says, have the potential to change the world—perhaps because veterinarians are trained to innately understand how animal and human health is linked together, as well as to the world around them.

“Veterinarians do so much more than take care of your cat—not that we don’t love the cat and are very proud of the cat, the dog, the horse,” Hendricks explains. “Our training and what we want to do is to make the world better for all living things. It folds in everything—biomedical science to make health better not just for people but for animals, as well. We may be studying cancer in a cat or how to get rid of digestive problems in a cow. But we’re also doing it in a way that we know will benefit people, and we may be doing it with MDs or other expert colleagues.”


Veterinarians also become experts in food security and safety—an especially big focus in Pennsylvania, where agriculture is a major industry—as well as in infectious diseases that spread from animals to people (and vice versa).

This wide-ranging expertise is part of something Hendricks feels passionately about: She is a supporter of the One Health initiative, which is a worldwide effort to bring together medical professionals to collaborate and communicate about animal, human, and environmental health.

The connections between Penn Vet and other disciplines have a long history at the University. Penn Vet, which was formally founded in 1884, is the only veterinary school in the country that is an outgrowth of a medical school. Hendricks says these close ties have made for a rich history of collaboration and an especially robust research network that extends across schools.

“There is no other veterinary Ph.D. program that is as big or as sustained by the [National Institutes of Health] as [Penn Vet’s] VMD-Ph.D. program,” Hendricks says. “That’s a fact. That’s because of our connection with the medical school.”

Since her appointment as dean in 2006, Hendricks has overseen the two Penn Vet campuses—one in Philadelphia and the other, dedicated to large animal medicine, in Kennett Square, Pa. Several important advancements have been made under Hendricks’ tenure, including the Working Dog Center, breakthroughs in canine cancer studies, and the development of a software package that helps farmers around the world more effectively manage their dairy herds.

Before she was named dean, Hendricks was a member of the Penn Vet faculty, and in 2001, was the first woman named to an endowed professorship at the school—the Henry and Corinne R. Bower Professor of Small Animal Medicine. Hendricks received her VMD from Penn Vet in 1979, her Ph.D. in 1980, and also completed her residency and postdoctoral fellowship at the University.

So, what’s kept Hendricks here for nearly four decades?

“I usually say I married a Philadelphian and they don’t move. That’s the non-academic answer,” she says. “I never would have imagined that I would feel there was endless variety and interest and challenge, but it’s just been endlessly interesting. There’s a ton of flexibility—all the opportunities to connect to new people, get new training. When I basically said, ‘I’ve been studying English bulldogs and sleep apnea, but now I want to study fruit flies,’ Penn said, ‘OK.’ Nobody said, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘If you find the money, knock yourself out.’”

The Current recently sat down with the dean to talk about her vision for the school, the perceived  shortage in large animal vets in rural America, and what it was like applying to vet school in the early days of Title IX reform.

Q: Penn Vet was developed with Penn’s School of Medicine. How has that influenced how Penn Vet has grown over the years?
A: It actually started with Benjamin Rush who signed the Declaration of Independence and was a founding father. He founded the medical school and gave an address to the medical students in 1807 and said we need a veterinary school. … He lays out everything that we currently do. It’s actually amazing what he knew. Eventually, with a gift from Joshua Lippincott, we were able to start in 1884. We were founded as Benjamin Rush told them to do: We originally had a department in the medical school and our founding dean was an MD who went and got trained to be a veterinarian in Lyon, [France]. … Our founding dean, Rush Shippen Huidekoper, had both degrees and when the school started, the majority of our faculty were MDs, and basically set the standard for professional-level training. Benjamin Rush said that people should study domestic animals [because it was] ethical; he said we owe it to them, which is lovely, actually. But one of the most amazing things that he said is they’re so similar to us that anything we learn about them will help us, too, and also them being healthy, they can do their jobs to serve humanity better. All of those things are still true. So, we have never really waivered [from that]. There were times when all the classes for medical and veterinary students were held together for some of the early years. In the mid-20th century, the people in this school got both Ph.Ds. and MDs. There weren’t veterinary specialties until the ‘60s and ‘70s, and this school led in founding a lot of them. We continue to found new specialties. We’ve done emergency critical care, dentistry, and sports medicine.

Q: You talk a lot about the One Health concept. What is that, exactly?
A: The school has always had a sense that our job was to advance knowledge to benefit domestic animals and people together. For a long time, we thought of it as treating diseases, so we talked about one medicine, many species. The One Health concept is a little bit more wholistic and progressive, and says that the health of people and animals are interdependent, and interdependent with the wild environment, as well. Veterinary medicine is the only multispecies medical specialty. All veterinarians have a particular connection with the medical school. … It’s a grounding for everything from doing a good job taking care of the animals to also being able to identify ways that they will be healthier, so it’s genetics, nutrition, or the way they’re taking care of training and how the people connect to them, as well. And if you’re talking about animals that serve people by doing some kind of work like the working dogs, or producing food and fiber, you want the animals really healthy because that’s the best outcome for everybody. A component of One Health is linked to food production. It’s a natural thing for a veterinarian to be linked to animal source food because you want the animals healthy. There’s a mission for veterinarians that is in our oath that we serve human society and animals. … It’s really about resolving, making sure that both sides of the equation do well and solving the problems that come about when the interests are in conflict. Connecting to animals is better for people than not.

Q: There’s been some research about the importance of a human-animal bond. Can you talk about how that comes into play?
A: For me, because it’s just the way I’m built, everything comes back to animals being great. So, human health and well-being all benefit by being connected to animals. There’s just so much that animals can do to help us, and we are spending so much money on our pets because they make us so happy. There’s a fair amount of really good science on that but there’s [also] soft science and emotional joy.

Q: How do you prepare Penn Vet students for veterinary medicine jobs when the field is so diverse?
A: We have really strong programs, especially in laboratory science comparative medicine. Penn is 12 great schools on this compact campus. Pennsylvania’s No. 1 industry is  agriculture and almost all of that is animal [agriculture]. Pennsylvania is a particularly important place to make sure that you’re supporting agriculture, so we’ve positioned ourselves and made it clear that we particularly want to train people who see their future as basically saving the world. Vet students are like that, generally, but we do hear back from our students that they came here because of the opportunities.

Joan Hendricks
Photo by Peter Tobia

Q: Since Penn Vet is the only vet school in the state, and animal agriculture is such a big industry here, does the school have particular responsibilities to ensure that animals are healthy, both formal and informal?
A: The fact that we’re the only veterinary school and the fact that animal agriculture is the No. 1 industry links to the fact that [the state has] provided a lot of appropriations, but we don’t have a formal contract or any formal commitment from them or from us. The outcome they want is that we provide veterinarians who serve the Commonwealth and that we support animal agriculture, including food safety, but also the economic health of the farmers and the health of the animals. It’s important to us that we document that we’re providing most of the veterinarians in Pennsylvania, which we do. Part of the way of getting that done is to give preference to Pennsylvania residents when we do admissions, which isn’t a usual private school kind of thing to do. We’ve also been able, as far as I know, for all of our history and certainly continuing now, to discount tuition for Pennsylvanians. We act as if we are a public school in those ways. It’s separate from agriculture in the usual sense, but we also support horse racing for Pennsylvania and all the equine interests. We run the equine toxicology lab, which is the drug-testing lab to make sure that horse racing is clean—and we’re one of the best. As horse racing cleans its act up further, because of its partnership with us, Pennsylvania has the kind of standard that others should be following. We also run animal diagnostic laboratories to test for infectious diseases and to plan ahead for outbreaks of disease. We provide a really highly effective training program for our students. Every student is trained in food animals and farm animals. All of our students have contact with our own swine herd, we have our own dairy, and they also will be working with those animals when they go into their senior year. They’ll be seeing horses and pigs and cattle and sheep and alpacas, as well as cats and dogs, and we do see pet reptiles and bunnies and birds. And I heard we even saw a tarantula once. That’s not a specialty. We see it as a mandate that no matter how many people go into food animal medicine as their sole focus, every veterinarian understands it and can communicate to the public. One of the biggest issues for agriculture right now is only 2 percent of people in the U.S produce the food for all 100 percent. That’s been enabled because agriculture is highly productive and efficient, but the downside of it—people are vacating rural areas. The entire world is becoming urbanized. The big problem it leaves the world with is very few people know anything about their food. In our country, it started maybe about 20 years ago, people said, ‘Wait a minute, where does my food come from?’ So there are societal concerns about food—people are concerned about the welfare of the animals, they’re concerned about the environment, they’re concerned about the wholesomeness of the food. We have a major role in ensuring animal welfare but also in communicating to the public what is involved and why things are done the way they are and why we think this is good and what we think it would cost to, for example, have a every chicken as a pet. We are very interested in the environmental impact—and farmers are, too. The facility we have at New Bolton is adjacent to Lancaster County, a very highly intensive horse country and adjacent to this incredibly rich animal agriculture area.

Q: How does the school reach out to farmers?
A: We have poultry vets, swine vets, three or four dairy vets who will not only consult on the phone, but will also go out and collect samples and do an economic analysis of the herd. We have a soil scientist who works with our dairy folks and if you put together the nutrients day by day, intelligently enough, with lots of software they have, you can improve the  economics, improve the productivity for the animal, make the animal healthier, and decrease the environmental impact. The soil scientist is working with the nutrition people to [assess] the impact of the manure. They’ve worked with the farmers. We have an incredibly cool software package and we will train farmers to work with it. This is something we’re doing globally. We know people in Africa are using it. I was just in inner Mongolia and there’s a pretty big dairy enterprise there. It’s using our software to make dairy production better in inner Mongolia. We give this away free to Pennsylvania farmers and consult with them.

Q: In recent years, there have been several reports of a shortage of large animal vets, especially in rural areas, and an oversaturation of small animal vets. Has the school addressed this at all?
A: In general—and it’s not purely economics—rural areas are not increasing in population. When I came in as dean, I met with a group of agriculture producers and asked what kind of veterinarians they’d like us to produce to serve them best, and they said, ‘Cheap ones.’ One issue is the ability to  find a way for veterinarians to get enough money. They need to have different ways of practicing. The idea that you would get up in the middle of the night and drive four hours to deliver a calf or save a pig—no one can pay enough money for that to be worth it. The main thing, as far as training [our students], is focusing on preventing diseases. A sick pig is not likely to be worth what it would cost to make it healthy. A sick chicken is definitely not. So the best animal welfare you can do is make sure nobody gets sick, so give them advice about housing, sanitation, husbandry, nutrition, vaccines, and all kinds of preventive health care. Some of that you may be able to do by telemedicine and by computer. In our swine unit, there are banks of computers that are receiving information from swine units all over the Commonwealth. Pigs walk around with transmitters and scientific information is transmitted. You can come up with a way that’s rooted in good medicine and husbandry and liking the pigs and caring about them—but you can do that more efficiently. We needed to develop new economic models so people can survive financially. If you have someone who can manage 100,000 swine, you don’t need 50 [veterinarians], you need enough to replace the one who’s retiring, but you don’t need zero either. I think we have enough people who come in who are interested and anecdotally, sometimes, they leave because they can’t make a living or because rural life is hard in other ways. Commonly, it’s talked about as a shortage, but for me it’s not a shortage of people who want to do it, it’s a shortage of people who can live [that way].

Q: Where do most graduates end up? Do some go on to specialize?
A: We know data for the first two years. We know the first year out, veterinarians don’t have to do internships and residencies but more than half of our students go on at least to an internship. A few do their Ph.Ds. and, therefore, they’re going to wind up in research. I think our students disproportionally within five years or so, are working for animal food companies or are in government or academia or have gone back for additional  training to be in leadership positions. But as with every vet school, the majority go on to companion animal medicine. Even if you talk about specializing, most of the places you can make a living are specialties focused on companion animals.

Q: And what are these specialties?
A: Dentistry, dermatology, neurology, radiology, internal medicine, emergency, behavior, ophthalmology.

Q: Did the economic downturn hit the veterinary profession hard?
A: When the economic downturn hit, veterinarians were slow to have an impact and then they did. And people fussed a lot that the veterinary schools were producing too many graduates, which was funny, because when I came in as dean in 2006, I got requests to produce more graduates. Our school had been in the process of getting to the point where we could open the Hill Pavilion so we could have slightly bigger classes, so we slightly increased
our class size because there had been a relentless drum beat of not having enough veterinarians. In 2006, that’s still where we were. Veterinary students were getting nine offers when they left and then the downturn hit and things stabilized and they actually started to have a negative impact on vet practices. Our students are 100 percent employed. Most veterinarians are. They’re not getting nine offers. They’ll get one they like [and they may] have to move. It’s been different, but it’s hard to feel like it’s catastrophic.

Q: You said that since the 1980s, vet students have been 80 percent female. This is a significant shift. What accounts for that?
A: There’s only been one good study and it didn’t answer it. The one good study said it’s not money. What I think is, there have always been women who really wanted to be veterinarians and in ‘72, they passed Title IX. There are amazing stories from the few pioneers. A lot of vet schools had  forbidden women. I really think that women always wanted to be veterinarians and I think there’s something compelling about nurturing and connecting across species and the science.

Q: Did you always want to be a vet?
A: I am an army brat; we moved all the time and my mom didn’t think it was humane to have pets, but I always wanted them. I adopted a dragonfly, I had a toad pet, I [had] a baby bird. I would create my own pets. And—this is crucial as a veterinarian—I found a dead mouse once and I ran around looking for a knife to cut it open. So, that’s a combo that you want for a veterinarian—this, ‘What can I learn here?’ You love animals and you’re science-driven. I was both of those and I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I was informed girls weren’t vets and I absolutely didn’t question it or think about it until I was in college. I loved the science and I thought maybe MD, Ph.D., but I could not force myself to go work in a hospital, which is obviously part of the deal. I was taking home as pets the lab mice and lab rats, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, they can’t shut me out [of vet school] anymore.’ There were always women who pioneered. They just were extremely passionate. There was an association of women veterinarians for a long time and one of the things they did was collect the stories and publish them, and Penn in the ‘50s and until the early ‘60s, allowed six women and they were called ‘tokes’ because they were token. People that I’ve talked to personally went to the dean and said you have to stop this, you have to open it up. Since the early ‘60s, they had been admitting a portion to the applicant pool, but until Title IX, the applicant pool was 20, 30 percent. When I applied, I got a [rejection] letter from Cornell saying, ‘We only admit six women.’ I was an in-state resident at [University of California] Davis. So Penn and Davis admitted me.

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Pamela Sargent of Charlotte, N.C., and Hendricks, right, sit in Penn Vet’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital. Sargent brings her dog, Queen Sheba, to Ryan for treatment for bone cancer. Photo by Peter Tobia

Q: What appealed to you about research? You had a lab for many years.
A: I wasn’t really thinking about a clinical career because I had been waved off of that and honestly, there weren’t many role models. I took a course that was called ‘Physiological Psychology.’ There were various new-ish fields that basically were all neuroscience, but that term wasn’t out there yet and I was absolutely, totally riveted by the idea that how you behave can have roots in real stuff that you can identify. I just found that completely,  totally fascinating and that is what I wanted to answer. Scientifically speaking, the reason for getting a veterinary degree is if you’re going to study animals, you better understand them and make sure it’s healthy. Also, I really liked them. I wound up in sleep research because it was by far the best neuroscience being done at the Vet School. Penn is probably the best sleep research institution on the planet.

Q: What are your future goals for the Vet School?
A: I would like it to be very clear to people that what they’re doing as veterinarians will help the world. They mostly know that, but people who aren’t going to be veterinarians aren’t going to know that. I would like that to be the image and the message that people have about the profession. The kind of work that we can do when we’re trying to help our dog patient for example, with cancer or inherited blindness or treating inherited neurological conditions, or epilepsy, [I hope] that people really understand that science doesn’t necessarily have to be: You plan a study, you do it on a mouse, then you write a paper, then you do another thing on a mouse or a cell culture or a computer, and then you partner with somebody who takes it into clinical trials on people. There’s another whole world of an animal who needs help with its epilepsy, and we can try a new intervention. One of the things we have going on right now is working with the Mayo Clinic and another veterinary hospital in Minnesota on being able to predict when people and dogs will have seizures in order to treat them better. It’s much better to be able to understand that in animals who have epilepsy then to create some artificial form of epilepsy in a lab. There’s a lot you can learn in lab studies, but there’s a whole world of animal patients who need help, animal owners who want to get them help, and who fully understand that you’re doing studies.

Originally published on .