If you know me, you likely know that my interest in Biomedical Engineering began at age 7, when my beloved dog Hydro had his tail partially severed by a screen door.
While my younger sisters and mother cowered, I picked up the bloody stump and insisted it be put on ice to bring it to the vet. I implored our veterinarian to reattach the tail, a request she politely declined by explaining that she would need to reattach the tendons, bones, vessels, and such, to which I replied “if you know what to do, why don’t you do it?!”
From that moment on*, I became obsessed with understanding and optimizing physiology.
I initially wanted to be a veterinarian. Animals had given me such joy in my life, and the thought of helping other people continue to enjoy their pets was very motivating to me. That dream abruptly ended at age 10 when I witnessed a cat neutering, mostly because I did not understand anesthesia, and nearly fainted when they began cutting into what looked like a half-asleep kitty. I spent the rest of the day in the vet’s grooming area, and I decided that I would zoom out on my vision to to fix physiology. Fortunately, through a guardian angel fourth-grade teacher and my wonderful high school‘s science department, I found Biomedical Engineering (BME). “Perfect,” I thought, “I can make things for doctors to use that will help people, and I won’t have to cut people or touch blood.”
When I started grad school at age 21, I adopted my sister’s rabbit, Mykah, whom she had obtained through a strange RISD situation. I’ll never forget crying on the steps with her as she described the abuse this bunny had endured, and I promised to take him into my newly rented pet-free apartment.
That rabbit brought me so much joy, which was especially needed during my first year of grad school, which was the loneliest time of my life. Rabbits have personalities like dogs, in that they shine onto you unconditional love, and they provide endless entertainment when they’re sprinting around the room, performing binkies, or interspecies snuggling.
At age 22, I hit rock bottom, partially because I was spending my days in a messy basement lab squeezing blood out of dead rats, and using heavy cream as a control liquid to study properties of the blood. Yup, you read that correctly. This research project was as disgusting as sounds, and I frequently mini-cried on my way in and out of work, until I reached a point in which I couldn’t do it anymore. I quit that lab, a process which took 3 meetings with my then-advisor, in which he told me that I was making an enormous mistake, I would never amount to anything, and I was being horribly ungrateful for the tremendous opportunities he had given me. Regardless of the potential opportunities, I could not squeeze blood out of rats anymore. Again, animals had guided my path.
I joined another lab, the one that I would work in for the duration of my PhD, and adopted another rabbit from a shelter to be friends with Mykah, an unfortunately-named bunny (Boobie Bunchies – yup) that my little sister renamed Sugarplum (Plum).
The slow and deliberate process of bonding Sugarplum, my new beloved rabbit, and Mykah, taught me so much.
When Plum became sick after a week, I learned a great deal about myself. Sitting in the fluorescently-lit waiting room of an emergency veterinarian’s shelter in the wee hours of the morning really makes you take inventory of what’s important in your life, and I was stunned by how emotionally invested I was in an animal that I’d only known for 1 week. When the vet woefully told me that the procedure that may, or may not, save Plum’s life would cost $1000, I did not hesitate in paying for her care. Mind you, I was a poor grad student at the time, and that was a significant percentage of my income, but I knew that no monetary value could be assigned to a life. While I was initially embarrassed that I spent so much money on an adopted rabbit, I’m now proud of my decision, and fortunately, Plum is still kicking 6 years later.
Her recovery was not particularly quick, though, and I spent about a month feeding her antibiotics and warmed, mashed food several times a day, which forced me to become very efficient with my research and coursework. Thank you, animals, for making me a more efficient worker.
After Plum had recovered, I realized that I hadn’t. My early graduate school experiences, both in and out of the lab, coupled with newfound anxiety and low moods that resulted from my finally processing my demons, which I had kept at bay most of my life by being extremely busy and social, all of a sudden made it difficult to get out of bed, to work in the lab, and to keep up appearances.
My lowest moment came while watching my 2 adorable bunnies cuddling, and thought “the only reason I’m alive is to feed them. They’re the only ones who would miss me if I ceased to exist, and really only because I give them food.” After that thought, my inner voice came online, saying “Get up. You’re worth it. You have too much potential and too many people counting on you to wallow. Be better.” My bunnies literally saved my life, as that moment is when I decided to heal and truly love myself, even though I didn’t realize that at the time. I just knew that I had to get help, since it was a burden on myself, my loved ones, and the world for me to continue existing in this self-loathing state. I googled Yale’s mental health resources, and immediately signed up for therapy.
Counseling opened up so many other healing adventures, many of which I’ve documented, and gave me enough inner fortitude to respond appropriately when animals again would radically change my life. When I was 25, I discovered that senior lab members were hiding horrific animal abuse (I’ll spare you the details). Disgusted and heartbroken, I burst out crying, amended the situation as best as possible, and immediately spoke out to stop this undercover operation. Shouting, the abusers tried to defend their actions by discrediting me to our boss, calling me naive and weak. I endured their threats and insults, as respect for animals is far more important to me than my career and reputation as a biomedical researcher.
After my dramatic whistle-blowing, I met the challenge of working shoulder-to-shoulder on research projects with these people, who showed now remorse, by building within me a veritable arsenal of tranquility, grace, and awareness while honoring my emotions and values. I learned a ton about myself and human nature in these processes, learnings I want to share to enable others to efficiently live their best lives.
Recently, my animal–guided forays into Biomedical Engineering have come full circle. At age 27, through a wonderfully circuitous connection, I found myself meeting with the top pet oncologist in the country. He showed me his beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, explained the latest cancer treatments they used to treat animals, including immunotherapy, which had been the bulk of my PhD research, and opened up several avenues in which we could collaborate. Not only was I awestruck, heartened, and motivated by this visionary veterinarian and his incredible team, but now I have the opportunity to fix people’s pets.
Throughout my life, animals have been an ongoing source of inspiration, joy, and love, and my current mission is to help minimize the number of animals we use in biomedical research.