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An Interview with... Dr. Shirley D. Johnston
Veterinarians should embrace their role in public health and step forward as proactive animal advocates, says the first female dean of a U.S. veterinary college. "We need to become the leaders in welfare issues, not the resisters."
Shirley D. Johnston, DVM, PhD, DACT, is dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif.
What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?
The move to embrace animal welfare, initially championed by Dr. Leo Bustad. This move has caused a change, still ongoing, in the veterinarian's primary role as a responder to disease and injury to that of a holistic healthcare provider with significant responsibility for preventing disease, enhancing the human-animal bond, and promoting animal well-being. Veterinarians should see themselves as animal advocates and public health resources, which includes an expanded role in aiding national security and preventing bioterrorism.
I'm inspired by the transformation that veterinary education can make.
Who was your most memorable patient?
They were all memorable, and I loved them all, well, except for the chow chow that tried to bite me while I was trying to collect semen from him.
Who inspired you most in your career?
Dr. Carl Osborne, who taught me to think critically; Dr. Raimunds Zemjanis, who helped me appreciate the value of excellence and stubbornness; and my dear husband, Dr. Gary Johnston, who always reminds me of what really matters in life.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
Always wear comfortable shoes. You have to run fast, leap over obstacles, and land on your feet.
What would you advise a new graduate?
Understand what income you need to generate to justify your salary. Commit to being a lifelong learner in your field. Take on the responsibility of being a community leader. Look for opportunities to be an ambassador for the profession. Set goals that require you to stretch your abilities. And wear comfortable shoes.
You were the first female president of the American College of Theriogenologists and are the only female dean of a U.S. veterinary college. How has being a woman affected your career in veterinary medicine?
Dr. Elizabeth Stone is the new dean of the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College, and Dr. Sheila Allen is serving as interim dean of the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine. These are important leadership roles for women in veterinary academia. Gender issues that the profession still struggles with include salary differences between men and women, the paucity of women leaders as deans and department heads in our colleges, and the importance of striking a gender balance in our admission and graduation processes. I believe that our profession will be strongest if it looks like the populations we serve, with similar representation of men and women and full participation by people of color. Being a woman has affected my veterinary career in many ways, most of them positive, but it has not defined nor limited my career.
As women graduate from veterinary schools in record numbers, what will be the effect on the profession?
Female veterinarians have demonstrated competence in all dimensions of our profession. However, we have not always succeeded in achieving representation proportionate to our numbers. All of us have times when we see men and women differently, communicate with the genders differently, or, unconsciously, develop different expectations of men and women. Therefore, I believe that we have a societal responsibility to be inclusive and to consistently and proactively endeavor to draw men and women and people of color into all of our activities.
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Both. Since our children have left home, our remaining family consists of Shadow, an elderly golden retriever; Kona, a middle-aged Akita cross; Grace, a nasty 19-year-old cat that we dearly love; and Blinky, a one-eyed, long-haired black cat that we adopted after the shelter told us no one would adopt her because of the superstition about black cats. They saw us coming.
What book would you recommend?
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. This book promotes the hypothesis that people with autism and animals do not filter afferent stimuli the way people without autism do. I would recommend it to veterinarians because it helps us see animals in a different way.
What part of your work do you enjoy most?
Interacting with colleagues, students, and clients. I'm inspired by the transformation that veterinary education makes in a student's life and by the great work that veterinarians do all over the world.
What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?
Tunnel vision, clinging to tradition instead of embracing change, competition at the expense of collaboration, failure to understand the importance of diversity in our profession, rudeness, unkindness, and uncooperativeness.
Which animal health needs are currently unmet?
The needs of homeless animals and animals in third-world and war-torn countries. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges has provided wonderful leadership under Dr. Robert Kahrs in helping reestablish veterinary education in Afghanistan and Iraq. Practitioners can continue the association's great work here at home by serving as animal advocates on issues such as feral cats and for state and local legislation involving animal welfare.
What changes in veterinary medicine do you hope will occur in the next 100 years?
- Every veterinarian will see himself or herself as an animal advocate. We need to become the leaders in welfare issues, not the resisters.
- We will contribute to world conservation and sustainable agriculture through programs such as Envirovet, Heifer International, and other organizations that need veterinarians' breadth of education.
- Veterinarians will see themselves and be seen as important parts of a public health team. All veterinarians are public health veterinarians, as we all interact with people and animals. The huge challenges we face—human health and welfare, food safety, emerging diseases—mandate that we see ourselves in this role.