Written by: Dr. Tierra Price
Original Date Posted: June 30, 2020
Entering university with an interest in marine biology, Dr. Hicks-Nelson was quickly introduced to the world of veterinary medicine during her admitted student weekend at Stanford University. There, she was introduced to the Comparative Medicine department in which she now works in at Stanford as a laboratory animal medicine resident after earning her DVM at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. As a resident at Stanford, much of Dr. Hicks-Nelson's professional life is centered around research and animal welfare, where she uses the passion that developed from earning both her MS and MS with thesis to study animal enrichment and socialization in the laboratory atmosphere. To read more about Dr. Hicks-Nelson's experience in veterinary medicine, view her interview below.
Interview with Dr. Alexandria Hicks-Nelson
Name: Dr. Alexandria Hicks-Nelson, DVM/MS/MS with thesis
School: Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University
Who inspired you to be a veterinarian?
During Admitted Student Weekend, I happened to attend a pre-veterinary club panel. I was immediately inspired by the presenter, Dr. Donna Bouley, head of Pathology for the Comparative Medicine department. Once I realized I didn’t want to be a marine biologist and joined the Pre Vet Club, “Dr. B” was my main mentor and sounding board during my journey to become a veterinarian. I can’t go without mentioning my parents, who were constant supporters and encouraged me to not only go to college, but in spite of my difficult time there, pursue my passion in the form of several simultaneous advanced degrees.
What are some of your passions outside of veterinary medicine?
I was raised by two very nerdy New Yorkers, and I’ve maintained my interest in videogames, tabletop games and RPG's over the years. I’m trying my hand at running a dungeons and dragons campaign, writing fantasy stories and watching Critical Role online. I taught myself how to use Photoshop some years ago and did digital art commissions during college. Currently I’m seeing if I have a green thumb as an amateur gardener and have turned my horticulture antics into a blog. ( Check our Dr. Hicks-Nelson's blog here: https://ahicksne.wixsite.com/laughingwithdirt )
Did you have any faculty mentors throughout undergrad or veterinary school? If so, how did they impact your journey?
I would say Dr. B influenced me the most during undergrad; she pushed me to be strategic in accumulating animal and vet hours, and applying to vet school. In veterinary school, Dr. Sawkat Anwer, the Associate Dean for Research, helped me immensely in pursuing and completing my concurrent double Masters. Dr. Anwer was a wealth of knowledge, from how to keep a lab notebook, to how to structure and write a thesis. The then Dean of the veterinary school, Dean Kochevar, was a professional mentor, as were many in the administration building at Tufts. I also want to mention my favorite anesthesia tech, Imani. I wouldn’t say that we got close during my rotations, but as one of the few other black women roaming the hospital, we got "New Yorker" close. I felt like I wanted to be like Imani, and I never felt judged or misunderstood by her. She didn’t feel the need to bully others to do her job or succeed, and I will always admire her for that.
What are your interests in veterinary medicine and what area of veterinary medicine are you specializing in?
(Right: Dr. Alexandria Hicks-Nelson performs a spay/neuter survival procedure on a pup at Tufts University. The pup experienced a healthy recovery.)
I would say that, by the time I was sold on applying to veterinary school as a sophomore in college, I knew I wanted to specialize. At the time I didn’t think it was financially sound to go to veterinary school as a first-generation student just because I liked animals. I was torn between pathology and laboratory animal medicine. Sadly, I didn’t learn that I get nauseous using multi-headed scopes until veterinary school. If not for that, I would have possibly pursued anatomic pathology! I say that but I’m ecstatic about my life now, as a laboratory animal resident. Many of my personal projects have to do with personnel education, animal welfare and maintenance in a laboratory setting.
How has research in veterinary medicine impacted your career?
Research and animal welfare currently occupy much of my professional life at Stanford. I have the pleasure of offering my clinical opinions to shape institutional standards and guidelines. I am empowered to safeguard animal health and wellness on and off study, and I happily conduct my own work with animal models. I’m particularly interested in animal enrichment and socialization in the laboratory setting. I hate to toot my own horn, but I suspect my first authorship paper from my thesis work at Tufts lent me an edge in the application process for the residency program. As for my vet school years, the reason I did the MS with thesis was because the other MS didn’t include any research opportunities on campus, just summer externship requirements. Thus, I’ve intentionally shoehorned research into my career, and it has intensified my engagement with animals.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is probably correcting compliance issues. I think some of the stigma about researchers within the field of lab animal medicine is the assumption that scientists are difficult to work with. Anyone is difficult to work with if they are making decisions with incomplete information. By offering information about regulations, anatomy, and pharmacology, I daily make a difference in the lives of our animals. Plus, I do those things more frequently than surgical case management, my second favorite part.
What would be three pieces of advice you would give to anyone of color looking to pursue this field?
1. Think about why you want to become a veterinarian, strongly consider other professions if it is only because you love animals.
2. Consider strategically applying to schools that have a selection process that plays to your strengths, are in state for you, or are in regions that you have family.
3. Shadow specialists and general practitioners, and keep an open mind about research, pathology, and other niches with good work-life balance and pay.