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.'"
Text by Heather Davis