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Greg

Dr. Greg Vernon

University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine


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Professional Statement

Unlike many in the field of veterinary radiation oncology, I would not describe myself as a veterinarian who fell in love with radiation physics, but rather a physicist who fell in love with veterinary medicine. I first developed and maintained academic interests in math and physics in high school, and during my college years at Johns Hopkins University, I chose to major in biophysics. My degree required advanced coursework in biology, physics, and computer science, with classes including wave phenomena with biological applications, spectroscopy, computational biology, and biological physics. While I had both a talent and a strong interest in physics, I decided during my junior year of college that a career in veterinary medicine would be the best fit for me. At the time, I was attracted to veterinary medicine for several reasons, including the challenge of solving medical puzzles, the relatively immediate gratification often associated with treating disease, and the joy of working with animals. I knew that it would be unlikely that I would use my background in math and physics in this profession, but I decided it would be worth the trade-off. I applied for and was accepted into the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. By my third year of vet school, I was confident that I wanted to specialize and was beginning to gravitate toward the field of oncology. I became interested in this specialty partly for personal reasons (around this time, my family’s miniature poodle developed primary pulmonary carcinoma), but also because I began to appreciate the strange contradictions inherent to cancer. For example, consider the steps required for a tumor to metastasize: first, the tumors cells must separate from the primary tumor, then the cells must invade through neighboring tissues and penetrate their basement membranes, then they must enter into blood vessels or the lymphatic system, and then finally they must form a new lesion and create an entirely new blood supply. If a single one of these steps is not performed, or if the body’s immune system mounts a strong enough response at any point, then the tumor will not metastasize. One would think that metastasis would be a rare phenomenon, and yet there are tumor types that spread consistently and predictably in our companion animals. While I have heard many colleagues say that “cancer does what cancer wants,” I am continuously amazed by how predictable many tumor types can be in terms of organ predilection sites, breed predispositions, local vs systemic spread, and median survival time. Each tumor has its own personality, and by fitting that personality within an existing profile, the veterinary oncologist can predict prognosis and response to treatment. In addition to lectures on the basics of how tumors spread, part of my oncology course during my third year of vet school consisted of two lectures by Dr. Pfeiffer, the university’s veterinary radiation oncologist. I was immediately intrigued by the potential to combine my old interest in physics with my new interest in oncology. Dr. Pfeiffer’s lectures prompted me to seek out as much exposure to radiation oncology as I could over the past two years, in both academic and private practice settings. My intentions have been to learn more about this field and to ensure that it is the right fit for me. Through my various externships, I have realized that many of my skills in physics, math, and computer science will serve me very well in this field. Additionally, I love how radiation oncology has such a strong emphasis on treatment of disease (as well as management of side effects, of course), which makes it a rewarding specialty to pursue. I also find the diagnostic elements of radiation oncology interesting, especially advanced imaging and pathology. Much of oncology boils down to simple statistics, and advanced diagnostics allow us to form a better statistical model for how a given tumor will behave. In addition to my passion for veterinary radiation oncology, I believe that I have other strengths that might prove valuable in a radiation oncology residency. I participated in a summer research project at the National Institute of Health (National Eye Institute), where I studied the effects of light- and dark-adaptation on retinal thickness in a mouse model of inherited photoreceptor degeneration. This project exposed me to an imaging modality called optical coherence tomography (OCT), which can obtain near-histopathology quality images of the retina in a non-invasive manner. By the end of my project, I became proficient at the technical aspects of setting up the OCT equipment, which required paying a good deal of attention to patient set-up (much like set-ups for radiation treatment). This project also provided me with experience analyzing data, presenting a poster, and being involved in the publication process. I also have a fairly strong background in computer science and familiarity with several programming languages, which may prove useful in day-to-day operations (such as quality control) and may come in handy for research projects. My long term goal is to work as a veterinary radiation oncologist either in private practice or in academia. The potential uses for veterinary radiation oncology is constantly expanding, and I am excited about the future of this field. Particular interests of mine include total lung radiation for pulmonary tumors, total body radiation for canine lymphoma treatment, and brachytherapy to treat urothelial carcinomas.

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