D. Paul Lunn, BVSc, MS, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVIM, is a professor and head of the Department of Clinical Sciences in the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
I'm a member of a diverse group of scientists whose research focuses on the health and welfare of the horse. Each year many of us get involved with high-profile equine problems; this year it was EHV-1 neurologic disease, but laminitis, racing injuries, and other diseases threaten the horse annually. At these times owners and vets want information, and they turn to equine research for answers. The good news is that every year research progress is made and can help more horses. So, how did this group of scientists make a career out of equine research? It was no accident, and if we want equine research to continue and strengthen, what does it take to grow a researcher?
My wife (also a vet) jokes that the last major decision I made about my career was deciding to go to vet school--after that I was just lucky. She is probably right. After graduating from Liverpool I headed to Ontario Veterinary College for an internship and later a residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Those experiences left me with a fascination with research into real-world clinical problems--something I have my faculty mentors to thank, and especially Sheila McGuirk (DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM) in The Dairy State.
The ultimate currency for clinicians is knowledge, and the search for new knowledge is addictive. All of us who go down this path want to be there when something new is discovered and be the first to use it in the clinic. I knew I wanted to join that equine researcher club, but I needed more training, so back to the University of Cambridge for a PhD with my next inspirational figure, Phil Duffus (BVSc, MRCVS, PhD, MA), who trained me in equine immunology. Equipped with new skills and tools, I had a big break--my mentor put me on the stage at a big meeting for a keynote presentation, and I started making the connections that have helped me throughout my career.
My next big break came when I got a faculty job back at Wisconsin where the school took a chance and invested in me, giving me time and resources to start an independent research career. More good fortune: The lady in the next office was one of the world's top influenza virus researchers (Virginia Hinshaw, PhD, now the chancellor of University of Hawaii at Manoa). Virginia finished what the others had started, pounded some sense into me about how to write a grant, and put me in the way of opportunities. Now, 20 years after that first faculty job in Wisconsin, I'm one of many equine researchers at Colorado State University, a world-class center for equine progress. So, the story thus far: I got a lot of help from brilliant mentors, and I spent some time at amazing universities who took a chance on me ... a lot of luck I would say.
There is one more vital element: funding! To test your brave new theories you need research grants, and in the equine world there are only a few places you can go for these. I started with university seed grants, but to tackle the larger problems in equine immunity and infectious disease I needed substantial support. Enter the key equine grant funding foundations, without which none of us could achieve anything. Early support from the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) got my first projects moving, but for me the most important help came from the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which has funded me for 16 years.
Grants from these organizations and others like the Morris Animal Foundation are absolutely essential for both young and seasoned equine researchers, and they have a critical impact on equine health. Without their support we would have no one to answer our questions about our horses' welfare. The support I received from Grayson helped me get federal support, and that started major collaborations with industry so we could do even more. This story is typical. Without the support that Grayson, AQHA, and Morris provide, I never would have left the starting gate.
Think about it next time you need to call someone for help: The reason equine researchers are there to answer is because of these foundations. They need luck, too, and your support.