From Chemist to Vet: Dr. Lauren DiPonio’s Journey to becoming a Veterinarian
December 29, 2020
Dr. Lauren DiPonio is a 2012 graduate from Massey University. Read on to discover more about her unique journey to become a vet!
In the midst of uncertain times, you may actually have some TIME to reflect on why you aspire to become a veterinarian. For me, from the very first kindergarten placemat I brought home, I was going to become a “vetrnaryin”. My LOVE for animals and my innate desire to be near them throughout my life made it almost inevitable. However, I went on a bit of a detour, eventually finding my way back to my passion. But how could a 5 year-old possibly know what they want to be; what being a veterinarian really entailed (other than just cuddling puppies and kittens all day)?
After high school (growing up in a very small town in BC’s Okanagan Valley), I moved to Vancouver and completed a B.Sc. at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Chemistry. I was overwhelmed when I arrived; my first class, Physics 101, had more students (500) than my entire high school (350). My grades suffered at first, but I rebounded and by the end of my degree they were good, but not quite good enough for the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). Maybe it was because I was lacking experience, volunteer work, and more elaborate veterinary experience; how the heck does one have time to juggle school, sports (or hobbies), work, volunteer work, a social life...
My response was an attempt to improve my grades by completing an M.Sc. in Chemistry at UBC. During this time, I volunteered as a dog-walker at the SPCA and also as a kennel hand at a vet clinic. Once I completed my M.Sc. I became a full-time Associate Chemist for a pharmaceutical company. But I also worked on weekends at a veterinary clinic as I was craving human and animal (let’s be honest, mostly animal!) contact, because a conversation with a fume-hood is a little one sided. As chance would have it, one of the other assistants at the vet clinic I was working at had just left for vet school in New Zealand…..and the wheels started to turn!
After researching to ensure it was accredited (meaning I didn’t have to jump through hoops to practice back in Canada), I applied! I had never been to New Zealand, knew not one single person in the country, was seriously lacking in world travel experience, and had definitely NEVER travelled alone. Lo and behold I was accepted. YIKES!!! In July of 2008 I landed in rainy Palmerston North, New Zealand; alone, away from everything I knew, and completely unprepared for what the next four and a half years would bring.
Vet school was one of the best, hardest, most tiring, and most exhilarating times of my life. I was in a new and beautiful country, surrounded by 100 people who all loved the same things I did, and was ready for the challenge. One of my classmates decided to add up all of the recommended hours for the cumulative classes in our 3rd year syllabus and it ended up being 32 hours per day - clearly there was either some miscommunication between the professors, or someone is terribly bad at math! They can’t possibly expect…and then it hits you. You DO NOT have time to study how you used to. You do your best, but realize that you still need to eat, sleep, shower, exercise (for me that was and is playing sports), maintain other hobbies and passions, have a social life, and maybe even work. I recall a mantra one of my classmates had: “C’s get Degrees!” And it’s true; NO client asks what your grades were in vet school. The skills you gain in vet school - compassion, animal behaviour and handling, ability to utilize resources, basics for everything you hope you need to know, teamwork, and self-preservation - are just as valuable as the information in your ever-growing (and expensive!) collection of textbooks. In reality, you will gain most of your clinical practical skills and knowledge AFTER vet school; at least that’s how it was for me.
When I arrived in Victoria in December 2012, I was unemployed and had to wait to write the provincial exam in February 2013 to become a licensed veterinarian in BC. To fill my time, I met with MANY practice managers—most of whom were not hiring new graduates at the time. I also thought it best to practice my very limited surgery skills, so I volunteered at a local spay and neuter clinic which led to my first job as a veterinarian at a multi-clinic company. However, my career path as a veterinarian was not ideal from the start; I worked with one other vet but ONLY overlapped for four hours a week. I was fresh out of vet school and found myself working long hours, putting in overtime, being on call, and COMPLETELY burnt out after two years. I recall thinking, “Did I just spend 12 years in academia to do THIS?” And then...I quit. It was probably the first time I had really quit anything, as normally I would simply endure, but I guess with age and experience you begin to understand what matters most to you, and mental well-being is way up at the top! And I haven’t looked back since. I have been at an amazing practice for the past five years, and am in the midst of becoming a partner. I never thought I’d be an owner, but over time our goals change, as do we. I have such incredible support from my staff, mentorship, autonomy, respect, and have built profound relationships with my clients and their pets.
I love my job because it challenges me every day. I am constantly learning and always adapting, especially during these unprecedented times. Taking a HUGE step outside my comfort zone and moving to New Zealand has given me the career I have always dreamed of (ever since that kindergarten placemat!), a wonderful husband, two beautiful children, and of course our dog Luna.
I wish all of you future vets the best. If I could offer my best bits of advice, they would be these: maintain your life balance, as your body needs exercise, sleep, and healthy nutrition (www.nutritionfacts.org) to function optimally; get as much experience as you can to ensure you know exactly what you’re getting into; when you fail (and you will) learn from your mistakes; take constructive criticism with open arms; and always remember to communicate, communicate, communicate as it is the key to every successful relationship - friends, family, colleagues, professors, and best of all, animals.
Dr. Lauren Di Ponio