Despite the huge amount of research taking place in 2015, researchers surprisingly use fewer animals today than earlier in the 20th century. According to the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science the number of animals used in research actually decreased in the past 20-25 years. This may be due to increased use of mathematical models, as well as emerging technologies, such as organ-on-a-chip, that provide biological test beds for a variety of experiments. (Check out an awesome lab at Penn, BioLines, doing work in this area.)
However, many areas of biomedical research still rely upon the contributions of animals. The research I am pursuing for my PhD involves understanding how humans and animals interpret chronic pain and how injuries develop into chronic pain syndromes. Because so little is known about the complex interactions between tissue remodeling, inflammatory cells and cytokines, and the spinal cord and brain, the use of animals in this type of research is essential at this point in time.
A resident veterinarian at Penn, Blythe Philips, is pursuing post-doctoral research in the same lab as me, as well as performing veterinary duties for lab animals across the Penn campus. I found her to be an amazing mentor for working with animals. This past semester, she helped me with a new, challenging experiment and along the way answered my long list of questions about laboratory animals. Was I doing everything correctly? What is the best way to do this or that? I thought BPC readers, many of whom also work with lab animals in research, would benefit from her wisdom and expertise.
Blythe is a Penn-trained veterinarian and huge animal lover (check out photos of all her beloved pets over the years, below!). Her interest in animals developed early in life, when she worked in a barn. “I’ve always loved being around animals and working with them, and I always thought that I would go into a field where I would get to do that. In high school, I started working as a barn hand at a horse farm on evenings and weekends, and when there were sick horses I used to stay until the vet got there so that I could follow her around. I always thought it was pretty amazing that she could figure out exactly what was wrong with a horse with just simple, stall-side tests and a physical exam—in patients that can’t speak, no less! It seemed like the ultimate detective work.”
After completing her veterinary degree at Penn, she stayed at the University to pursue a residency in laboratory animal medicine. “I became interested in lab animal medicine while I was an undergraduate research assistant in a lab that studied African clawed frogs. I was in charge of breeding them and maintaining the colony so that I, as well as my labmates, could study aspects of their development. A breeder frog would occasionally get sick, or a group of tadpoles wouldn't do well, and it was so interesting to me to try to figure out what was going on and what we might do to improve the situation. I found myself being as interested in the maintenance of the frog colony as I was in my project, and it was the first time that I realized how important the comfort and health of the animals is to the quality of the research—unhappy frogs don’t lay many eggs, and sick tadpoles aren’t good examples of normal development.” In my own research, maintaining healthy and calm animals is essential to understanding the true effects of particular chronic pain states.
When I first started working with animals in undergrad, I was really nervous! Now, when learning a new technique I still feel anxious sometimes and have to really perfect it before I feel comfortable doing it in the context of an experimental procedure. Blythe assured me that this is completely normal. “People are often really anxious about the prospect of working with animals in a research context for the first time, either because they are worried about handling the animals themselves or they are unsure of their ability to perform a technique.”
“While adding live animals to the equation does introduce a lot of moving parts, I think it is important for people to realize that it is ok to be nervous—just take things one step at a time and use the resources that are available to help you. Many research institutions have a variety of people—from vets and vet techs to trainers and more experienced investigators—that are very knowledgeable and have a lot of wisdom to share. Some techniques may take some practice, and you just have to be patient with yourself and with the animals. If you are unsure or uncomfortable with something, as in any other field, you should reach out for help. With a little time and the right trainers you will be the pro that everyone else is coming to [for help]. I think it’s a good idea to talk with other animal researchers within the group to get an idea of what their day to day life is like and whether it is something that you find interesting and exciting.”
In addition to Blythe’s own research, she spends time counseling researchers across campus on working with animals, as well as caring for animals in various research facilities. This aspect of her job has provided her with a variety of interesting experiences. “Lab animal residents wear many hats. Probably the most important one and the one that takes most of our time is the clinical care hat. Our job can be a lot like working as a vet in private practice, except that most of our clients are grad students or PhDs and our patients are the animals in the colony. We work closely with investigators to come up with a plan to help fix the animal’s problem without compromising the aims of the research. One of the great things about this field is that investigators work with all sorts of animals, from fish and frogs to mice and larger mammals, and we get to treat all of them. Two days are never the same.”
This summer, Blythe will finish her residency and begin a new job at Penn as a lab animal veterinarian. (I am so excited she is sticking around!) Her new role will be within the University Laboratory Animal Research (ULAR), the lab animal care department at Penn. ULAR is responsible for the maintenance of healthy, happy animals within the research colonies. “So that can start with helping investigators acquire high quality animals in the first place, and can extend to everything from to day-to-day husbandry and clinical care to helping investigators with techniques, model selection, and study design.”
One of the great things about this field is that investigators work with all sorts of animals, from fish and frogs to mice and larger mammals, and we get to treat all of them. Two days are never the same.”
ULAR also promotes the concept of the Three R’s in lab animal research: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. Blythe provided me with a quick review of things to consider. Don’t worry-- not a training session!
Although I certainly don’t feel like an old pro when working with animals in the lab, working with Blythe taught me that it is okay to take my time and not rush into new protocols. The anxiety I used to feel when something would go wrong with an animal—sweaty palms and racing heart!—still arise sometimes. But I try to remember that I know what I am doing and it’s okay to ask for help. Plus, when I stay calm, working with animals is a whole lot more fun!
In my experience, the majority of animal researchers are also animal lovers."