The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 12, NO. 1     JUNE 1998

WPI/Tufts Grad Moves From Labradors To The Laboratory

Intelligence, compassion and a commitment to patient care are the hallmarks of a good doctor. Michael Thibodeau '93 was one of five seniors at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine who were profiled on the Nova program Animal Medicine, which aired in February. Anyone who watched him care for the fragile foal, vaccinate the cows or comfort the sad-eyed horse during that program could have no doubt that the soft-spoken student would be a terrific vet.

But Thibodeau, who majored in biochemistry at WPI and completed his D.V.M. in 1997, has chosen a career path that will take him out of the clinic and into the laboratory, where his research may someday bring better health to animals and people. "Veterinary medicine is becoming more and more specialized," says Thibodeau, who is currently at the halfway point of a two-year residency in veterinary pathology at North Carolina State University's Veterinary School in Raleigh, N.C. "There are a lot of experimental therapies. Research moves both ways: from human to animal and from animal to human."

Although he has spent the last nine years at a university and passed the Veterinary Medical National Board Examination and the Clinical Competency Exam, and has only to take the state boards to be licensed to practice veterinary medicine,Thibodeau is excited about opportunities in research and is planning to pursue a Ph.D, in immunology, developmental/reproductive biology or toxicologic pathology (ToxPath).

The choice may be a difficult one for him."ToxPath is a hot area right now," he explains. "Researchers in this field look for acute organ toxicities or carcinogenicity associated with long-term use of particular compounds. Their work extends far beyond pharmaceutical companies, since chemical companies and environmental researchers depend on similar studies." But he is also attracted by other research initiatives. "Many biotechnology companies are developing novel drugs to modulate the immune system for a variety of autoimmune and infectious diseases, so a Ph.D. in immunology seems interesting. "And," he adds, "toxicology studies in developmental and reproductive biology seems equally interesting."

Thibodeau, who majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate, credits WPI for nurturing his interest in science-and for giving him opportunites to explore different areas of interest. A native of Coventry, R.I., he spent his freshman year at the University of Rhode Island, then tranferred to WPI for its project program. He worked in the Biology/Biotechnology Department during his sophomore year.

"After my second year I had financial problems and my parents and my advisor, BBT Associate Professor Daniel Gibson III, encouraged me to consider the Co-op Program," he says. "I spent the following year at Seragen Inc., in Hopkinton, Mass., where I worked in the Quality Control Department and learned about the biotechnology industry-experience and exposure that I feel opened the door to many more opportunities later on."

After Seragen, Thibodeau was awarded a summer fellowship to the former Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Mass., where he continued to work during his junior year and where he completed his Major Qualifying Project. "For my MQP, I showed that a form of the enzyme Carboxyl Methytransferase is free in the cytoplasm and not located in a cellular nucleus, " says Thibodeau. "It was a procedure Dave Adams (associate professor of biology and biotechnology) had us do in our student lab sessions. The MQP allowed me to independently apply some of the skills I'd learned at WPI and at work.

He continued working-this time in the Cellular Immunology Department at T Cell Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., where he spent the summer after his junior year and worked part-time during his senior year at WPI.

Despite his busy and challenging class and work schedule, Thibodeau was active in campus life as well. He was a member of the men's crew team, Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, and the Bio Club and worked with the Social Committee during the years his close friend Ed Connor '92 was president. During his junior year he was a volunteer analyst who assisted with the processing of Worcester county samples for the Massachusetts Acid Rain Monitoring Project ; as a senior he took part in the city's Big Brother/Little Brother program as a senior.

As graduation approached he was uncertain of his intentions. "At WPI I got extensive training toward a bench-top career in biotechnology," he says. "I had been educated in cell biology, microbiology, genetic engineering, and protein chemistry, but I knew very little of anatomy or of the functioning of an animal/human as a whole. I choose veterinary medicine because of the challenges and biological diversity I would be exposed to."

The organizational skills he gained in balancing his work and school responsibilites stood him in good stead during the grueling years at Tufts, where he studied diseases and treatment of farm, companion and laboratory animals and completed one- to three-week rotations in large and small animal surgery, anesthesiology, raidiology, oncology, dermatology, intensive care and clinial and anatomic pathology. "We worked six or seven days a week, often more than 12 hours, and, in our senior year, became responsible for 'real' patients."

Thibodeau maintains a similar schedule as a veterinary pathology resident, where his anatomic pathology studies have honed his detective skills. "Our time on duty is split between necropsy and surgical biopsy service," he says. "On necropsy we evaluate animals that die or are euthanized during treatment at the teaching hospital to provide solutions to questions not answered in the clinics. Sometimes we are called in to deal with herd outbreaks in the local area and we also see cases from the North Carolina Zoo.

"Last summer an outbreak of respiratory disease began killing a herd of expensive miniature donkeys. Healthy animals would die within two days of the onset of respiratory difficulty. Working with the Virology and Microbology departments at the veterinary school, Thibodeau and other pathologistss uncovered "microscopic footprints that indicated that a virus had been present-even though virology could not isolate it. With supportive therapy the remaining members of the herd survived."

Thibodeau is grateful for the educational foundation and opportunities he received and (although he did not take part in it) enthusiastically supports the WPI/TUSVM dual-degree program. "WPI is at the forefront of training scientiests for the research industry," he says. "My strong foundation in biotechnology has given me an advantage, since pathology is merging with molecular biology to create molecular pathology. This new field utilizes many of the techniques that WPI's biotechnology program educates its students in. Now, more than ever, the D.V.M. is extremely important in academic, biotechnological and pharmaceutical research-and I believe that having a WPI and veterinary background will prove very useful tools for scientists like me who are choosing careers in the emerging and changing field of pathology."


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