For Denice O’Connell, bridging the worlds of veterinary medicine and medical research is not always a comfortable space to occupy. “How do you spend all these years studying to save the lives of animals, and then utilize animals to answer scientific questions?—That’s the question I’m asked most of all.”
O’Connell, a veterinarian dedicated to supporting animal welfare, oversees animal testing for a global pharmaceutical company.
She is a committed advocate for every animal in her care—she is equally committed to the potential cures and discoveries that studying these animals may unlock.
By her own admission, bridging the worlds of veterinary medicine and medical research is not always a comfortable space to occupy. “How do you spend all these years studying to save the lives of animals, and then utilize animals to answer scientific questions?” she acknowledges. “That’s the question I’m asked most of all.”
For O’Connell, director of global animal welfare and attending veterinarian at AbbVie, a global pharmaceutical firm in Worcester, navigating these two objectives has not been the downside of her professional life; it’s been the point of it.
She identified her love for both animals and laboratory science at an early age, though how to merge them effectively remained less clear. Like many young animal lovers, she set her heart on becoming a veterinarian; however, she also feared that becoming a practicing vet wouldn’t allow her to roll up her sleeves and get involved in leading-edge scientific research.
“Once you start practicing, things can become fairly routine,” she says. You do vaccinations, spays and neuters—and encounter many conditions that are very important to treat. But, in private practice, you often don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to researching every obscure disease … I wanted to know it all.”
O’Connell discovered the path less taken during a job-shadowing assignment in her senior year of high school. “I spent one week in private practice, one week at the Oregon Zoo, and a week with a veterinarian who did research for Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).” she recalls. The vet at OHSU wasted no time in giving her a reality check on what the life of a researcher entailed, but O’Connell was not to be dissuaded.
“She had papers stacked everywhere, and she said to me, ‘These piles represent all the regulations and laws I need to know and enforce every day.’ She gestured to another stack of papers. ‘And these piles hold all the work I’m doing to enrich the lives of the animals I’m working with and provide them with play and social housing.’ That was all very appealing to me,” recalls O’Connell.