Interview with Veterinarian Karyn Bischoff

Karyn Bischoff

Join us on Wednesday, April 18 for a Science Cabaret on plastic, with Dr. Karyn Bischoff, a Veterinarian and Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences at Cornell University. Karyn will be talking about “The Problem with Plastics”.

How did you become a scientist?

I’m not sure that I ever became a “real” scientist.  I’m a veterinarian, so I use science to practice medicine, and I’m a toxicologist, so I’m very specialized, but I have the opportunity to do long-term research projects, but I also do a lot of short-term problem solving that lets me see how my work affects people and animals every day.

And how has your interest in science continued (what keeps you
inspired)? Who encouraged you?

I wanted to be a veterinarian as far back as I can remember, but when I was in veterinary college I realized that being a practicing veterinarian who takes care of dogs and cats or horses and cattle wasn’t really what I wanted to do, and I had great mentors who helped guide me into a specialty career that suits my interests and skills.  I was staying late at the veterinary college one evening and my mentor happened to walk by, and he stopped and said “do you want to do a residency in toxicology?” and I said “yes” and that’s how I got into my specialty.  I had to train for 3 more years after graduating with my DVM, and then I had to take an exam at the end.  I did some more training in other areas after that (wildlife ecology and medicine, pathology) and was finally recruited to Cornell.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m the diagnostic veterinary toxicologist at Cornell, which means I consult with veterinarians, researchers, government officials, and people in the pet food, people food, and pharmaceutical industries and try to help them make diagnoses in individual animals or groups of animals, and solve problems.  I do a lot of work on the safety of food for animals and people and also how disease caused by environmental contaminants in domestic animals relates to humans that live with the animals or consume animal products.  I also teach some of the smartest and most compassionate people in the world at the College of Veterinary Medicine. After many years of working on problems that impact not only my veterinary patients, but people as well, I’m working on a Master’s degree in Public Health (MPH) in my spare time.

Do you collaborate with other scientists? Non-scientists?

I mostly work with other veterinarians, but I collaborate with a lot of people.  I often work with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the US Food and Drug Administration, and I get to work with people in animal science and wildlife ecology on a regular basis.  The best thing, though, is that the results of my work helps a lot of animals and people who I’ll never meet.

What will you do when you finish this research?

I don’t think I’ll ever be finished.  I’m always learning new things.  One of the cool things about my job is I never know what new problem is lurking around the corner for me to try to solve.

Describe your lab, workplace, or field site.

I am mostly the person at the desk on the phone or responding to emails or doing paperwork.  People contact me when they want help solving a problem:  did this dog get into something?  Is there a problem with this batch of cattle feed?  Did someone intentionally poison my animals?  But I also spend time in the laboratory looking at food samples, water samples, and sometimes biological samples (like vomitus) under a microscope trying to figure out if there’s anything suspicious there, and I sometimes go out to the veterinary clinic or the site of the suspected poisoning incident to investigate.  I have several chemists that work in the laboratory.  We use gas chromatography/mass spec and liquid chromatography/tandem mass spec to identify organic contaminants like mold toxins, pesticides, drugs, and industrial chemicals, and we have atomic absorption, inductively coupled plasma, and X-ray fluorescence equipment for measuring inorganic contaminants like lead and mercury.

What would surprise people to know about your field of work?

I think people would be surprised to know how much my work impacts human lives.  Some years ago, I was called because a pet food product contained an unknown contaminant.  I eventually reached out to others in the veterinary toxicology and pet food industry communities, and soon thereafter the FDA got involved.  The pet food was recalled, and it took all of us together several months to identify the contaminant, in part because it was something that no one had ever come across before, and it was something that wasn’t very toxic under normal circumstances.  Anyway, we figured out what it was and one year later, there was a problem with baby formula in China, and the problem was very similar to what we were seeing in pets that got contaminated pet food.  It only took the regulators a day to figure out that they were dealing with the same contaminant because we’d done all the work to figure it out in dogs and cats the year before.  There were 300,000 children affected, and 6 children did die, but I wonder how much higher it would have been if the government hadn’t figured out what the problem was and how to treat it so quickly using our dog and cat data.  (Interestingly, at that time, the head of the United States FDA was a veterinary toxicologist, Dr Stephen Sundlof.)

Where can we find out more about your work?

Thanks Karyn!