Sep. 15, 2011

So You Want To Be A Veterinary Toxicologist

by Ally Ruchman

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By Ally Ruchman, Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School

Dr. Lisa Murphy, a graduate of Stanford University and University of Pennsylvania Vet School. Photo taken by Lori Raver.

I recently got the chance to interview Dr. Lisa Murphy, a veterinary toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania. I met her during my week at the VETS, while attending her lecture on toxicology. I was fascinated by what I heard. Her everyday life seemed so interesting. Now, Dr. Murphy shares what it's like to be a veterinary toxicologist.

When did you know that you wanted to be a vet?

My parents love telling the story of how I announced I wanted to be an animal doctor when I was four years old and hanging over the edge of the dolphin tank at the animal park near our home. When I was eight, I joined the volunteer animal keeper program at a county wildlife museum and was taught how to safely handle many different species of animals, clean cages, sweep floors, wash windows, and prepare meals. Most importantly, I learned to recognize what was normal and what was not for each of the animals I helped care for -- a key skill for a veterinarian.

How did you become a veterinary toxicologist?

One of the things I always liked about becoming a veterinarian was that solving the current problem for the patient at hand often required some detective work -— looking for subtle changes or clues, asking the right questions, running various tests to gather more information, etc. After graduation, I had been working at a small animal practice in New Jersey for about 3 years and decided that it was time to get really good at something. I’d actually been applying to various zoo and wildlife internships and residencies when I instead accepted a job at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. Toxicology certainly fit the bill for “detective work” and I got a chance to learn so much new information within the specialty of veterinary toxicology.

What is an average day like for you?

Every day is different -— that’s one of the things I like most about what I do and it is certainly never boring! If I am here at New Bolton Center, I typically spend lots of time on the phone or responding to emails from veterinarians, farmers, and animal owners. I also make sure that we run the appropriate tests on samples that are sent to us, and then promptly report and interpret the results. Other days I may be teaching veterinary students, attending meetings at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture or our State Capitol, or working on a new journal article or book chapter.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The best part of my job is that at the end of most days I can honestly say that I’ve been able to help someone. Sometimes it’s just reassuring someone that’s worried about their sick pet, other times it’s asking and finding answers to the right questions that will help solve a difficult problem for a veterinarian that’s contacted us.

What was the craziest case that you ever encountered?

Oh, where to begin? I never know who it might be when I answer my phone…

What is the most difficult part of your job?

The most difficult part of my job is that more often than you might think we don’t fully answer all of the questions that are asked of us. We can run lots and lots of sophisticated and specialized tests and still not come up with any helpful results. Unfortunately, this is just the reality of how science actually works, but that doesn’t really make anyone (myself included) feel any better when animals are still dying or sick.

What additional training did you need besides your DVM?

My work and training made me eligible to take the American Board of Toxicology’s certification examination. Board certification is also available through the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology.

What is the job market like for veterinary toxicologists?

Veterinary toxicologists can work in many capacities and with a variety of different animal species. In addition to working at universities and veterinary diagnostic laboratories, many are employed by research institutions and pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Murphy was also at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks and spoke about her experience.

As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, veterinarians are counted among the responders that were present at Ground Zero during the days and months that followed, providing care for search-and-rescue dogs and other on-site working canines. Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMATs) were established by the American Veterinary Medical Association in partnership with the National Disaster Medical System in the early 1990’s. VMATs have also used their specialized training and expertise to provide veterinary care following natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. As a representative of the VMAT program, I was part of a small U.S. delegation that traveled to Tokyo in May to provide recommendations for the Government of Japan about how to safely and best care for surviving animals that had been abandoned with the quarantine zones around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

To find out more on VMATs and their work, check out and

Ally Ruchman is a senior at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in Rumson, NJ. She loves animals, reading, science, and traveling.


About Ally Ruchman

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