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Grad Student Makes an Impact on Equine Medicine

Emily Martin is talking about white blood cells and in this moment it’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever heard.

She lights up when describing how they move and the intricate pathways through which they interact with each other, how they defend the body against bacteria but can also cause a slew of inflammatory diseases. She is riveted by how certain types of the cells can leave the bloodstream to attack and kill a pathogen.

“It’s such an intricate design,” she explains. “These cells are their own entities. They’re like little people in your body doing battle for you.”

Martin soon shifts to describing their effect on cells that line the gut of horses. That part relates to her 200-page Ph.D. dissertation about exploring therapeutic options to target inflammation in horses, which can lead to such common but debilitating issues as arthritis and colic

She pauses. Then there’s a smile.

“So I’m really, really interested in the immune system. It’s fascinating,” she says definitively.

Martin quickly moves to another subject, but the glint of excitement in her eyes and the ardor in her voice remains.

That same enthusiasm is there when she talks about her own horse, Bob, whom she has had since she was 13 and is now retired to a pasture in Zebulon. It’s there, too, when she remembers being 19 years old and sitting in a dark, quiet science lab at 11:30 p.m. during an undergraduate summer research trip to Missouri, waiting to see if an experiment would work. It did.

But to see Martin’s true, deep nature, to get a clear idea of what type of person and scientist and veterinarian she has become during her time at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, you need to wait for her to talk about teaching.

“What’s so important to me is being someone who helps students accomplish anything they want to do,” said Martin. “That’s what I’ve gotten the most reward from — helping people to get where they want to go. The research is rewarding; I never get tired of working with horses. But I think I will make a bigger impact as a mentor. That’s what has made the biggest impact on me.”

“My hope is that I will make an impact on performance horses from all disciplines, as well as the future students of equine sports medicine by blending clinical medicine, research and training.”

It’s that spirit, confident and unquestionably genuine, that has guided Martin through the rigorous dual DVM/Ph.D. program at the CVM that demanded an unbreakable work ethic and Martin’s flexibility to shift between lecture halls, sterile labs and dusty barns.

And it’s that devotion to veterinary medicine that has just earned Martin, of the Class of 2018, a $75,000 Coyote Rock Ranch Scholarship from the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

The award, given to just four veterinary students across the country this year, recognizes those with great promise as leaders in the future of performance horse medicine.

“My hope is that I will make an impact on performance horses from all disciplines, as well as the future students of equine sports medicine by blending clinical medicine, research and training,” Martin told the AAEP in the scholarship announcement.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. If it sounds very ambitious, Martin would agree with you. But what it most sounds like is Emily Martin.

“I’ve learned that I can do things I am afraid of,” said Martin. “Growing up, school was challenging, but I never faced anything that was terrifying to me. Grad school was wonderful and pretty terrifying at the same time. But now I know I can do it. And that feels amazing.”

An Inclusive Education

When she graduates in the spring, Martin will have spent most of her 20s at the CVM — she started at 21 and she’ll turn 30 in September. Counting the four years spent as an undergrad at NC State getting animal science degree, Martin has spent nearly half of her life on campus.

Her graduation comes at a particularly exciting time for the CVM’s equine service. A proposed $37.9 million expansion and renovation of equine health services is part of NC State’s Think and Do the Extraordinary fundraising campaign.

The expansion includes elements particularly exciting to Martin: a new sports medicine facility, a revamped orthopedics service, upgraded intensive care facilities and cutting-edge imaging services. The already funded Tiffany and Randy Ramsey Equine Sports Medicine Program will treat performance-related diseases in a variety of sport horses and help endow professorships.

“The equine program is just a great environment and it’s a great place to be mentored,” said Martin, who earned her Ph.D. in 2016. “You get help to achieve any goal you want to achieve.”

Photo by Nathan Latil/NC State Veterinary Medicine

And in her final year at the CVM, she’s doing something she has never done before — clinics. After years of switching back and forth between fundamental DVM classes and research projects, she’s now getting daily, hands-on experience caring for horses arriving at the equine veterinary service.

And she’s loving everything that comes with a clinical year, from surgeries to basic check-ups to getting more direct experience with the equine team.

During clinics, everything she has learned over the past nine years, in the research lab and in the classroom, is coming together in practical ways, to diagnose disease and implement cutting-edge treatments.

To help horses heal.

“One of the most rewarding parts of clinics is getting to bond with each of my equine patients,” she said. “Getting to know their individual personalities helps us give them the best care possible.”

It’s confirmation that Martin is well-equipped for the career she wants — a clinician scientist at an academic institution, splitting time between lab research, teaching, emergency room shifts and hours-long surgeries.

“I realized that if if I was going to make an impact on equine medicine, research was one of the strongest ways to do that,” said Martin.

When she first arrived at the CVM, Martin’s goal was more straightforward — a DVM to become a general practitioner. She always knew she’d focus on equine medicine — “There’s never been something else that I wanted to do,” she said — but didn’t have a specific job path in mind.

Instead, she was eager for experiences and open to whatever came her way. She had done lab work as part of NC State’s undergraduate research program, and after her first year at vet school, took part in a summer research program with Anthony Blikslager, an equine surgery and gastroenterology professor internationally recognized as an expert in gastrointestinal physiology and equine colic.

The following summer, the project that really sparked Martin’s research interest was a collaboration between Blikslager and equine medicine professor Sam Jones, looking at how a type of white blood cells, neutrophils, can damage the gut of horses. Chalk it up to voracious scientific curiosity: Martin loved the project because there was no definitive understanding of how neutrophils do that.

Not only did she eventually join Jones’ lab but, in order to spend more time on research, she applied for the CVM’s dual DVM/Ph.D. program as a second-year vet student. Most interested in the dual program apply before vet school begins.

“I realized that if if I was going to make an impact on equine medicine, research was one of the strongest ways to do that,” said Martin.

Martin’s research is impactful — and practical. She was mainly focused on new ways to inhibit inflammation in horses, therapeutics potentially safer than some current treatments that come with damaging side effects.

Emily’s horse, Bob, is very sensitive to such NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Many horses are fine taking such medications. For others who are more sensitive, it may cause ulceration of the gastrointestinal system or damage the kidneys.

Such drugs are used for horses recovering from colic surgery or performance horses dealing with a slew of orthopedic problems, such as osteoarthritis. For Martin, whose goal is to work in sports medicine, it’s a project that is endlessly interesting and brimming with potential.

“Inflammation plays a role in almost every disease process,” said Martin. “What we’re researching is one piece of the whole puzzle, but it’s a big, important puzzle to solve.”

Red All Over

NC State is Emily Martin and Emily Martin is NC State.

Both of her parents are alums. So is her sister and best friends. She met her now-husband, Tim, freshman year when both lived in the dorms at Bagwell Hall, an honors residence.

They married toward the end of 2015, when Martin was in the thick of research and trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation. She was doing experiments up to the week before her wedding. She’d go to the florist to check on flowers for the ceremony and then come right back to the lab.

“I will never love another school like I love NC State.”

Her connection to the CVM goes back even further. As a child, her parents would take her to the college’s Open House events. She once got in trouble for touching pig she wasn’t supposed to.

“I love NC State so much,” said Martin, who was born and raised in Raleigh and has never lived elsewhere. “I will never love another school like I love NC State.”

But another school may be in her future. Following graduation, she will do a one-year rotating equine internship, and she thinks she may want to do that in another state, to try another thing she has never done before.

“If I could have my dream job right now, I’d like to stay in academia and I would love to have an appointment where I can teach quite a bit,” she said. “Also do clinics, but also have a research lab, which sounds like so much and not possible, but some people do it. Some people do it.”

Martin is one of those people.

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine