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Class of 2020: Boldly Breaking Through

She had already made up her mind.

Sam Lin was set on going to Texas A&M’s vet school. Born and raised in San Antonio, she wanted be close to home and had long dreamed of attending the school. Plus, there’s no better place for someone with a Texas-sized love for football.

So she filled out her A&M acceptance form and was about to send it in. The school had sent her a poster that said “Future Aggie veterinarian.” It was already hanging on her bedroom wall.

But reaction to her being accepted into North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) had been drop-dead enthusiastic. “You got in? You have to go there,” a resident at a hospital where Lin had volunteered told her.

So, “just for kicks,” Lin decided to visit NC State’s CVM in April during a welcome day for admitted students.

And a half-hour conversation changed her future.

“I had been talking to a couple of students and told them I was really interested in surgery and that I’d really love to end up in academia someday, doing the teaching thing, maybe doing a little research,” says Lin. “And they were all like, ‘You have to talk to Dr. Gerard because he’s amazing and everyone loves him.’”

So at a dinner on campus, Lin found Dr. Mathew Gerard, an associate professor of anatomy. She sat down at his table and talked to him about her interests and what she wanted to do with her life. Gerard discussed NC State’s offerings, as well as Texas A&M’s. He talked to her about research opportunities. He answered questions and she listened.

“He was just so laid-back and gave me such good advice,” says Lin. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s an anatomy professor. He doesn’t have to be nice to me.’ 

“It wasn’t a hard decision for me after that.”

Boldly forging her own academic path — she has never been content to sit and wait for opportunities to present themselves — Lin, 22, has a steely determination complemented by an unpretentiously sly sense of humor. She was like this as a child when, at 4 years old, she told her mom she wanted to be a vet, despite her parents always wanting her to go to medical school.  

“She was like, ‘Oh no.’ And I was a really stubborn kid so it sort of stuck,” she says.

Like her sister, who’s now in her second year of medical school, Lin went to a magnet high school that emphasized pre-med studies. She did give human medicine a try, volunteering at a hospital freshman year. But she also began shadowing veterinarians at the same time.

She quickly realized medical school was not for her. Veterinary medicine, quite simply, felt a lot more like what she was “supposed to be doing.”

“What I really liked was that all of the vets that I met, a lot of it is fostering client communication and relationships,” says Lin. They’re really invested in helping these owners as much as they’re helping pets, and that’s what really drew me into the profession.”

Lin went to Harvard University for undergrad (again passing over Texas A&M, her first choice). Academically impressive, of course, but technically not the best decision for someone devoted to studying veterinary medicine. There’s no traditional path from Harvard to vet school because, well, there are so few people at Harvard who want to go to a vet school. In her class of 1,600, Lin says only two other people had pre-vet aspirations.

I wanted to challenge myself, live away from home, see how I could handle it. The advising [at Harvard] is great if you want to go to medical school. It’s great if you want to go into finances. It’s not-so great if you want to go to vet school. So it was a lot of learning on my own. ”

There’s no biology major at Harvard — there’s also no majors; they’re called concentrations —  so Lin ended up concentrating in organismic (a word, by the way) and evolutionary biology. Lin cringes when saying the name because “it sounds so pretentious.” There were no advisers at Harvard to share solid information, or even advice, when it came to staying on track for veterinary graduate school.

It became immediately clear that forging her own destiny would be not only hard work but necessary.

“I’ve never been someone who has taken the easy path,” says Lin. “So I wanted to challenge myself, live away from home, see how I could handle it. The advising [at Harvard] is great if you want to go to medical school. It’s great if you want to go into finances. It’s not-so great if you want to go to vet school. So it was a lot of learning on my own.”

And it was a lot of putting herself out there. She was full of vet school-specific questions with no direct answers on campus, so she became “really good friends” with the admissions office at the Texas A&M vet school.

“They probably have a folder with my name on it that says, ‘don’t pick up when she calls,’ says Lin. “because I probably called 20 times freshman year figuring out classes.”

Then she took charge. Freshman year, she shadowed the neurology unit at a vet hospital in Woburn, Mass., which required a half-hour on a subway line, then another half-hour on a commuter rail followed by a mile walk along a freeway. Starting at 6 a.m. On Saturdays.

And then came Angell.

When she was 8, Lin had visited Boston with her parents, who wanted her to visit Harvard’s campus. Instead, she asked to visit Angell Animal Medical Center. Now, after a vet she had worked with in Texas wrote her reference, she was shadowing at Angell’s cardiology unit. The experience at Angell shaped Lin’s desire to pursue specialty medicine.

“I think that probably the most valuable experience out of going to Harvard was getting a chance to extern at this place that I had always dreamed about going to,” says Lin.  

The vet experiences kept happening because Lin made them happen. She once inundated a professor with emails so she could get on a list of just six students to help dissect a lion’s leg. All of the others were graduate students. She worked while back home in San Antonio during holiday breaks. She had shadowed at a specialty vet hospital in Texas for a week during winter break freshman year, and when she called later to ask if she could come back to shadow again, they offered her a job instead. Suddenly, she was an OR tech.  

“The whole idea that you can’t just ask someone, ‘What hurts and where and if I give you this medicine do you feel better?’ Just trying to figure out what is going on is really interesting, as is the whole facet of helping people through helping their animals.”

A love of surgery blossomed. She helped prep animals for procedures, fetched instruments and was able to see basically any type of surgery she could have wanted. She ended up working there for two summers and then for two winter breaks. She was able to have rare experiences like chatting with Dr. William Liska, a pioneer in canine hip and knee replacement.

And by the end of her undergraduate experience, she was keenly aware of the fulfilling nature of veterinary medicine.

“I think a lot of it is just how challenging it is,” she says. “The whole idea that you can’t just ask someone, ‘What hurts and where and if I give you this medicine do you feel better?’ Just trying to figure out what is going on is really interesting, as is the whole facet of helping people through helping their animals.”

Since graduating Harvard in May, Lin has been doing something she hasn’t done in a long time —  nothing. That not been easy for someone who says her biggest pet peeve is being bored. But yes, she’s thought about what she wants to get done while at NC State’s CVM. She loves anatomy and can’t wait for dissection experiences (and getting the chance to be Dr. Gerard’s student). She’s excited to sink her teeth into a research project (her senior thesis at Harvard was on canine cancer genetics). She’s heard the Surgery Club is great. “I definitely need to go to some football games,” she adds.

And she’s looking forward to showing her parents, who were slow to warm to the idea of their daughter going into veterinary medicine, what she can do. But her parents couldn’t be more supportive now. Lin’s mom was on stage with her during the class of 2020’s white coat ceremony in early August. She smiled as she placed the coat on her daughter’s shoulders.

“She’s been a big part of going to vet school and really I think her challenging me on this has really reinforced why I want to go,” says Lin. “Because if you have to answer the question of why are you doing something every single day for 20 years, you really develop a good answer for it.”

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine