If the future of the profession looks like Marlena Lopez—equal parts nurturer, counsellor, advocate, influencer and conservationist—then the future looks bright. By Tracey Porter
Why wait till you’ve graduated to help both animals and the profession? As a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) student at the University of Melbourne, Marlena Lopez has not yet been asked to adhere to the principles of the Veterinarian’s Oath. Yet in using her scientific knowledge and skills to promote animal health and welfare across the web and social media, it is clear it is a mantra she already upholds.
Three years ago Lopez created an online blog she calls Veterinary Adventures. What initially began as a professional portfolio to showcase her research interests and background has since morphed into an online forum through which Lopez can educate others about wildlife conservation and animal welfare, as well as offer prospective veterinary students advice on everything from the application process for international vet colleges to attaining work placements.
Raised in a small town on top of a mountain range in Big Bear Lake, Southern California, Lopez told anyone who would listen how she would one day grow up to be an “animal doctor”.
Growing up surrounded by so much nature ignited a love and respect for animals and the environment that few other occupations could match, she says.
“I didn’t know what veterinarians actually did, I just knew that I loved animals and that animal doctors helped animals. I lived across the street from a national forest and would walk often through the forest after school and observe animals. There are an abundancy of animal species in Big Bear including bald eagles, racoons, coyotes, squirrels and American black bears. Growing up in this environment, with so many unique and beautiful animals just outside my window, I developed an appreciation for nature and interest in biodiversity.”
She began by completing a Zoology degree at California State Polytechnic University where an introduction to biology helped her develop a fascination with the “fundamental parts of which all livings things are made”.
It was around this time Lopez, who is of Mexican American heritage, was accepted into a scholar’s program which saw her conduct a two-year research project on the sexual dimorphism of the Northern California alligator lizard. It was at its completion she considered pursuing a career in research.
“I grew up my entire life thinking I wanted to become a veterinarian and was suddenly conflicted about this choice,” she says. Applications to masters, PhD, and DVM programs around the globe eventually resulted in Lopez undertaking a DVM degree at the University of Melbourne—from which she will graduate next year.
“Many people say they want to become a veterinarian because they don’t enjoy working with people, however, what I enjoy most about veterinary medicine is the positive impact you can have on an entire family,” Lopez says. “Pets are invaluable members of our families. Helping an animal achieve optimal health, in turn, has a positive effect on the whole family. I also enjoy empowering pet owners through education and building relationships with clients and their pets over time.”
Inspired by her mother who was a firm believer in giving back to causes she was passionate about, Lopez too has made it a priority to commit to as much voluntary work with animal-related charities and conservation efforts as possible.
As such she has spent time volunteering with the Kellogg Arabian Horse Centre in Pomona, the Animal Protective Association of Madrid in Spain, the Sunset Vet Animal Hospital in Bali and Pets in the Park in Melbourne, among others.
Having lived experience of the difficulties of maintaining a healthy lifestyle in veterinary school, a place she says “where bad habits are developed as a means of survival, and putting life aside for studying is rewarded with good marks”, Lopez is also a committee member of Love Your Pet Love Your Vet charity which increases the awareness of mental health in the profession.
Caught in the web
It is quite by accident that Lopez has also found herself the go-to expert for prospective veterinary students as well as those who have questions about broader pet care and welfare.
Observing only a handful of recent graduates documenting their plights across social media, Lopez says she was inspired to start a public account after discovering there were almost no veterinary students with public pages, nor any way of contacting students from each university to obtain honest reviews.
Lopez says she decided to fill that void by sharing her experiences on a public site and by acting as a contact person for prospective students. Over the past few years, she has sent hundreds of messages and emails to future veterinary students, helping them with their personal statements, applications, and providing general advice, all of which has helped her amass more than 75,000 followers across her blog and social media channels.
“I think my page gained some traction because I filled a vacant niche and have showed my genuine experiences. There are several veterinary-related pages on social media now, which I think is absolutely wonderful as it allows people from all over the world with similar interests to connect with one another.”
She says Instagram has been the best at connecting her with veterinary professionals and pet owners worldwide, largely because of the platform’s ability to post images with variable length captions in a very user-friendly format.
Future’s so bright
Lopez says the greatest advice she can offer those in the industry seeking to build their social media following is they should remain authentic.
“I think the best social media strategy to have, is to choose a few platforms to have a local presence on, such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or Snap Chat. The same content can be shared across all of them at the same time, but having multiple accounts ensures that you’re not putting all of your eggs into one basket. Whether you’re an individual or business, don’t be afraid of being different; the original is always better than the sequel. Rather than copying other successful pages, if you show what makes your clinic/student experience/work unique you will create a stronger bond with your audience,” she says.
Lopez says there’s much she wants to achieve between now and her graduation next December.
While she intends starting the year in small animal emergency medicine, she aims to complete it with cattle placement in Ireland, and wildlife and conservation placements in South Africa and at Werribee Open Range Zoo.
She’s also writing a children’s book about the plight of an endangered species. A portion of the profits will go to a wildlife conversation effort close to her heart.
After that, she will see. “I am keeping my mind open to whatever prospects may come. The world is full of opportunities and I want to try as many as I possibly can.