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How I Became a Vet—Part I: The Undergraduate Years



Ever know deep down that something was just meant to be? I knew from the time I could walk and talk that I was supposed to be a veterinarian, so everything I did growing up supported that goal. Step one: get into a good undergraduate school. My parents felt strongly that I should follow in my big brother’s footsteps, so I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Enrolling at UIUC

“Bobby” enrolled in the College of Engineering, and I enrolled the College of Agriculture (now called ACES for Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences) as a Jonathon Baldwin Turner Merit Scholar. A prestigious honor and not insignificant cash award, to me the biggest benefits of being named a “JBT” scholar were the instant network of peers and access to faculty and leadership that might have been difficult otherwise for a student coming from a high school class of 78 to a Big Ten campus of over 50,000 bodies.

I had another ace up my sleeve named The Campus Honors Program or CHP. A fledgling society at the time, I was invited to become a member of this group because of my previous achievements in high school and promising outlook in college. CHP also made what could have been an intimidating institution seem like an inviting, intimate learning experience. While I took Classic Civilization 100 (“Class Civ”) in the Lincoln Auditorium right along with thousands of other students, because of my involvement with The Campus Honors Program, I also took another class of Professor Scanlan’s with only ten or so other students. Less didactic lecture and more round table dialogue equals enhanced learning and an incredible college experience.

But being a part of CHP wasn’t just about the honors classes. There were dress rehearsals of operas, plays, and musicals at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts; grants for research; student get-togethers at the CHP house. The result of being treated like an individual and not a social security number? Straight A’s the first semester and the Mother’s Association Book Award!

Classes, Classes, and More Classes

As an Animal Science major and “pre-vet student,” selecting classes each semester didn’t leave a whole lot of room for electives. Between Nutrition, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry (ugh), Biology, Biochemistry (yay!), Physics, and other prerequisites for veterinary school, I had a pretty full load. But I managed to find room for some 300-level science classes like Immunology (tough but good); some business classes like Statistics and Ag Econ; some marketing and PR classes like Ag Com; as well as some classes just for fun like Ballroom Dancing and Class Civ.


Of course, you also have to put food on the table and pay the bills, so it was off to work I went. That first semester my wonderful faculty mentor (who later became the Dean of the College and eventually Dean of the whole University!) helped me secure a position in the Meat Science Laboratory or MSL. The former home of the veterinary school at Illinois until the new south campus was built, in between classes I could be found on the second floor (the first floor housed the abattoir) tracing ultrasounds of pig back loins, a tedious and mindless task. One day the professor I was working for stopped by to chat about my goals, my grades, etc. Once he found out my GPA and that I was pre-vet my life changed! I became the research assistant for a graduate student studying IGF2 or Insulin-Like Growth Factor II. Anybody can isolate DNA and identify genes; it takes a truly talented team to obtain the much more fragile mRNA strands from muscle tissue. I graduated from cleaning beakers and preparing solutions to pouring gels and dissecting gastrocnemius muscle. Eventually I obtained my own funding and ran my own experiments!


All work (and classes) and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes—plus I couldn’t stray too far from my passion (horses) and still be sane, so I joined the Illini Riding Club a.k.a. “Riding Illini,” a play on our athletic team name, the Fighting Illini. This was the group that competed in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association or IHSA, but because of some silly rules somewhere, we weren’t allowed to call ourselves a “team” so “club” it was. In addition to serving as President, I also competed all four years against schools like Purdue, Northwestern, Miami of Ohio, Taylor, Ball State, and IUPUI in Stock Seat Equitation and Hunt Seat Equitation on the flat and over fences. Coming from a dressage background, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I did much better in a western saddle (earning Open status) than a jumping saddle. That darn two point!


Without some four-legged, furry relationships, I’m not sure that I would have made it through undergraduate school, so let me end by thanking my beloved Bert back home, my first horse, as well as the generous horses I rode or leased in Champaign-Urbana, including Agnes, Riva, Jade, Bird, and JD (Jack Daniels). I should also mention that my roommate (also pre-vet) and I secretly kept two white mice in our dorm room, frantically hiding the cage in our closet whenever the RA would appear for an inspection. She came up with the clever name of Mao Tse-Tung (get it? Mou-se Tung?) while I stayed with the world leader theme and chose Napoleon, or “Nappy” for short.

Next time: How I Became a Vet—Part II: The Veterinary School Years

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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One comment on “How I Became a Vet—Part I: The Undergraduate Years
  1. Amy Narotsky says:

    I am a current member of the Illini Equestrians at the University of Illinois! It is an inspiration to read about Dr. Gray. Our club has recently started a new alumni initiative to connect current members with alumni and I would love to learn more about the history of our organization!

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