As if the courses “Neuroanatomy” and “Cell Biology and Genetics” weren’t difficult enough, three first-year Cornell University veterinary students last year signed up for what was essentially a class in video production.
The trio didn’t earn extra credit hours, but they will be credited with playing leading roles in the new reality TV series “Vet School,” which premieres Sept. 19 on the cable channel Nat Geo Wild.
Check out a preview of "Vet School" below:
The show follows Hannah Brodlie, Cristina Bustamante and Dan Cimino as they begin their education at one of the nation’s top veterinary colleges. Folded in to the eight episodes are fourth-year students Aziza Glass, Sam Dicker, Singen Elliott and Aria Hill, who have since graduated after months of taping on the Ithaca, N.Y., campus.
Veterinary programming does very well on Nat Geo Wild. The channel’s No. 1 show is “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” featuring Michigan veterinarian Jan Pol, DVM. Also broadcast are “Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER” and “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet.”
“Veterinary shows are so popular because most people have animals or have pets or have had contact with veterinarians,” said Lisa Tanzer, the executive producer of “Vet School.”
“But they don’t really know how much vets do or that they work on all kinds of animals.”
The production company Thinkfactory Media broached the “Vet School” idea to Cornell. University administrators agreed to allow camera crews on campus throughout the 2014-15 school year.
“We viewed this as a fantastic opportunity to raise the profile of the veterinary profession in general,” said Claudia Wheatley, a spokeswoman for the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We were honored to be chosen, and we are happy to showcase the kind of experiences we provide our students as they work toward becoming veterinarians and scientists.”
Finding willing and capable students took time. Before moving from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Ithaca, Brodlie received an email from Katherine Edmondson, Ph.D., the assistant dean for learning and instruction.
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A preview of the first episode of "Vet School," called "Crash Course".
“She said, ‘Nat Geo Wild is shooting this show and we thought you might be interested in doing it,’” Brodlie recalled. “I thought, ‘That sounds like fun.’ They set up a Skype interview and got back to me a week or two later and said, ‘We’re interested in having you on the show.’”
Bustamante, who grew up in Cartagena, Colombia, and earned her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Davis, quickly opted in.
“I loved it,” she said. “The most fun part of vet school was to be on this show.”
Glass brought some know-how, having attended a performing arts high school in Houston.
“Once I graduated from high school I had to put that hat away,” she said. “But when the cameras turned on [at Cornell] it was like the merging of two worlds again. I was able to perform for the lens essentially. It was a very pleasant experience.”
The unscripted show documents the seven students in laboratories and at Cornell animal clinics. Their time commitment varied.
“At the beginning of the year crews were there two or three days a week, sometimes five days a week,” Cimino said. “The first years were split up into a couple of lab groups, so they would have one camera crew with Christina and Hannah and one with me.
“The second half of the year they brought us together for ease.”
Cimino, who earned his undergraduate degree at nearby Ithaca College, got used to the lights, cameras and production crews by wintertime.
“The hardest part for me was acting like myself and not being afraid to ask questions,” he said. “By the end of the year it was like, ‘I’m not afraid to ask a professor a stupid question. It’s not going to matter, I’m a student.’”
Brodlie was self-conscious when the taping began.
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Students have unique experience working with animals large and small in "Vet School."
“The first couple days I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ when they miked us up and the cameras followed us into our anatomy lab,” Brodlie said. “By the third day I was not super-aware of the cameras and I got more comfortable with my classmates and professors.”
The “Vet School” spotlight also lands on Cornell faculty members. Among them is veterinary curriculum lecturer Carolyn McDaniel, VMD.
“She’s kind of a prominent figure in the show because she does a lot of the first-year student labs that we followed, and she is very dynamic and very fun to watch,” Tanzer said. “She teaches in some unusual ways that are highlighted in the show.”
The cameras capture the action and personnel at Cornell’s Hospital for Animals.
“Because we follow the fourth years through rotations, there were residents and department heads that are part of the show because they’re teaching as they’re working,” Tanzer said. “We go through each of these rotations and meet these people as well.”
Nat Geo Wild programming focuses on animals, who share center stage with the students throughout “Vet School.”
“It was clear from the beginning that the crews would be with us only when we had animals,” Bustamante said.
The show’s producers promised not to get in the way of veterinary education.
“Our first priority was school,” Bustamante added. “If I was having trouble doing something with an animal, they wouldn’t ask me questions then. They would let me figure it out and then ask questions. They were always respectful with our learning.”
Brodlie, Bustamante, Cimino and Glass got a sneak peek at the first episode, titled “Crash Course.”
“It’s totally a reality show,” Bustamante said. “There are no scripts. If the cow moves and that’s the one time you jumped back you know they’re going to probably use it.”
Glass enjoyed what she saw.
“Not only will my classmates and the university like it, but I think it will inspire a lot of students to become veterinarians,” she said.
Brodlie was pleasantly surprised by the opening episode.
“The show is very honest,” she said.
Truthful, indeed. Cimino said he won’t forget what he was caught doing.
“My first rectal palpation on a cow with the cameras in my face.”
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Students put what they've learned in class into practice.
The First Three Episodes
Synopses of the first three shows in the eight-episode “Vet School” series broadcasting on Nat Geo Wild.
Saturday, Sept. 19 (“Crash Course”)
First-year student Dan Cimino gets an in-depth introduction to the chaos of an ER. The evening begins slowly, but it isn’t long before there are two serious emergencies. Fourth-year student Aria Hill is rewarded with some hands-on work during surgery to remove 10 teeth from a cat. Fourth-year student Singen Elliott is schooled by an orthopedic surgeon who reminds him to treat his patient as the tiny kitten he is, not like one of Elliott’s beloved horse patients.
Saturday, Sept. 26 (“Day One”)
The first-year students are excited to start their veterinary school career but, much to their chagrin, they start by dancing. Singen Elliott loves large animals, but all veterinary students must rotate through small animals on their quest for a degree. Will Sophia the cat be his undoing? Finally, Millie, a 3-year-old bulldog, is in critical condition. She has congestive heart failure and has come to Cornell’s Companion Animal Hospital in a last-ditch effort to save her life. Fourth-year student Aziza Glass, in her first cardiology rotation, is part of the team that hopes to save Millie.
Saturday, Oct. 3 (“In Need of a Miracle”)
A patient is thought to have an aggressive form of cancer, but the final X-ray reveals something unusual. Singen Elliott is working on a dog with a suspected breathing issue, but efforts to get the dog to cough to re-create the problem are futile. Elliott is told to run Lewis around the hospital hallways to see if that works. Aziza Glass’ rotation in large animal medicine has been fairly quiet except for one vociferous miniature donkey named Leslie who is in for a general checkup. Seems simple enough, but Leslie has quite the mind of her own.
Advice for Other Schools
Cornell University received nominal compensation for hosting the taping of the new Nat Geo Wild series “Vet School.” Wheatley offered this advice to other schools considering such a venture:
“Don’t rush into anything. Do some research on the organization making the request so you know how the project will impact your operations and what you can expect from the final production; not every outfit is of the caliber of Nat Geo. Make sure the interests of your hospital clients, students and faculty will be protected before agreeing to participate.
“The quality of Nat Geo productions speaks for itself. Even so, we spent a lot of time talking to the producers about their motivations for the show and whether it would accurately reflect the professionalism and quality of veterinary medical education. We put a lot of effort into negotiating the contract to make sure that patient care and education would not be disrupted.”
Check out some of the images from "Vet School" below: