It was 2 a.m. in the small town of South Berwick, Maine, on the New Hampshire border, and Catherine “Kate” Pouliot was helping her neighbor calve out his cows. Despite the deep chill in the air and the pitch-black sky, the young girl found the experience exciting.

Pouliot, who was born to, as she describes them, “non-sciencey” parents, did not grow up thinking she would become a veterinarian. Even so, that early morning experience sparked a love for veterinary science that has pushed her in new directions — and to considerable success.

A student in the mixed animal track at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM) at Virginia Tech, Pouliot is poised to receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree as the Class of 2020 valedictorian. The achievement has also earned her the Richard B. Talbot Award, named for the founding dean of the college.

Pouliot, who completed a B.S. in animal science from the University of Maine, was drawn to VMCVM because of its new curriculum, which was introduced in 2016. The curriculum enables practical experience sooner, with the goal of improving students’ problem-solving skills and establishing a solid foundation that will empower students in the classroom and beyond.

Clinching the deal was Blacksburg’s small-town charm. “I fell in love with Blacksburg and the campus,” Pouliot said. “It felt like home immediately.”

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Once enrolled at the veterinary college, Pouliot thrived in good part because of support from mentors who inspired her. Though initially not inclined to specialize while in school, those mentors guided her to a decision to pursue cardiology.

During a mentor event at the veterinary college, she met Bill Tyrrell '92, a cardiologist who received the college’s Lifetime Achievement Alumni Award in 2019.

“I think I walked by his table four or five times, just trying to gather the courage,” Pouliot laughed. “When I finally sat down to talk to him, he said, ‘I have the best job in the world, and I love getting up and going to work every morning, and I wouldn’t change a thing.’ And that convinced me.”

The interaction with Tyrrell led Pouliot to speak to former cardiology professor Jonathan Abbott and cardiology residents Hyeon Jeong and Giulio Menciotti, who all offered insight and guidance. On the heels of this encouragement, Pouliot decided that cardiology was the right specialization for her. “It was a group effort,” she said.

Besides her work as a research assistant in the Zajac Parasitology Lab and on a retrospective cardiology study with Abbott, Pouliot’s hands-on experience in the college’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital proved to be especially meaningful.

One special patient, a sheltie named Chloe who was experiencing atrial fibrillation, revealed to Pouliot that her ability to make an impact was considerable.

“I built a good relationship with both Chloe and her mom,” Pouliot explained. “If there was a day they didn’t come in, I would call them every morning to see how she was doing. I really saw the effect that cardiology could have on a patient’s life, and I was glad to give Chloe more time with her family. Her mom sent us a nice email just saying thank you after Chloe passed away.”

Along with helping patients and their owners, Pouliot said that she is proudest of the relationships she built with her peers while at the college. Such connections helped them work through challenges together.

With degree in hand, Pouliot is headed to Texas A&M University to complete a small animal rotating internship, aiming for a cardiology residency afterward. “I’d love to be able to give back through mentoring,” she said, “because I’ve had such great mentors here.”

— Written by Sarah Boudreau, a student in the M.F.A. program in creative writing

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