Just like the retired racehorses that she studies, Joanna Kania had another career before coming to Virginia Tech.

The 35-year-old worked in public safety for seven years before she returned to school to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an equestrian veterinarian.

“The first thing I would do when I got off the school bus was go ride our pony,” said Kania, of Foxborough, Massachusetts, a senior majoring in animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Being a veterinarian and working with horses is what I’ve always wanted to do, but I got a little sidetracked.”

Kania is one of 14 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a new program created by Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute and the university’s Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology, in partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The goal of the program is to increase diversity in undergraduate research.  Each Fellow receives $1,000 to conduct research with a Virginia Tech faculty mentor over the course of one academic year.

At 6 p.m. on April 20, the fellows will present their research at the 2017 Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship Showcase in Fralin Hall. The event will involve a reception, poster session, and brief remarks by Dean and Thanassis Rikakis, executive vice president and provost at Virginia Tech.

The public is welcome. Fralin Hall is located at 360 West Campus Drive in Blacksburg.

Kania attended James Madison University but left her sophomore year due to family issues. She has two children and has a third on the way, due in April 2017.

She worked as a 911 dispatcher for five years, and then as a police officer for almost three years. Although she loved being a police officer, she knew that she had to return to her original calling when she could.  

She started taking online classes at Blue Ridge Community College and at New River Community College to “test the waters” before she enrolled as a full-time undergraduate at Virginia Tech.

“I would be sitting in my police car on the side of the road, and people probably saw me and thought I was working radar. But I was actually trying to finish up my term paper,” Kania said with a laugh.

Since May, Kania has worked with Sally Johnson, the Paul Mellon Distinguished Chair of Agriculture in the department of animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Kania is involved with multiple experiments designed to determine better ways to help geriatric or heavily exercised horses, such as retired racehorses, regenerate muscles. Her research in the lab paved the way for her to begin studies at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in August.

“Joanna is an incredibly talented and hard-working student,” said Johnson. “Her ability to reason and problem-solve will serve her well as a vet. My lab was very fortunate to have her as a member of the team.”

“The cohort of the inaugural Fralin Undergraduate Fellows is an impressive group, and, just like Joanna, every one of them has a compelling personal story,” said Dean. “I have been delighted to get to know this group and have been so impressed with their enthusiasm. I am also very grateful to the faculty mentors that have guided their research.”

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