James Downey was thigh-high to a Percheron when he got his first look at veterinary medicine. As he watched the local vet treat his grandparents’ draft horses, the seed for a career in animal health was planted.
He already was tuned in to the idea of a medical career because both his parents were nurses. “They do health care for people; I love animals. I saw this as a way to tie the two together,” says Downey, who grew up in Manitowoc County near Valders.
By high school he was earning money raising grass-fed beef and litters of pigs and helping out on nearby dairy operations. And he’d begun shadowing a vet—the same one who treated his own stock and his grandparents’ horses.
By the end of his freshman year at CALS, Downey was on the fast track. He’d been accepted to the highly selective Food Animal Veterinary Medicine Scholars program (FAVeMedS), which was created to address concerns about a shortage of agricultural veterinarians. Undergraduates in FAVeMedS are guaranteed a spot in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) after completing their junior year.
As a designated vet-to-be at CALS, Downey pursued hands-on training in the labs of CALS animal sciences professor Mark Cook and SVM professor Dr. Gary Etzel. And he honed his people skills by serving as a peer mentor in the Bradley Learning Community (a housing program that helps freshmen transition to college life), as a house fellow in the Farm and Industry Short Course dorms, and as a leader in groups like Saddle and Sirloin and Collegiate FFA.
The business he’s going into is changing fast, Downey says. “Vets are spending more of their time in a consulting role. Our job isn’t just to treat animal disease. We look at the entire farm to see what we can do to prevent infections and outbreaks. As a vet in the future, it will be important to have broad knowledge for looking at the whole farm.”
Getting that broad knowledge will likely take him far from home—he plans to work on swine, beef and dairy operations outside of Wisconsin in his fourth year of vet school, his “extern” year, to see different practices—but he hopes that’s temporary. “I’d love to end up back in Valders,” Downey says. “I love where I’m from. I want to learn as much as I can, to be well-rounded, so that when I move back I can help everybody.”