Class of 1987 MVB graduate and Dean of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM) Sean Callanan, MVB, CertVR, MRCVS, PhD, FRCPath, DiplECVP was recently selected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). Dr Callanan has been a leader in veterinary medicine, research and pathology for 35 years, with more than 100 research publications and several leadership positions with the European College of Veterinary Pathologists, London’s Royal College of Pathologists and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.
1. What made UCD stand out as the place you wanted to pursue your studies?
In the 1980s there were limited opportunities to study veterinary medicine. UCD offered this field of study as one of the leading veterinary schools in Europe. I appreciated the small-sized campus in Ballsbridge, which allowed you to truly get to know everyone in your programme. There were also many wonderful and dedicated teachers who always made time for the students, and unique opportunities to experience the art and science of both small and large animal veterinary medicine in the heart of the city.
2. What was your UCD experience like – the social scene, classes, and lecturers?
As a student, I enjoyed both the social and educational scene, including formal social activities such as being part of the host committee of the annual veterinary student “conference/party” between UK and Irish veterinary schools. I was also part of the group that reactivated the annual veterinary carol service (where I contributed through a musical rather than singing talent). UCD created a wonderful learning experience with small classes, just around 100 students at lectures, and smaller groups for practical-based activities.
3. What is your fondest memory from your time at UCD?
While I have many fond memories, being part of the group that reactivated the annual carol service is one of my fondest. This event was a great opportunity for students and staff to get together to showcase their talents and to contribute in some way to creating a Christmas spirit at an educational institution.
4. How has your degree benefited your career?
The opportunity to receive an education is something we should never take for granted. In today’s world that continues to advance exponentially, it stops me in my tracks to know there are still hundreds of millions of people who do not have access to even a basic education. Education has afforded me a challenging job that I get to enjoy every day, it equipped me with the foundation and many of the skills I needed to navigate my current job.
Veterinary medicine truly encompasses an art and a science. It equips us to be critical thinkers, using evidence-based data to make informed decisions, while at the other end of the spectrum it provides a foundation in communications, social science, and business. Through a ‘One Health’ mindset, veterinary medicine fosters in us the abilities to see issues involving human health and our ecosystem and to address them more broadly. The degree is powerful and foundational and has seen colleagues flourish not only in veterinary practices but as business owners, researchers, international policy drivers, and chief executive officers of international companies. Just note the impact of Pfizer CEO Dr Albert Bourla, a veterinarian who steered the world’s premier innovative biopharmaceutical company to rise to the challenges imposed by COVID-19.
5. Do you still keep in touch with your UCD classmates?
Yes, the veterinary world is relatively small, so even though my classmates are scattered around the world it is amazing where our paths have crossed. Our class has also been great at organising 5 and 10-year reunions, with our next big one in 2027 (40 years!). When I lived in Ireland a group of us would also get together for a weekend annually.
6. Have you been back to campus since graduation? Has it changed?
Campus has certainly changed since I was there in the 80s. In 1999, I returned to UCD as a member of the faculty in the Department of Veterinary Pathology. I spent 15 years there and in that time the campus moved from Ballsbridge to Belfield, to state-of-the-art facilities adjacent to the O’Reilly Hall. The spirit of a small school in a large campus prevailed, and for the faculty, it allowed the opportunity to integrate into UCD’s other schools and colleges. This created wonderful opportunities to advance research partnerships in particular and show how we could contribute to the overall research agenda.
7. Did you always want to pursue veterinary studies?
I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but my areas of interest changed over time. I believe it is important to remind students of this and allow them to remain open-minded, thinking of education as a stepping stone. We never stop learning and life is one of our biggest teachers. I have learned the art and science of veterinary medicine and applied this in strategy, leadership and mentorship. My success is due to others who guided me.
8. What have been the most challenging aspects of veterinary medicine?
The nature of my job presents daily challenges. I’ll often find myself in the privileged position of hearing students’ amazing stories of adversity and in those times, I hope in some small way I can help pave a smoother path for them. Other challenges come on a bigger scale, such as at the start of the pandemic determining how to deliver a relatively practical programme to 1,100 students through remote learning in five days! Other issues included figuring out how to fly students from around the world back to an island that had been successful in reducing the COVID-19 impact, without threatening the health of its citizens. There are constant challenges and as leader of an educational institution, there is a need to constantly evaluate what you teach and how you teach it. Challenges keep you sharp and highlight the value of a team with diverse experiences to take action on these challenges. I am blessed with a great team.
9. Who are the most interesting or helpful mentors or advisors that you have had?
Throughout my life I have had many great mentors. Firstly, my parents, who didn’t have the opportunity of further education. Secondly, my maths and science teacher who taught me at the small Christian Brothers School I attended in the west of Ireland and who pushed me and always believed in my abilities. Within the veterinary profession, many great people stood out as mentors and people of integrity – Dr Hester McAllister from UCD, Professor Os Jarrett my Ph.D. supervisor and mentor at the University of Glasgow, as well as the pathology team there (Hal, Irene, Pauline and Richard you know who you are). As I rose in the ranks of management I have been inspired and mentored by Lisa Wardell, former president and CEO of Adtalem Global Education and a trailblazer for education and social justice. She is an entrepreneur, advocate, and role model for minority women, and a wonderful crisis manager.
10. What advice would you give to someone who is just beginning their career in veterinary medicine?
Your veterinary degree affords you endless possibilities. If you are not enjoying what you are doing, then you are in the wrong job. Use your degree to find a better one, or advance your training.
11. Tell us a bit about your current life, family and hobbies.
I am married to Anne, and we have three sons: Conor, Niall, and Liam. While we have a home in Hollywood, Co. Wicklow, Anne and I spend most of our time in Saint Kitts and Nevis where RUSVM is located. When there is downtime, I love to travel. I like walking more than running and still find time to play music, although I would rather play as part of a sing-song than alone.
12. What do you do to relax?
Music and reading. I do enjoy it when the opportunity arises to “go into my cave.”
13. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I don’t know where I got this advice, but I stick to it all the time, “never make a decision when you are tired”.