RVT Spotlight of the Month – July 2021

July 2, 2021

Melinda Blimkie, BScH, RVT, RLAT

Where did you go to school and what made you decide to take a Veterinary Technology program?
I went to Algonquin College in Ottawa. I really enjoyed studying biology at university, but when I finished my degree, I didn’t feel prepared to enter the workforce. I was looking for college programs that would allow me to gain hands-on practical experience, and since I had always been interested in pursuing a career working with animals, the vet tech program was a perfect fit.

What is your current job(s)? When did you start it?
I am currently a Research Technologist at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario. I started in 2009.

Did you need to obtain additional qualifications in order to do this job?
Additional qualifications were not required, but I decided to pursue the Registered Laboratory Animal Technologist (RLAT) qualification through the Canadian Association of Laboratory Animal Science (CALAS).

What made you want to pursue this position?
I was looking for an opportunity to use my knowledge and skills in both biology and veterinary technology and this position was the ideal combination of both research and animal care.

What is a typical day like for you at work?
A typical day for me involves both animal work and laboratory work. Currently I am the lead technologist on a project examining the effects of low dose radiation on the development and progression of breast cancer. We are using transgenic mice with a human breast cancer gene that causes the mice to spontaneously develop mammary tumors. We expose the mice to low doses of radiation and examine systemic, cellular, and molecular parameters to investigate the potential beneficial and/or detrimental effects of the radiation treatment.

One of those parameters is tumor development, so part of the animal care for this project is to examine each mouse for mammary tumors and measure the size of any tumors that are present. From a scientific standpoint, we are tracking the tumor latency, size of tumors, and number of tumors/mouse. From an animal welfare standpoint, we are checking the overall health of the mice and tracking tumor size to ensure we are staying below the tumor volume endpoint that was approved by our Animal Care Committee.

Another large part of this project is analysis of the tissues after euthanasia. A typical experiment involves humanely euthanizing the mice and collecting tissues such as mammary glands, tumors, spleen, lungs, and bone marrow. Our experiments typically involve a team of 7 people to extract tissues and process them for various analyses. For example, I extract bone marrow and mammary epithelial cells and grow them in culture to see if there are any differences in cell colony formation in irradiated vs. un-irradiated mice. Other colleagues extract spleen and thymus cells and examine the expression of various immune system components. We also collect samples for histopathology to investigate the occurrence of metastases and changes in other organ systems. These are just a few examples of the types of analyses we perform on our samples. Our goal is to get as much information as possible from each mouse in order to examine cancer development from the perspective of the entire organism; from tumor size all the way to cellular and molecular changes.

What is your favourite part about your job?
My favorite part of my job is the opportunity to participate in unique and innovative research projects. I am a person who craves variety, so being able to work on different projects over the years has been very rewarding for me. I have learned so many new techniques and procedures and I foresee that continuing into the future throughout my career.

 What is the hardest part about your job?
I am proud of the work that I do and I believe that the research that we are doing is meaningful and important, but I still experience feelings of sadness, guilt, and empathy for the animals in my care. I think about it as an internal balance – the part of me that supports the scientific/medical merit of the research vs. the part of me that wants to protect all animals from discomfort. It has been so important for me to recognize that both of those parts are valid, and most importantly, to realize that they can exist together. I can be both an advocate for ethical treatment of animals and a supporter of scientific and medical research. In fact, I believe that the people who should be working in animal research are the people, like me, who feel a strong sense of responsibility to give research animals the respect they deserve for helping humans advance science and medical treatment. We owe them so much. Although experiencing complicated emotions can be a hard part of my job, it is also one of the things that makes me a better technologist, because I know at the end of the day that I have done everything I can to ensure that experimental animals have received the highest level of care.

 How has being an RVT helped you in your role? Do you feel like you are using a lot of your RVT skills and training?
Absolutely. Although most of the training and education in my vet tech course was focused on companion animals, the skills are highly transferrable. Many of the same techniques still apply, just on a smaller scale for mice and rats. One of the skills that I think stands out the most is just the general ability to assess the health of an animal and the overall understanding of what a healthy animal looks like vs. an animal who is unwell or in pain. Animals can’t speak to us, but they can show us how they are feeling in many different ways, and being able to perceive those signs is a key skill to ensuring welfare when working with research animals.

 What other jobs have you had in the RVT field?
I worked in a companion animal hospital for 2 years after I completed my RVT degree. I worked in general practice and in the lab analyzing blood and urine samples. I really enjoyed it and I’m glad that I had that clinical experience before I moved into research because it was an excellent opportunity to build my technical skills. When I left that position and started working in research, I really missed interacting with clients and developing a relationship with their pets. To fill that void, I volunteer as a cat foster parent with the Ontario SPCA. It has been so rewarding to nurture cats and kittens and then send them off to loving forever homes.

COVID-19 has amplified stress in everyone’s lives. How has this impacted your role? And if so – what specific tools are you focussing on when helping individuals or teams through the stress of COVID-19?
While we were still able to continue research throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to scale down significantly. During the initial lockdown, some animal projects had to be interrupted due to restrictions and provincial shutdown regulations; it was a very stressful time for the staff involved. After the initial lockdown, our facility Animal Care Committee (of which I am a member) developed stringent criteria to allow animal projects to resume, including ensuring a full complement of fully trained contingency staff to account for possible staff absences. Animal care workers were also given a designation of “essential staff” by our organization to ensure that if another lockdown occurred (which it has), we would still be able to continue animal work using proper health and safety restrictions. We have been able to continue with a reduced number of projects. Our main focus has been very careful planning to ensure that any animal study that starts during the pandemic can be completed fully.

Something else that stands out to me in the midst of the pandemic is appreciating how research using lab animals continues to have a huge impact on our lives. Without experimental animals, we wouldn’t have the vaccines that are protecting us all right now. It is truly humbling.

RVTs are passionate people, and every RVT has an area they are most passionate about (nutrition, research, spay/neuter, dog bite prevention, education, etc.). What is YOUR passion?
My passion is encouraging conversations about emotional and mental wellbeing in the workplace. As people who work in a caregiving profession, it’s important to acknowledge that what we do at work affects other parts of our lives, including our emotional and mental wellbeing. We think of research as being scientific and methodical, but it is also inherently emotional – whether we are feeling grief at the loss of an experimental animal, or excitement for new treatments that may save the life of someone we love. Not everyone will want to express their emotions or communicate in the same way, but my goal is to start the conversation and open the door to the idea that our emotional and mental wellbeing at work matter. I believe that creating time and space for that expression is important. I’m am currently working towards creating a tribute dedicated to our research animals as a way to honour their invaluable contributions to our lives. My hope is that it can be an outlet for our lab to express our deep gratitude and respect for the research animals that we care for every day.

I would love to connect! You can contact me at melinda.blimkie@gmail.com or find me on social media (Instagram @minny.blimkie, Facebook Melinda Blimkie).

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