A mid-life career change is not uncommon. Nor is going back to school to get a second degree. Going back for a fourth degree, however, is more of a rarity, and graduating side by side with your daughter—well, that’s downright extraordinary. This is Sharon Hunt Gerardo’s story. In June, at the age of 51, she received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from UC Davis alongside her 27-year-old daughter, Angelina.
Both women had harbored dreams of becoming veterinarians since childhood. Angelina Gerardo, for her part, never considered another profession. Her father, Mike Gerardo, was a vet with a small animal practice—pocket pets, as he called them—and Angelina grew up steeped in the everyday drama and routine of caring for animals. But Sharon, who in Mike married her high school sweetheart, wasn’t accepted to veterinary school back in the 1980s; instead, she embarked on a career in microbiology. Following her husband’s untimely death in 2000, she started thinking about switching vocations.
By the time Angelina applied to college in 2003, Sharon’s decision was made, and she, too, sent out applications. Angelina thought it was a terrific idea for her mother to become a vet … right up to the day it became clear they’d both been accepted to the prestigious, all-consuming veterinary program at UC Davis. “I was not thrilled at first,” says Angelina. “I didn’t look forward to having classes with my mom every day.” In practice, though, things worked out very well. The two agreed to cultivate different sets of friends, and made arrangements to be in different lab groups. Their similar work habits and pace of learning made them ideal study partners, and in the end, they wound up cramming for many exams together, often over glasses of wine.
Today, Angelina’s veterinary career is well on its way. After joining the Army Veterinary Corps and finishing basic training, she is stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where she spends her days looking after hard-working military dogs and the pets of service members. Sharon, on the other hand, is back at UC Davis pursuing a master’s degree in Preventive Veterinary Medicine (MPVM). A fifth degree, if anyone’s counting, may seem excessive until seen in the context of her past education—she holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Davis and a PhD in immunology from UCLA—and her years in medical research. Sharon’s career change was less an about-turn and more of a course correction. Sure, in her youthful fancies she was always the hands-on vet, rinsing ears, setting broken limbs, palpating claws and paws, and removing ingested chew toys, but for decades, her passion has been for big-picture stuff. Things like disease control and prevention in whole animal populations—large-scale projects for which the MPVM program is a direct ticket.
The MPVM program is to veterinary medicine what public health is to human medicine. Graduates might work with food safety, livestock health, or wildlife and disease ecology. One current student is investigating a mysterious neurological disease that kills horses and cattle on Easter Island, and a recent graduate has just returned to her native Uganda to work on wildlife conservation. Sharon wants to focus on epidemiology and infectious diseases. Computer modeling particularly appeals to her; this is a technique that allows scientists to calculate the impact of potential outbreaks on ecology and economy, and aids them in the preparation of a response should the worst happen.
What’s the worst? Take the looming specter of mad cow disease. Britain’s mid-1990s epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy devastated the country’s beef industry, from farmers to food manufacturers to restaurants. At least 140 people lost their lives to Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating infected beef, and 4.5 million cattle were destroyed—of those, less than 200,000 were confirmed as infected. The rest were simply old enough to possibly carry the disease agent.
Nothing quite so ruinous has yet befallen the U.S., but outbreaks of one kind or another happen more and more often. Think of recalls of hot dogs or beef patties or frozen chicken pizzas. Of “species jumpers” like bird flu and bovine tuberculosis, or the pet food recall of 2007, still fresh in our memories. As the world grows ever more interconnected, ever more interdependent, anything that ails another country may soon show up in our back yard. People and animals everywhere face the challenges presented by industrialized farming and food processing. So there could hardly a better time for a scientist and researcher like Sharon to return to her original career choice.
To others with dreams of new beginnings she says, “Find a way to make it happen. If it means going back to school, do it. It may not be easy, but it’ll be well worth the time and effort.” Of course, she also recommends enlisting your friends and family for support—as she did so fruitfully herself. Consider this: If one day, in the midst of Sharon’s world-saving efforts, her dogs Annie and Black-Jack or her cats Deco, Prissy and Gracie should need complicated surgery, she can simply call her daughter.
Photographs by Richard Seagraves