Shifting society’s notions of a veterinarian’s role

Study after study shows that eating fish has a plethora of beneficial health effects, but many fish populations are in danger of dwindling to nothing, and fresh fish can be difficult to find in certain areas, particularly in inner cities.

Two students at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Meghana Pendurthi and Ashley Cherry, plan to use a little science and a lot of hands-on work to show a Philadelphia community that consuming fish can be more ecologically and logistically sustainable—even in an urban setting.

Pendurthi and Cherry, both second-year students at Penn Vet, are among five winners of the school’s 2015 Student Inspiration Awards, which recognize students whose work has “the potential to significantly advance the frontiers of veterinary medicine and expand the profession’s impact on the wellbeing of animals and society.” The Hill Foundation provides prize money for students to launch the projects.

With their $25,000 prize, Pendurthi and Cherry will train students at Philadelphia’s W. B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences to run an aquaponics system, in which plants are cultivated in water that also houses fish or other aquatic animals. The waste products of fish are broken down by microbes into nutrients that can feed the plants.

The plan at Saul is to build a 500-gallon tank that can produce up to 100 pounds of fish in one harvest, and takes up only about 77 cubic feet of space. The system will likely grow tilapia as well as basil or strawberries.

“You can build aquaponic systems vertically, so it’s feasible to use them in an area without a lot of space, like in an urban setting,” Cherry says. “These are sometimes areas where people don’t have easy access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy lean protein.”

“We definitely envisioned this as an outreach project,” Pendurthi notes. “At Penn Vet, we are in this really unique setting compared to other vet schools where we can easily reach an inner city community.”

The other Inspiration Award winners are similarly engaged in outreach and educational activities. Second-year students Christiana Fischer and Katherine Very received $12,500 for their proposal to create an immersion program at Italy’s Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell’Abruzzo e del Molise where vet students can learn about the country’s progressive animal welfare issues. And sixth-year VMD-Ph.D. student Jonathan Madara received $12,500 to support a media-training fellowship for vet students to increase the public’s awareness of the broad roles vets can serve in society.

“Penn Vet students are some of the best and the brightest in the world,” says Penn Vet Dean Joan Hendricks. “I look forward to watching them bring their ideas to life for the benefit of society and the veterinary profession.”

Penn Vet Student Inspiration