Graduating PRA Spotlight: Ally Bettencourt ’21

PRA Grad Reflections - Ally Bettencourt.Alexandra (Ally) Bettencourt ’21
Pathobiology & Animal Science
2020-21 OUR Peer Research Ambassador

My Journey:

When I first came to UConn as a freshman, I must admit that I was one of the many pre-professional freshmen that thought undergraduate research was just a box to check off when applying for professional school. I could not have been more wrong! When an opportunity presented itself through a club’s email listserv at the end of my freshman year, I jumped on it, having no idea the path that it would lead me on.

My first experience was with an independent study at the Kellogg’s Dairy Center, using ultrasound technology to evaluate mastitis in dairy cows. I absolutely loved working with the cows, and as my studies began to expose me more to disease processes, I wanted to learn more. I ended up pursuing an independent study in the necropsy lab at the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (CVMDL) to learn more about how various diseases affect animals. This experience challenged me, and forced me to actually apply my understanding of anatomy and physiology. Here, I also met one of my greatest mentors, an anatomical pathology resident, Dr. Kristin Vyhnal. Dr. Vyhnal forced me to jump outside of my comfort zone, and would often quiz me on my understanding at the necropsy table and the microscope. As I prepare to enter veterinary school and take first year anatomy, I know that I have Dr. Vyhnal to thank for easing my nerves and instilling confidence in my own knowledge.

During my junior year, I was invited to join a maternal nutrition study in Animal Science by Dr. Kristen Govoni to continue to pursue my interest in dairy, except this time, it was in sheep! I could not have been more thrilled with the opportunity to explore how maternal diet during pregnancy impacted the quality of sheep milk. My academic and Honors advisor, Dr. Sarah Reed, at that point also became my thesis advisor, and would serve as my greatest mentor through my college experience. The maternal nutrition study soon became one of the most prominent parts of my undergraduate experience, and I even earned an OUR Supply Award to help complete my project. I found myself on call weekly during lambing season, caring for the ewes and their lambs at the barns for hours each week, being present at the barn when the veterinarians and veterinary students from Tufts Ambulatory Service came (which was often!), and presented with an opportunity to assist in a variety of tests and analyses for the project. I went from a college student who had never done any independent laboratory work outside of a laboratory manual in class, to jumping in and running an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) on my own samples!

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, I worked with an incredible team of graduate students who made sure that milk samples for my project were collected through the end of last spring. But the challenges did not end there! One laboratory analysis for my project ended up taking three tries before we collected data! One of the greatest qualities that I was able to develop during my experience in undergraduate research was resilience. Things inevitably go wrong when working on any research project! But I learned how to handle setbacks, and most importantly, learn from them.

In four years, I have grown from a college freshman, checking off boxes to get to veterinary school, to a college senior, accepted to veterinary school, who did not check off boxes, but collected life experiences to grow as an individual and a professional. Over four years, I have gathered so much knowledge, I have found several mentors that I aspire to be, and I have experiences that I will carry with me for a lifetime.

My Next Steps:

This July, I will be moving to Texas and will begin my lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian. In August, I will start my first year in the Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. All my life, I imagined practicing clinical large animal medicine, being out on the road, traveling from farm to farm. This may still be an avenue that I decide to take, but my mentors at UConn and exposure to undergraduate research and laboratory science may have influenced my future decision. I hope to pursue a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) in addition to my DVM, in order to better influence the One Health movement, or the intersectionality of animal, human, and environmental health, in my future career. I also have interest in pursuing a specialty, perhaps large animal surgery or anatomical pathology (thanks to my exposure at the CVMDL). No matter which avenue I decide to take, I know that I want to mentor students in the way that was done for me. Undergraduate research not only showed me what I was capable of as a scientist, but it also showed me how crucial excellent mentors are to that success. I can only hope to emulate the characteristics of the veterinarians, professors, and the advisor who have led me to accomplish all that I have ever dreamt of.

My Advice:

Enjoy college! This time will absolutely fly by. Focus on your goals and work hard for them, but enjoy all that is UConn! Take advantage of all of the incredible events. Attend Sunset Yoga, go to plenty of basketball games, and be sure to attend One Ton Sundae! On a more serious note, also take advantage of all that is UConn. Utilize the Academic Achievement Center, the Q and W Centers, and especially the Office of Undergraduate Research! You have so many resources to make sure that your college experience is successful. Make the most of your time here, and know that you will always be proud to be a UConn Husky!

Click here to learn more about Ally.