Rebecca Simerly ’18 earns doctoral degree from University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine

In 2018 Rebecca Simerly graduated from Lees-McRae with a degree in Wildlife Biology and a concentration in Wildlife Rehabilitation. Like many students who study within this program, Simerly mentored in the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (MWRC) and got hands-on experience working with wildlife while in undergrad. However, earning her bachelor's degree was just the beginning of her journey working with animals.

This past spring Simerly graduated with a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM) after enrolling in the program straight out of undergrad. While her initial goal at Lees-McRae was to pursue a career as a zookeeper, her path evolved as she progressed through the program, finally setting her sights on vet school as an upperclassman.

“I actually did not want to become a veterinarian until I realized I could be a wildlife veterinarian after my summer clinical course in Wildlife Rehabilitation in 2015. It wasn’t until my junior year that I decided to fully pursue veterinary school,” Simerly said. “My biggest inspiration for this was Dr. Amber McNamara, as I was in absolute awe at her compassion, patience, and skill for wildlife rehabilitation. At Lees-McRae, I was able to complete the courses, animal care experience, veterinary mentorship, and research experience that I needed to apply for veterinary school.”

While the passion and skills she built for wildlife rehabilitation and veterinary medicine at Lees-McRae helped her get into the vet school of her dreams, the lessons she learned also set her up for success once the doctoral program kicked off.

“Each veterinary school is slightly different in its curriculum and how they group their didactic and hands-on learning. At UTCVM you spend the first two and a half years in classes with week-long clinical exposures every other semester. The last year and a half are spent in the onsite veterinary hospital or at externships,” Simerly said. “All the skills I learned in my summer clinical course and wildlife rehabilitation classes helped me immensely with skills needed for vet school. From handling various types of animals, basic medical aid, medication calculations, and bandaging skills, to being able to work in a group, present medical cases or natural history to various people, and triage phone calls.”

In addition to her work in the MWRC, Simerly said that foundational science and math courses she took at Lees-McRae like developmental biology, molecular biology, comparative anatomy, calculus, and more were cornerstones of her success at UTCVM. The relationships she built with her professors and fellow Bobcats, however, are what truly set her up for success.

“I don’t remember these classes because of what the professor taught me from the books, PowerPoints, and chalkboard notes— I remember what they taught me about being a human,” Simerly said. “How to see the joy in life and revel in every moment, to create connections with those around you, to be able to laugh at yourself and not take life so seriously, to pursue what you love no matter how hard the journey looks. Those lessons have helped me more than any book lesson I learned at Lees-McRae.”

Now that she has completed her doctoral program, Simerly is beginning her career in the field of professional animal care at VCA Valley Small Animal Hospital and Emergency in Tuscon, Arizona. There she works as an intern and rotates between the main hospital, a local Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoo, and various animal shelters.

“I plan to attend one more internship specifically in wildlife rehabilitation to hone surgical skills. After that, I am hoping to become involved assisting in wildlife disasters while I work as a relief veterinarian in emergency medicine,” Simerly said. “My dream is to find or build a wildlife rehabilitation center like the MWRC where I can educate future veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators, animal caretakers, and veterinary technicians, and most importantly, spark awe in people about the world around them so they in turn want to help it.”

This desire to contribute to and improve the environment and world around her is another lesson that Simerly took from her time at Lees-McRae, and one she said she will always carry with her. She points to the annual Mountain Day of Service and other volunteer events throughout her time in college as instilling within her the importance of community.

Simerly said it is extremely important to appreciate your community and keep it close—a reminder she not only tells herself but recommends to other students in the Wildlife Biology program and at Lees-McRae.

“I will not lie that it is a hard and difficult journey, but it is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life. I have been able to help people connect to wildlife, their pets, and their own aspirations through achieving my own dream of becoming a wildlife veterinarian,” Simerly said. “Those letters— Dr., DVM—are just an addition to your name, they don’t define you completely. Keep your family, friends, pets, whatever support system you have, and your passions throughout your journey as they will help you get through the hard times of veterinary medicine.”

Even though her journey has taken her all the way to Arizona, Simerly said by staying involved and invested in her community she is always able to keep a bit of the mountains with her.

By Maya JarrellSeptember 19, 2022