“When you move out of your comfort zone, it’s always an opportunity for growth and development in unexpected ways,” – so says Ainhoa Valldecabres, a CEU UCH graduate in Veterinary Medicine, who went to California to continue her education and research. After six years in the US, she’s coming back to Europe to work as a research officer for Teagasc, Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority. “It’s a chance for me to keep developing as a researcher at a leading research centre,” she says.

  • You’ve now submitted your PhD at the University of California. Tell us about the experience.

Going for a doctorate at the University of California has been an intense but really rewarding journey.  I had my Exit Seminar in December, but as the systems are a bit different, so the equivalent of submitting the dissertation in Spain actually took place the year before. You actually defend the thesis when you haven’t got everything written up or completed the project. They call it a Qualifying Exam (QE). There’s no doubt that the QE was the most difficult exam I’ve done, including the time leading up to it: two years of classes and you have to pass a Preliminary Exam too. To pass, not only do you have to have in-depth knowledge of the project for your dissertation but also the wider areas your doctorate is concerned with (nutrition and lactation in ruminants in my case) and you do the exam itself in front of a blank blackboard. Once you’ve passed the QE, submitting the dissertation and presenting it at the Exit Seminar is easy in comparison. I can say that things have gone well for me or even very well, as, despite the programme’s tough requirements, I’ve been able to get everything done in just over three years – the average is about five years.

  • What was your thesis focus about?

It focused on subclinical hypocalcaemia in Jersey cows. Subclinical hypocalcaemia is a very common condition amongst dairy cows, and it means that they have low levels of calcium in the blood, but that there are no clinical signs of this. My dissertation included epidemiological and clinical studies in which we assessed risk factors and the consequences of the condition for production and reproduction and considered prevention strategies such as oral calcium supplements.  

The originality of this research lies in the fact that it focuses on Jersey cows, as, while this breed of dairy cows is less common than the Holstein breed, they are more likely to develop hypocalcaemia. In this research, we identified the following risk factors for hypocalcaemia: the number of lactations per cow (3 or more lactations), the sex of the calf (males) and the breed (Jersey-Holstein crossbreeds). As with other studies carried out on Holstein cows, we found that subclinical hypocalcaemia recorded on the day of giving birth was not associated with negative effects on milk production, but it was with reproduction. Regarding oral calcium supplements, the most widely used preventative strategy in the USA, we found that although they can raise levels of calcium in the blood, this does not have a noticeably positive effect on production or reproduction. Our studies have been published in the Journal of Dairy Science and I would be delighted to share them with any student interested in this area of research. Even after years of working on this, I’m not fed up with it at all – I love it.

Why did you choose to go to California?

There were several reasons to choose the University of California for a thesis like mine. Academically, the University of California-Davis is one of the best in the world and the doctoral programmes offer very comprehensive training. However, I must say that what the main reason for going to California was the greater number of cows and the high level of milk production in the United States.

  • What’s your verdict on this international experience?

Coming to California has been a tremendous experience in every sense, professionally and personally. It’s hard to be so far away from home and there have been some tough times, but it makes you stronger in the end. Besides the professional side of things, California has so much to offer in terms of experiencing nature and culture.

  • Would you recommend the experience to other people?

Absolutely! With any international experience, and any time when you move out of your comfort zone, it’s always an opportunity for growth and development in unexpected ways. Any challenges can be overcome and, when you take stock, you can see that the reward really makes that effort worthwhile.

  • Ainhoa, why did you choose to become a vet?

My decision to become a vet was more about taking inspiration from people close to me, rather than sensing a vocation or because it had always been my dream. There are two vets who work with cattle in my family and being close to them is what led me to study Veterinary Medicine. Then, this great interest I felt for cows is what led me to move to California. When I began studying for my degree, I never would have imagined that I’d end up working in research – I wanted to be a clinical veterinarian working with cattle.

Studying Veterinary Medicine opens up so many opportunities!”  

  • What do you remember from your time at CEU?

I look back on it very fondly, and I think that feeling has grown over time. I graduated in Veterinary Medicine in 2014 and I still keep in contact even today with some of my old lecturers regarding different professional and personal issues.

I made some of my best friends at CEU and I contact classmates about professional issues regularly. It was definitely a crucial time in my life and the things I gained from it, in terms of education and contacts, are still important for me today”  

  • What’s next?

After submitting my dissertation last December, I’ve been doing a post-doc at the University of California, doing some research on calves and working as a consultant for a company carrying out a range of research projects for private companies (DairyExperts Inc.). But now, after six years in the States and a few months thinking things over, I’m coming back to Europe to take up a post as a Research Officer for Teagasc – the Republic of Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority. My role will be to undertake research to meet the needs of the dairy farmers there, and to supervise the work of master’s and doctoral students. It’s a chance for me to keep developing as a scientist and researcher at a leading research centre in Europe, so I’m really looking forward to it and eager to get going. It’s another move out of my comfort zone, but, even though it means living and working somewhere new, I’ve already had that experience in the US, so I know the kind of environment I’m walking into. I know that, even though it might be hard, it’ll be worth the effort. And this time I’ll be closer to home too.

Congratulations Ainhoa and the best of luck!

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