An Academic Career Based on What I Love: People, Animals, and Health
Cindy C. Wilson
Cindy C. Wilson, BS, MS, Phd, CHES, (ret), is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Cindy has decades of research experience focusing on the therapeutic value of companion animals (CAs) in college students, elderly persons, and normal populations. She has served on review panels for the NIH as well as foundations in the areas of health and education.
It all started with the need to euthanize 10,000 animals at a metropolitan county Humane Society. My best friend and working colleague was interviewing for the Executive Director position and was asked by a board member if she would have any problem making these decisions. She quickly excused herself from candidacy and hurried to my home to debrief and develop a plan for our future. The plan we developed combined the three things that were (and still are) most important to us. We wanted to work with each other—knowing our approaches to research would complement each other (she has a Ph.D. in social work and is very detail oriented, and I have an M.S. in Animal Science and a Ph.D. in Public Health and like to develop the conceptual framework of researchable questions). We wanted to work with biopsychosocial aspects of aging and we wanted to involve animals. By the time my friend left that day, we had outlined an approach to develop a state-of-the art review of CAs and the elderly. Little did we know that our plan would evolve into a professional collaboration that would last for more than 44 years.
After completing my doctorate in public health, I initially taught public health courses at a small liberal arts university. Subsequently, I worked as a health consultant developing health education programs for a national health systems agency. From there I went on to work for a regional public health department and directed a child health initiative. Within a short period of time, I moved to the position of assistant dead for research at a major institution of higher education where my responsibilities included resource development, grants acquisition, research policy development, coordination of corporate contacts, and assisting faculty with grant writing. Following this position, I became the Health Administration Manager for a Robert Wood Johnson foundation grant to the State of Missouri and the University of Missouri-Columbia to regionalize all maternal and child health services within the state. After this experience, I taught two years of both undergraduate and graduate courses at Arizona State University. At that point, I was recruited to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) as the Research Director of Family Medicine and ten years later, implemented the first faculty development program at the University.
Throughout my career, I found that I used my program development and project management skills more than any others. Regardless of whether I was running a program or a grant or developing materials and syllabi for courses, setting goals and measurable objectives were essential. These skills were invaluable, whether I was writing about the value of CAs with the elderly, developing the first pet placement program in subsidized housing, assessing the psycho-bio-social impact of a dog on college students and military caregivers, or most recently, the psycho-bio-social impact of a service dog on a service member.
Since I have spent most of my career as an academic, my time is divided into teaching, research, and service. Since I have been a professor at USUHS, my teaching focuses on faculty, fellows, and residents. My research tends to go in two directions. First, clinical research that helps junior faculty reach their promotion requirements. Second, my own research that looks at various aspects of human animal interactions and how those interactions impact a participant’s health (defined broadly).
The most rewarding parts of my position are: (1) when a learner has that “ah ha” moment of understanding; (2) when I am able to take an idea from its inception to operationalizing it into a hypothesis, research aims, and objectives; and ultimately, when I can see the impact of HAIs on study participants. The surprising element related to my research on HAIs is that I can volunteer with any number of content related community organizations (e.g., Humane Society, Pets on Wheels, Warrior Canine Connection, etc.) and have it “count” as a service activity for promotion and tenure.
There are several challenges in my work. These include the enormous about of paperwork because of Department of Defense regulations and requirements regarding research in this setting. In additional, because many of my collaborators are military personnel, they are only at the University for a short period of time. This makes longitudinal research more challenging.
Another challenge relates to personnel changes in the research offices that often result in contradictory guidance regarding our studies. Lastly, the number of institutional review boards (IRBs) to which we are accountable increases based on the number of hospitals and how many services (Army, Navy, Public Health, etc.) are involved. Another challenge is that there is no limit to the number of hours in your work week and you will often work at
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home as much as in your office. However, there is great autonomy in what you do.
Core competencies needed for an academic position include a solid knowledge in content, research methodology; and statistics. Essential to your success is the ability to read and understand material across disciplines. In additional, you must be able to lead a project if you are to succeed in academe. The last bit of advice that I would offer regarding your career path is to determine what is most important you in terms of work and to build a strong, collegial network of colleagues. The rest will sort itself out.