An interview with Sandra Dawson on a never giving up and the power of education, by Fiona Farmer BVSc MRCVS

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They say that those who can’t, teach. But what about those who can, and still teach? What about those who are passionate about all that was good and all that was bad in their own education, and actively make it better for the next generation? This is who I met in Sandra Dawson. A woman with unwavering determination, clear vision and bucket loads of patience and passion.

“I think my younger self would be immensely proud of where I am today.”  Today she is an anatomic diagnostic pathologist at NationWide Laboratories and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) Ambassador. “I don’t think I ever believed from the outset that I could do it. I don’t think anyone did! Teachers at school would tell me I wouldn’t be able to get the grades.” She starts to laugh, “And initially they were right, but there’s always another way.”

Sandra didn’t get the grades. Instead, she went to Aberdeen “kicking and screaming” to study animal science. But immediately upon graduating she re-applied for vet school and went straight into her second degree, Veterinary Science, at Glasgow University. Reminiscing on her re-sit for her anatomic pathology exams some years later she chuckles, “It’s the story of my life, not getting the grades!” But oh, the richer life for it. Sandra has never given up. She never let a lack of vision from her educators stop her from seeing her own path, she never let unsupportive bosses push her from the career she had longed for, and she doesn’t let labels define the new generation. “Children learning science should be seamless. There should be open access to everything. If a child comes into school and likes building, they should be encouraged to keep enjoying building, and then perhaps they will see an engineering course that sings to them. What they shouldn’t be told is that they must be an engineer, or worse that girls shouldn’t do engineering. They must have open access to everything and seamlessly move to the direction they choose.”

Sandra is an educator, internally at NationWide Laboratories and also in schools as a STEM Ambassador. On hearing her early career story, and lack of mentorship throughout her early years in practice I wondered if there was a subconscious drive within her to be the mentor she never had. “Yes, I think so. I remember how it felt and I can completely understand why large numbers of vets are leaving the profession, so you want to help anyone you come into contact with to not feel that way.”

I asked her to reflect back on her first job in clinical practice in 1995. “I went straight into mixed practice where I was ‘jack of all and master of none’ in a time that predates Day One Competencies. There was no mentoring, and just like everybody else you were thrown in the deep end and that was scary for me. And it was exhausting. I would go into work and do a good day’s work, but then the next day you had to start all over again; yesterday didn’t count. And on that next day there was a good chance you had been up all night on call, driving around in the dark with a map, trying to do your best, so yeah, it was hard. My bosses offered no real support, and I just felt it wasn’t the right way to work and I wasn’t doing my best. I thought, ‘Either I’m going to have to do something different or I’m going to have to go somewhere where I just do one type of thing, such as surgery, where I have a bit more control over what I am doing.’”

I remember how it felt and I can completely understand why large numbers of vets are leaving the profession, so you want to help anyone you come into contact with to not feel that way.”

Her move into Pathology, although not entirely planned, seems almost written in the stars for her. “I can still remember my first day at vet school, sitting in a lecture hall at Glasgow and funnily enough it was a skin pathology lecture! It was all about the anatomy of the skin and there were images of skin histopathology and I was sold. I thought, ‘Yeah this is it’.” She went on to have a personal journey with skin pathology and was diagnosed with skin cancer during her third year of university. “I had a melanoma removed from my leg when I was at university. I had to go into hospital and have chemo and I remember the pathologist was the one who knew what we were dealing with. From the get-go I knew how vitally important pathology is and I feel like pathology was interwoven through my entire life at vet school. I was interested in it, and I was good at it. Glasgow had an amazing team of pathologists; it was the centre of the curriculum and I had some great teachers who were all eminent in their field. It was a really exciting place to be, for me anyway, and that has just stayed with me.”

With general practice feeling somewhat of a let-down, Sandra undertook her residency in pathology at Edinburgh University. Still unsure of the exact career path to take, she took a lectureship in reproductive pathology for 18 months before moving into contract research for five years looking at toxicopathology. However, the urge to be a diagnostician remained strong, and when a position arose at NationWide Laboratories to be a diagnostic pathologist sixteen years ago, she grasped the opportunity, and remains there today, happy and thriving.

Her key to thriving? “Do what you love. I do too much really, and my husband often suggests I let a plate or two fall, but I genuinely enjoy it all. In 2017 I signed up for Couch to 5k and ever since then I do a Parkrun on Saturday mornings. That is my time to clear my head and make space for it all and I really notice the effects if I miss a week”.

On top of a full-time job where she is part of the BSVP Green Team, is a mentor to junior pathologists and has co-authored the NWL LabFacts book, she has two children, teaches at Sunday School, is a school governor and cares for a foster dog. “My eyes are too big for my brain,” she laughs. Her answer for how she manages to juggle work, family life and teaching, “Military precision! I have plan A, B, C and D ready, I keep lists, but importantly I enjoy what I do. I am also extremely blessed to have such supportive family, colleagues and friends, without who none of it would be possible.”

Her passion for her job is obvious, and her love of pathology is joyful to witness. “I used to miss my clients, but the way I describe my job to the kids in a STEM class is that it’s like opening a present when you get the slide on the scope. You receive the history and details of the case, and then you look through the microscope. And you are the first person in the whole world to have the answer to the question that everyone else is waiting for. That’s the exciting bit for me. You get to look down the scope and go ‘Wow, that’s what it is.’ Even if you don’t know, if it’s complicated and you’re not sure exactly, you still have some information you can give to allow the vet team to do what they need to do, and that’s the bit I enjoy.”

I can only imagine my first introduction to pathology being given from such an enthusiastic ambassador. I asked her more about her STEM work, how it began and the topics she was talking to the children about.

“When my children were very small, a friend from a baby group was a primary school teacher and cajoled me into giving a talk to the children about my job. I loved it, and then realised I could become a STEM Ambassador and teach science more formally.”

“Typically, I talk to children aged four to eleven in KS1 and KS2. With the younger children we do lots of practical work, like blowing up balloons with yeast – they love it when it makes farting noises! With the older groups I introduce them to the immune system and we talk about how germs are spread and it’s been fascinating to see the difference in this subject pre and post covid.”

Although Sandra is the teacher, she also learns from the children. “The children are far more intelligent and a lot more aware than we give them credit for. And because of this I think we ought to treat them more like mature young people. We need to address that and show them that they are the ones who are going to be solving the world’s problems. I’ve even shown them the Longitude Prize, a £10m prize fund that will reward a team of innovators who develop a point–of–care diagnostic test that will conserve antibiotics for future generations. I don’t see why there should be any limits on them; I encourage them to be thinking. I believe that if children are old enough to ask a question about something, they are old enough to get an intelligent answer. I remember asking questions as a child and being met with a ‘not until you’re older’ response.”

I asked her to explain what education meant to her. “Education is opportunity. It means making sure someone has enough knowledge to make decisions about their life and has the options to make those choices. The opportunity to access new skills or information to do what they want to do. And it is so important to educate the young minds in the right way, amid all the fake news. To give them the tools to discern what they think is right and what they think is wrong.”

Looking back at her own school years, with teachers doubtful she would get the grades and parents proud but always insisting she had a safety net in case she ‘didn’t make it’, it is empowering to see how Sandra has broken the cycle of consciousness and uses her own experiences to build up the future generation. Her advice to budding teens keen to venture down a scientific or professional path “Grades and choices at 16 and 17 don’t come close to determining the rest of your life. It’s not about the grades, it’s about finding what you love and what you find interesting, and then there will always be a way.”

NationWide Laboratories is committed to making a positive impact on animal health by offering innovative products, technology and laboratory services to your veterinary practice. They have been providing a comprehensive range of veterinary diagnostic services since 1983. Their expert teams can assist you in making decisions on relevant testing for companion, exotic and farm animals. They offer full interpretation in a range of testing areas including biochemistry, haematology, cytology, histopathology, endocrinology, microbiology, etc. Their sample collection service is powered by National Veterinary Services.



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Catriona Bailey – Looking on the Bright Side of Life

Alison Lee – The woman behind the microscope

Sandra Wells – the leader who believes change starts at home

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