Dr. Ruthanne Chun, current section head of Clinical Oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, was recently acknowledged as one of the university's Outstanding Women of Color honorees.
Chun was fundamental in the creation of the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services (WisCARES) program, a program in the School of Veterinary Medicine designed to help prepare students for careers in veterinary medicine and help provide low-income people, homeless people and families with veterinary care. She is also the president of the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians and a Distinguished Fellow of the National Academies of Practice in Veterinary Medicine.
Chun sat down with The Daily Cardinal to discuss WisCARES, her career and research interests.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you feel when you found out that you were an honoree for the Outstanding Woman of Color award at UW-Madison?
For Outstanding Women of Color, one of the big criteria for the award is how you've impacted your community, and going back and thinking of what WisCARES has done in the 10 years that we've been open, we've had over 15,000 patient visits. We've handed over 10,000 animals. We've helped over 250 students learn through our program. And to me, that is a pretty cool impact — helping not only families in the community but veterinarians recognize how important this is, is something that I'm really proud of.
It was humbling at the ceremony hearing stories of the other women and the really cool and powerful things that they've done. Because that's just what they do, that's who they are. It's really amazing to see them and hear their stories. I'm really honored that somebody thinks that I deserve to be amongst this group.
Can you tell me about the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services (WisCARES) program and what inspired you to help create it?
We at the vet school recognize that animals are such an important part of the family and that families that are experiencing homelessness, or families that are unhoused, really struggle to stay together to take care of one another, and sometimes the stabilizing factor in that family is the animal.
We wanted to be able to help people help their animals and stay with their animals. And we also wanted to recognize that sometimes those animals keep people from making bad decisions because they want to stay with their animals. Sometimes those animals help them make good decisions like getting inpatient hospital care or doing things for themselves, to enhance their safety and finding safe shelter because they don't want to leave their animals. WisCARES provides subsidized veterinary medical care to families that are unhoused. We also provide low cost access to vet care for folks that are living at or below the poverty level in Dane County. We also provide boarding and fostering for animals.
WisCARES is located at 1402 Emil Street, and it's a full service vet clinic. We also have a full time social worker and social work interns that provide both direct and referral social services to our clients.
What has your career been like so far?
I love being in an academic setting because when I'm working in a clinic doing clinical work on patients, I really like having a lot of other specialists around me that I can share ideas with. I always try to build the best possible treatment plan for my patients.
When I am not in clinics, I'm doing teaching or research. Working with students and getting that energy that they always bring in is really exciting and fun. In the past 10 years, recognizing how important it is to provide access to veterinary care for all pet owners has become a really big passion for me. I want to try and help people and their animals at all financial levels — and help students understand how important that is as well.
What inspired you to go into veterinary veterinary medicine as a whole?
Like most veterinarians, I love animals, and I want to help them. I also really like physiology, biology — understanding what goes wrong and ways to diagnose that and ways to treat it.
As we've seen with COVID, or even things that happened with the Ebola virus, new things keep coming up that we have to figure out how to diagnose, treat and address globally, and veterinarians play a big role in that.
The other thing about being a veterinarian is I really like people. I like working with people. I like understanding where they're coming from. I like how what brings us together is our mutual love of animals, and trying to help both the animal and the person is really satisfying.
What research interests are you the most passionate about?
I have sort of equal and disparate research interests. As an oncologist, it's fascinating to me that cancer in animals is genetically identical to cancer in humans. As a researcher, I don't have to have a lab animal population that I induce cancer in to study it. There is unfortunately a big naturally occurring population of animals with cancer, and we can look at different ways to diagnose, treat and monitor the patients and support the patients and that can be directly applicable to human medicine and vice versa. We certainly learn a lot from human medicine and apply to animals. But for sort of a higher purpose, knowing that we can do research that helps dogs and cats and people is really, really exciting.
The other thing that I have been doing more of is educational research on how to help students become better veterinarians by better understanding the people that they work with. There's so many different species, and there's all different types of physiology and sensitivities to drugs and types of diseases that different species get, so it’s important to know the ways to manage all the different species. But you also have to know how to work with so many different types of people. By working at WisCARES and having a team of both educators and researchers involved with the WisCARES program, we've really done a lot in trying to understand how students learn. This type of educational model is hugely beneficial to vet students and how they come out of vet school prepared to prepare to be a veterinarian. Maybe I can't say yet better than other models, but it is certainly very promising from the students’ perspective of how their confidence and readiness to practice has increased.
Do you have a favorite story from your career in veterinary medicine or academia?
I think the WisCARES story is probably my favorite story about my career as a veterinarian. I still very much enjoy doing oncology and treating pets for cancer and working with families, and at the same time recognizing where that's a pretty small population of folks that can afford $5,000 to $20,000 treatments for their pets with cancer.
Recognizing that good veterinarians can work with people with a wide range of means and that there are many different options. It doesn't have to be the most aggressive or the treatment option that is considered the best. There's not always what we call a “best” option because what's realistic for the family and for the animal is the best option for them.
What would you like to tell UW-Madison students or Daily Cardinal readers?
You all have the power to make a positive difference.