That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Eva Gaston (22) in this week’s Student Focus series. She discusses her farming roots, a life-long desire to become a vet and studying veterinary medicine at University of Liverpool whilst juggling several jobs.
“I am from just outside a town called Ballymena in County Antrim.
Farming is a major tradition in our family, as we are the fourth generation to run the farm.
My earliest farming memory is carrying a small bucket of meal into the pigs alongside dad for feeding.
At the time, I thought I was the backbone of the farm with my 2kg of meal, but my ability to fall onto the unscraped slats at any opportunity was probably more of a hindrance to my dad.
My dad, Bruce Gaston, has been running the farm for the past 40 years.
Pigs and sheep were always the mainstays of our farm. When I was young, we kept Landrace/ Large White sows, from which we reared pigs to bacon weight.
In later years, because of unstable production prices, this changed to contract rearing for another pig farm.
Our Texel cross-bred sheep flock are used with Charollais and Texel rams which provide fast-growing, well-shaped lambs.
Also, we rear a few Aberdeen Angus calves which are sourced from a single supplier.
A desire to become a vet
There was no defining moment when I decided I wanted to become a vet.
This aspiration was just a gradual progression from my childhood years when I found great enjoyment and satisfaction in working with and caring for the animals on the farm.
Veterinary medicine was always my first choice because, since a very young age, I have been passionate about caring for animals and, therefore, I have been very focused and determined to become a vet.
I would not be where I am today without my dad, who has been a constant pillar of support along the way.
He has taught me so much and has always encouraged me to try new methods… even if it has required a bit of ‘firm persuasion’ at times.
I am very grateful for this way of teaching, though, because it has forced me to step out of my comfort zone, which has vastly improved my confidence.
I have always admired his enthusiasm to try new things on the farm and his willingness to discuss new concepts and ideas.
Vet med student
Currently, I attend the University of Liverpool, where I am in my fifth and final year of veterinary medicine, having enrolled in 2018, immediately after my A-Levels.
From first to third year, I attended lectures in Liverpool city, and since fourth year, I have been living in the Wirral countryside, where the university’s first opinion and referral practices are situated.
Here, I have been completing rotations which involve developing practical skills and building upon knowledge gained from first to third year.
The facilities at the University of Liverpool School of Veterinary Science are outstanding in all areas, including the small animal, production animal and equine departments.
I also vividly remember the staff being very welcoming when I attended my interview in 2017.
Therefore, not only did I feel that Liverpool offered me the best chance of becoming a well-rounded vet but also, I knew that it would feel like a home away from home due to the friendly nature of the staff and students.
I have completed placement at many different farms and have also spent time at various vet practices where I have assisted vets in consults, scrubbed into surgeries and also accompanied vets on call-outs to farms.
Since 2015, I have been working on a neighbouring autumn-calving dairy farm where my main roles involve milking 120 cows in a Herringbone parlour and calf rearing.
I have really enjoyed working here, not only because of the good craic and laughs but also because of the farmers’ willingness to teach me.
This has led to me having a better understanding of the dairy industry and is what sparked my interest in disease prevention.
Due to COVID, my year group missed out on attending second, third and fourth-year lectures together.
This meant that I did not get to see my friends, and also lectures were not as enjoyable online.
Therefore, my highlight to date since beginning the course was my last ever lecture when my whole year group got to attend together (in fancy dress, of course) for the first time in over two years.
This was also such a significant milestone on my road to becoming a vet and made me realise that the finish line was in sight.
I have really enjoyed my time studying veterinary so far because the staff have always gone above and beyond to give me the best quality of teaching and have also provided a warm, supportive environment for learning.
I am especially enjoying my final year because of the more practical-based learning in rotations.
Advice for aspiring vet students
I have found the veterinary medicine course so rewarding and enjoyable, and, therefore, I would always encourage anyone to pursue this course if they were considering it.
Of course, there are times when this degree is very challenging, both mentally and physically, but there are many options for help and support within the university and vet school itself.
Also, I understand that with there being only one place to study veterinary medicine in Ireland, people feel very limited in their choices for university, especially if they are home birds.
However, I myself have always been a home bird but firmly believe that travelling across the water has had many benefits, such as giving me the opportunity to explore a whole new city, gain independence and, most importantly, make strong, long-lasting friendships.
Hard work and determination
Being only 5ft in height, my advice to anyone else that is short is that although certain tasks may be slightly more challenging, they are not impossible.
Therefore, always persevere and do not let your height put you off being a vet.
At times, it has actually been advantageous – for example; my small hands are great for lambing!
If you are determined to get on the course and work hard to get there, it is completely achievable.
It is important to remember that getting sufficient A Level grades the first time around is not crucial because there are other options.
These could include repeating your A Levels, studying an access course or initially doing another degree such as (veterinary) biomedical sciences before applying to veterinary medicine.
If I could turn back the clock, the only thing that I may have done differently would have been to take a year out before going to university to work on a dairy farm full-time.
This is because vet school can be quite expensive, especially when you are doing placement during your holidays and therefore do not have as much time for a job.
Working on a dairy farm would have allowed me to earn money whilst gaining hands-on experience in an area I was particularly interested in.
Currently, I tutor GCSE and A Level Sciences alongside working nightshifts at a local veterinary hospital as a form of income.
However, balancing studies and a job at times can be difficult.
I know that it sounds cliché, but the reason I want to be a vet is because I have always loved caring for and working with animals, both large and small.
I understand that, at times, the job will be frustrating and difficult, but I believe that the satisfaction and fulfilment from making a positive difference to these animals’ lives far outweigh the negatives.
Once I graduate, I would like to begin a job in a mixed first opinion practice because I am keen to build upon the skills and knowledge I have learnt at university in farm, equine and small animal areas.
First-opinion work has always been something I was particularly interested in.
I enjoy getting to know and chat with owners and farmers and becoming a member of a tight-knit community.
When I graduate, I want to focus on the transition from being a student to being a vet.
I believe that this will be challenging, but I am excited to get stuck in and become part of a new team.
Therefore, whilst I would consider further education, I probably will not apply until I have settled down in a practice and am happy with my progress.
The veterinary industry is under considerable stress at the minute, especially due to the shortage of vets.
I think that it is important to remember that being a vet is a very demanding job, both emotionally and physically, and, therefore, we should be striving to support them in any way we can.
My main goal is to be a successful vet, and hopefully, I will be able to farm on the side.
I am excited to have the opportunity to positively influence the lives of both the people and animals that I meet as a vet.
Being a vet student has been such an enjoyable experience both due to the amazing setup of the university and the great friends that I have made along the way.
I am so excited for the years to come when I will be working as a vet, and I am so thankful for everyone who has supported and encouraged me along the way.”
Are you a vet med student? To share your story, email – [email protected]
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