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Heading to Veterinary School, Martina Jackson Hopes to Improve the Lives of Animals and Humans

When it comes to animals, Martina Jackson ’14, a biology major from South Brunswick heading to veterinary school next fall at the University of Pennsylvania, is a scientist, philosopher and devotee, all rolled into one.

“I grew up with lots of animals – some of them pretty weird – including hamsters, an iguana, a dog, six brown chickens, mice, and a frog named Aristotle. I always felt connected to them, but I was also really interested in them as well. They represented another life that was different from mine,” Jackson recounts.

Her journey to veterinary school began in earnest after she briefly toyed with the idea of medical school, but decided to follow her passion.

“I looked at the highest requirements at the top schools,” she said, ultimately logging in more than 700 hours of experience outside of the classroom: shadowing veterinarians; volunteering at a zoo; participating in the leadership program at the School of Veterinary Medicine at St. George’s University in Grenada; and working on animal research with NJIT professors.

Last summer, she provided what is known as hippotherapy – physical therapy conducted on horseback that helps patients improve motor coordination, balance, and composure by moving with the horse’s rhythms – at Rocking Horse Rehab in West Orange. She was a docent on Sundays at Turtle Back Zoo, also in West Orange, describing the habits and habitats of reptiles to visiting children. “I felt like a teaching assistant,” she recalled.

On campus, Jackson, a member of the Albert Dorman Honors College, dove into animal research with a stint in the laboratory of Eric Fortune, an associate professor of biology who studies the complex behaviors of glass knifefish, a species of three-inch long electric fish that lives in the Amazon Basin. She then took a graduate course with him in comparative animal physiology as she embarked on her senior capstone project on contagious cancers circulating in canine and Tasmanian devil populations.

“Professor Fortune is one of my favorite teachers at NJIT,” she says. “His classes are a lot of fun, because he’s able to make you feel that your academic work is not just important, but really enjoyable as well.”

Jackson was no less diligent about her graduate school search.

“I shadowed at a local veterinary hospital, where I worked with four doctors. But I did not know much about the veterinary school community, so I made a point of visiting all of my veterinary schools of interest,” she said, adding that her advisers in NJIT’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) helped smooth the way.

Last winter, Crystal Smith, an EOP associate director for counseling, urged her to attend a conference at Purdue University and provided funds for the trip in part so that she could scope out the university’s veterinary school.

“Tony Howell (the executive director of the EOP) also helped me tremendously, putting me in touch with NJIT alumni at a couple of schools, including Ohio State, where someone he knew picked me up at the airport. These personal connections were great,” said Jackson, who picked the University of Pennsylvania from among the seven schools that accepted her.

While she is not yet sure how she will use her degree, she will likely work with both large and small animals and also conduct research in comparative medicine, applying her knowledge as a veterinarian to improve our understanding of human diseases.

But Jackson, who minored in philosophy and applied ethics, says her interest in becoming a veterinarian transcends the clinical.  “Some people think of themselves as dominant to animals, but I believe there is life beyond ours and I am really interested in our relationship with them. We depend on them,” she says.