An Interview with BSAVA Student Rep – Sophie Oliver

25 September 2022

Student members of the BSAVA held a successful virtual congress in June providing online lectures for colleagues at each of the UK vet schools. It was the brainchild of fourth year Nottingham student Sophie Oliver who told Companion’s John Bonner how the programme also found an audience among fellow vet students across the globe.

It all started with a conversation last November between the two BSAVA representatives at Nottingham – senior rep Sophie Oliver and her understudy, friend and classmate Samantha Bennison.

“I’d been thinking about online conferences and whether it was feasible for us to run one for vet students across all the vet schools.” The BSAVA held its first 1-day student congress online in January 2021 to provide students with BSAVA educational support on a wide range of clinical and non-clinical topics during the pandemic, when they couldn’t run their own individual university events. Sophie was keen to follow up on this event by running one themselves. “I asked Samantha if she would like to help me put something together and she agreed.”

Normally, such a task would be beyond the call of duty for a BSAVA student rep as it would involve a considerable increase in workload at a key phase of their professional training. “Being a rep is actually a pretty straightforward job. You are meant to be a channel for communications in both directions between the BSAVA and the students at your school. You make yourself available maybe a couple of times a month to deal with emails and answer questions about things like student membership. We are also responsible for distributing resources such as the BSAVA formularies, which are provided to student members in their penultimate year. But this conference was a little more ambitious and a lot more time consuming.”

So, organizing the programme for a 2-day conference on the weekend of 18–19 June was going to require some extra pairs of hands. The organizers would need to pick the topics, find the speakers, persuade them to participate and to draw up contracts, etc. They then had to organize the schedule for both the scientific programme and the evening social activities and to market the concept to the potential attendees. To spread the load, Sophie recruited three more of their Nottingham classmates on to the organizing committee, Anneliese Kaur Pooni, Charlotte Hetherington and William Brookes. She also sought advice from the experienced conference organizing team at Woodrow House on what else the team needed to know to ensure that the event would run smoothly.

The BSAVA also provided £1500 to help meet the costs of the event and helped arrange further sponsorship from the corporate practice group IVC Evidensia. This funding allowed Sophie’s team to attract leading names in a broad range of clinical disciplines to contribute to the meeting. These included veterinary cardiologist Jo Harris, ophthalmologist James Oliver, anaesthesiologist Ian Self and oncologist Charlie Pittaway.

Suggestions for some possible speakers were made via the jungle telegraph that feeds information around the vet student community, while others were drawn from the team’s own contacts. The team’s goal was to create a congress programme with broad appeal but also to reinforce training in areas that new graduates often say receive insufficient attention in the packed undergraduate curriculum. Hence, attendees were able to listen to presentations from small animal dentistry resident Charlie Tewson and exotic referrals vet Sonya Miles. Meanwhile, the team invited Zoë Halfacree, Sue Paterson and current BVA President Justine Shotton to address the highly topical issue of sustainability in vet practice. We wanted this to be a key theme of the event and brought in Will Brookes as Sustainability Coordinator to help us organize this.

One major challenge for the organizers was to develop the knowledge and skills needed to host a Zoom conference with scores of participants. “The BSAVA staff were brilliant – they talked me though the process and Lydia Payne (BSAVA Membership Services Coordinator) wrote a detailed manual explaining which buttons I needed to click on and which ones I should try to avoid. We also had a dry-run meeting in advance and so when the time came, it all went very smoothly. The only hitch over the whole weekend was when my internet dropped out unexpectedly. But even that problem was resolved pretty quickly.”

Sophie’s team got in touch with the BSAVA reps at all the other UK veterinary schools asking them to publicize the event among their fellow students. They also contacted the Association of Veterinary Students officer team and put the word out though various social media platforms, including the international group Vetwings, which has more than 13,000 members around the world.

The message clearly got through with a total of 452 students signing up to attend the meeting with 202 logging in on the Saturday and 177 on the Sunday. The difference between overall numbers registering and the attendance on the 2 days of the live event can be accounted for by many students being too busy to attend on the day but signing up to receive the lecture notes, or to watch the recording now available to BSAVA student members on the Association’s library website.

It was particularly pleasing after all the hard work involved in organizing the meeting that it attracted such widespread interest, and that it also received such positive reviews from attendees. “We don’t have a full breakdown of who attended but we do know that there was at least one person signed up from all six inhabited continents – we really did have a worldwide audience.

“We also asked people what they thought about it – there was a 100% positive response to the question ‘Would you recommend the BSAVA Student Congress to fellow students and/or new graduates?’… and a 100% ‘yes’ answer to the question ‘Would you be interested in attending a similar event if it was held next academic year?’,” Sophie explains.

Regrettably, neither Sophie, Samantha nor William are likely to be able to attend any event next year should some other vet school students take up the challenge of organizing a similar meeting for their peers. All three have now started their final years and will be tied up with a succession of clinical placements before their final exams next summer.

Sophie has wanted a career in veterinary medicine ever since she can remember. “When I was four or five, I remember going to see the newborn lambs at the farm park near my family home in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. I knew even then that I wanted to work with animals.”

But it is a career in small animal medicine that she is now focussing on – and she is particularly keen to make her mark in veterinary ophthalmology. “When, hopefully, I graduate next year, I am planning to spend several years in general practice, but ideally in a practice where there is a certificate holder in this clinical discipline, so that I can watch, listen and learn. After that, yes, I would like to go down the internship/residency route. But that is a long way ahead; I have my final year to get through first, so that is what I am concentrating on at the moment.”