An Interview with... Dr. Donald E. Thrall


An Interview with... Dr. Donald E. Thrall

Sep 01, 2005
By staff

Donald E. Thrall, DVM, PhD, DACVR (radiation, radiation oncology), is a professor in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He is the editor of the Textbook of Veterinary Diagnostic Radiology and Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound, the official journal of the American College of Veterinary Radiology.

What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

The rapid development of highly specialized private practices. Staffed with veterinary specialists and offering sophisticated technology, these practices have raised the visibility of veterinary medicine for animal owners and nonowners alike, improved the quality of medical care available for animals, and increased public perception of our profession as not only caring but also advanced and forward-thinking.

Who was your most memorable patient?

A dog at the University of Pennsylvania with nasal disease. The results of the radiographic examination of the nasal cavity were normal, but while on the X-ray table, the patient sneezed out a piece of tissue that was diagnosed as adenocarcinoma. I often think of this patient when teaching the relative merits of computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging vs. radiographic imaging. This dog exemplifies the limitations of older technology and the advantages of the sophisticated diagnostics now available to veterinarians.

Who inspired you most in your career?

  • Franklin Nash, MD. I worked in his laboratory at Indiana University during the summers when I was in veterinary school. He introduced me to the excitement of prospective research, and the experience of working in his lab was instrumental in my decision to go to graduate school.
  • Robert Lewis, DVM, who taught me radiology in veterinary school at Purdue University and hired me for a faculty position twice! I was amazed by his ability to see things in radiographs and wanted to be just like him.
  • And Edward Gillette, DVM, PhD, who was my graduate school advisor at Colorado State University. He introduced me to clinical radiation oncology, radiation oncology research, and the potential of using cancer in dogs as a model to benefit both animals and people. This latter activity has been especially gratifying. We recently completed a trial in pets with cancer that solidified the clinical benefit of hyperthermia to augment radiation therapy. This trial also identified ways to improve hyperthermia use even further. The pet dogs in this trial and their owners contributed to a significant advance in healthcare, and the dogs received state-of-the-art treatment in the process.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

Education is going from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.

What would you advise a new graduate?

Chase what makes you happy. Life is incredibly short, but luckily, as a veterinarian, you have hundreds of options to pursue that can lead to lifelong professional happiness.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

No question, a cat person. I love their independence and find them soothing—how can something that sleeps 20-plus hours a day not be soothing.

What is your favorite film?

Dances with Wolves. It exemplifies how misguided and insensitive we can be. This film reminds us of our shortcomings and should be a stimulus to avoid such tragedies in the future.

What part of your work do you enjoy most?

The variety. The development of sophisticated practices has brought incredible financial opportunities for specialists in the private sector. However, I wouldn't trade the variety of my workweek for a life outside of academia. I have the opportunity to interact with bright students, function in the highest-quality veterinary practice, participate in high-level investigative activities, and pursue editing and writing. I never know what the day will bring.

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

Two things: First, escalating prices that will further limit the ability of many Americans to provide top-quality healthcare for their pets. Second, the difficulty in keeping bright specialists in the academic environment. With the current exodus of newly trained residents to practice, where will the next generation of academic clinicians come from? Intern and residency training programs don't do enough to illustrate the advantages of academic life.