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Scholarship takes flight with first recipient

Swanson ScholarshipMarina Vaerst ’16 has her professional eyes set skyward. With aspirations to become an avian veterinarian, she looks for all opportunities to learn as much as she can about the care and behavior of birds and other exotic species.

“Birds are so fascinating,” said Vaerst, who is the first recipient of the Janet L. Swanson Professional Scholarship. “Their biology is different and the types of medical treatments that are necessary are very different from those used with more common species.”

Vaerst also has her sights set on a successful career, noting that there are fewer veterinarians specializing in this area, which she said, may potentially create a niche market ripe with professional opportunities.

Janet Swanson would agree. The proud owner of an African grey parrot, a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot, and a green wing macaw, Swanson travels an hour each way for her birds’ twice yearly veterinary wellness visits. She’s been with her current veterinarian for a few years, adding that she tried two others first. 

“The world needs more good avian veterinarians,” said Swanson, who initially endowed the scholarship in 2012 and is pleased that its first recipient is fully committed to serving birds. “They have microscopic organs and require special procedures. If the veterinarians are not careful and properly trained, they can do physical damage and easily miss a medical issue. In addition, these birds are often prey for other species, which means they have become excellent at hiding disease. Like all species, the weakest, which could be from disease, is the first to be attacked, so they work hard to hide illnesses.”

Cornell’s curriculum offers training across the spectrum of species, with many opportunities for students like Vaerst to learn about birds—inside and outside the classroom. Vaerst, for instance, traveled with Dr. George Kollias to Belize in 2012. While there, she worked with a variety of wildlife, including birds, practicing skills that ranged from collecting blood samples to clipping nails.

“I began my veterinary career with a full understanding of the cost involved, so being named the Swanson scholar is a welcome and unexpected gift,” said Vaerst, who has been saving money for years and spent a year working as a veterinary technician to both gain experience and build a nest egg to help finance her education. “I will graduate with debt; I know that. But because of this scholarship, it will be more manageable. I’m grateful that people are willing to help with the cost of education and thankful that Mrs. Swanson has chosen to help students who want to treat birds.”