September 1, 2013

Finding her passion

Journeys abroad prompt Auburn animal sciences/pre-vet senior to change courses
by WENDY REED

Katie BrennanKatie Brennan was on an island off the coast of Thailand when she started second guessing herself.

For 16 of her 19 years, Brennan had been so sure of her future, never wavering from her dream of becoming a veterinarian. Now here she was, approaching her junior year as an animal sciences/pre-vet major in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, and she was in doubt.

Brennan, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., had grown up nurturing dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles and even the occasional injured squirrel and as a young child had begun envisioning a life spent caring for animals. Family and friends, who knew that Brennan also excelled in math and science, strongly supported her vision, and her destiny as a veterinarian appeared certain.

Brennan graduated from high school in 2010, and when Auburn University awarded her a full-tuition Presidential Scholarship, she packed her bags and headed to the Loveliest Village on the Plain, where her sister, Emily, was a junior on the pre-vet track in the College of Ag’s Department of Animal Sciences.

The younger Brennan chose that same degree path and began her freshman year of college with the goal of completing her bachelor’s degree as quickly as possible. For five straight semesters, she took a minimum of 17 hours per term and maintained good grades, despite three tough bouts with mononucleosis.

As a freshman, Brennan also had been selected to be a part of Auburn’s Honors College, an enhanced curriculum that offers qualified students the chance to study any topic in any discipline in a small, student-centered teaching environment that provides close interaction between students and teachers. It was in an Honors course taught by Auburn Vice President for Student Affairs Amy Hecht-Macchio that Brennan, then a sophomore, read “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” a book in which Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn call for action against the persecution of women and girls in the developing world and show how a little help can transform the lives of the oppressed.

“The book brought up issues of global gender inequity,” Brennan says. “Dr. Hecht is passionate about improving the lives of underserved women, and it all made a very big impression on me.”

The book was still on her mind during the summer semester before her junior year at Auburn, when she participated in a College of Agriculture study abroad tour to Haiti, so perhaps that contributed to Brennan’s unexpected emotional reaction to that country.

“When we flew into Haiti, I stepped off the plane and fell in love,” Brennan says. “I immediately knew that this might be my first trip to Haiti, but it wouldn’t be my last.

“It was the people—to look in their eyes and see how hard they worked for so little,” she says. “It was an overpowering feeling, that I wanted to do something to make things better for them.”

Shortly after returning from Haiti, Brennan was off again, this time to Koh Lanta, Thailand, where she spent nine weeks working as a volunteer at a local animal rescue clinic. This tour was made possible by a study abroad allowance that Auburn’s Presidential Scholarship recipients are allotted.

The animal sciences/pre-vet major gained valuable experience in veterinary medicine in her work at the clinic, but it was conversations she had with a Scottish physician who was volunteering in Thailand—conversations about the search to discover one’s true passion in life—that she benefited from the most. For the first time, she allowed herself to question whether the career path she had followed all her life was the right one.

Of course, considering the time and energy she’d directed toward gaining acceptance into vet school, it seemed unwise to switch course and aim instead for medical school. But still . . .

“I was confused; I felt like I was breaking a promise I’d made with the world,” Brennan says. “But my experiences on the tours to Haiti and Thailand and the way the book ‘Half the Sky’ affected me, I finally realized that what I wanted most in life was to be a doctor in order to better, or in some cases save, the lives of women worldwide.”

She returned to Auburn for fall semester 2012 a changed young woman with a new goal and set to work making up for lost time. She requested and was granted permission to begin shadowing Auburn University Medical Clinic physician Suzanne Graham-Hooker, and with assistance from animal sciences associate professor Dale Coleman, began working in reproductive research.

“The faculty in the College of Ag are just amazing,” Brennan says. “They all have an open-door policy, and they’re always so supportive.”

She also shared her experiences, her excitement and her change in career goals with Hecht-Macchio.

“When I got back from my summer abroad, I wanted to talk to her and thank her for her positive influence,” Brennan says.

As it happened, Hecht-Macchio, in her role with the university’s Office of Student Affairs, was organizing what would be Auburn’s first TEDx event and was developing a lineup of presenters from the Auburn Family and beyond who would share their ideas and insights on such issues as gender inequity, educational achievement gaps, hunger, poverty, environmental sustainability and global health with an audience that included Auburn faculty, staff, students and community members.

TED is a nonprofit organization that aims to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world by bringing together “the world’s most inspired thinkers” to communicate their ideas and spark intelligent public debate over key global issues. The theme of Auburn’s independently organized TEDx event was Global Challenges and Social Innovation.

Hecht-Macchio had narrowed her list of presenters for the March 2013 event to eight professionals, but Brennan’s enthusiasm over finding her passion was contagious enough that she asked Brennan to join the list of speakers.

As the only Auburn student scheduled to take the stage before a live audience at the Auburn University Hotel and Dixon Conference Center, Brennan admittedly was nervous. But she also was confident and extremely excited about sharing her story with others, so she focused on how to convey those thoughts in the allotted seven minutes.

Early on, Brennan had decided to wear one of her few “dressy” outfits, heels included, to make her presentation, but she nixed that idea during a rehearsal on the eve of the TEDx event.

“I dressed up, which something I never do, and I’d practiced a lot and thought I was ready, but at the first distraction, I lost it,” she says. “I was uncomfortable and couldn’t focus.”

So it happened that a comfortably clad Katie Brennan showed up for the event itself, and she delivered a powerful presentation, encouraging students and others in the audience to keep searching for their true passion until they discover it.

“It’s worth it,” she says. “Even if you have to make sacrifices or change courses, finding your passion will make all the difference.”

The younger Brennan, who will graduate with her bachelor’s in animal science in December, is applying to the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Nova Southeaastern University in Fort Lauderdale with the eventual goal of dedicating her life to improving women’s reproductive health around the world.

Her path closely resembles that of her sister, Emily, who graduated in May 2012 with a degree in animal sciences/pre-vet and as the first Auburn undergrad to complete a College of Veterinary Medicine minor in public health. After a year abroad, working in developing countries, she began graduate school this fall at Emory University, where her agriculture degree is providing a firm foundation for a master’s in public health.

The College of Agriculture at Auburn boasts a remarkably high rate of job placement in ag-related fields, but the Brennan sisters demonstrate that, with an Auburn agriculture degree, the sky’s the limit.

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