Gender gap: Dr. Deborah Turner Kochevar

Kochevar takes reins at Cummings as women dominate veterinary field
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks


In the 1980s, Dr. Deborah Turner Kochevar was juggling a complex set of responsibilities. She was earning a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology, working in emergency veterinary medicine at a small animal clinic and raising two young children.

Dr. Kochevar was part of an early wave of women veterinarians. When she entered veterinary school at Texas A&M University in 1978, women made up a little less than a quarter of her class. By 1987, more than half of the students at the nation’s 28 veterinary colleges were women; this year, the figure is 78 percent, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

For her part, Dr. Kochevar remains on the profession’s cutting edge. Earlier this year, she was appointed dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton, becoming the fourth woman in the United States to head a veterinary college. Three of the four have taken on their positions in the past nine months.

It might seem quaint, or even inappropriate, to focus on women in professional roles in this post-feminist age. What is occurring in veterinary medicine, however, is unusual, in that the number of women in the field is increasing year by year while men turn to other careers. The trend and its ramifications have prompted much speculation, examination, and, ultimately, concern within veterinary circles.

“We benefit from a balance and from diversity,” Dr. Kochevar said. “We’re all enriched by different perspectives.”

Years ago, veterinarians primarily ministered to farm animals and cared for pets as a sideline. Handling large animals often requires the physical strength typical among men. Highly competent female veterinarians have chosen large animal work, Dr. Kochevar said, but it is worrisome that as fewer men have gone into veterinary medicine, the number of veterinarians working with horses and on farms has fallen. Today, pets have become members of the family, and many veterinarians choose to join thriving small-animal practices.

Dr. Kochevar assumed her duties at Cummings earlier this month. One recent morning, she took time out of a busy schedule of meetings with faculty members and staff to sit down and share her views on the gender issue. Cummings’ 321 students – 84 percent of them women – are arriving on the North Grafton campus in stages through Tuesday.

Asked what inspired her to become a veterinarian, Dr. Kochevar laughed and said her motivation was similar to that of many who choose to care for animals. She had a beloved childhood pet, a miniature dachshund named Heidi, and several cats. Indeed, all living creatures caught her attention around her home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Even as a young girl, Dr. Kochevar had a sense of her life’s course. When she was in sixth grade, she developed a fascination with science. She earned a B.A. in English and biology from Rice University. After veterinary school, she pursued her doctorate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and began teaching veterinary physiology and pharmacology at Texas A&M, as well as conducting research in pharmacology and cellular and molecular biology.

Dr. Kochevar’s interest in science when she was still a child reflects what has, in part, drawn women to veterinary medicine.

Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity at the veterinary medical college association, said in a telephone interview that significant effort has been made to encourage girls to study science and to consider careers in that field. “We are reaping the benefits of it in terms of young women going into science,” Ms. Greenhill said.

That development and other circumstances have converged to make veterinary medicine attractive to women – but less so to men, Dr. Kochevar said.

Men tend to view themselves as primary wage earners and seek the greatest financial reward for their time, she said. Moreover, there are clear indications that men are more willing to take risks than women. For instance, the dot-com boom of the 1990s, with its potential for big financial rewards, drew men in large numbers.

Women, on the other hand, are more goal-oriented. “Fulfillment is important, and they are less drawn to risky ventures,” Dr. Kochevar said. Veterinary medicine is satisfying and can be flexible, allowing for full- or part-time hours.

“You can work two emergency shifts and raise kids and be involved in other things,” she said. “It’s a strategic choice, and that’s a nice arrangement for women.”

In a survey conducted in December by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average salary for all types of employment for 2005 veterinary school graduates was $43,874. As of January, the median income before taxes for those in private practice was $77,500; for those in public and corporate employment it was $98,500, according to the AVMC. “It’s definitely getting up there,” said Michael San Fillipo, spokesman for the AVMC.

That could prove a good thing for bringing gender balance to the profession.

The veterinary medical college association is cautiously optimistic that as time goes on, the larger role that many young men are taking in child rearing will lead them to seek flexible work schedules and make veterinary medicine appealing. “It’s a generational thing,” Ms. Greenhill said. “We haven’t seen it yet, but it could be a factor.”

In the view of Dr. Kochevar, one way to attract greater diversity to the field is to get the word out about the variety of opportunities open to veterinarians, who, aside from traditional clinical practices, can choose careers in public health, conservation, wildlife medicine, biomedical research and academia.

“Many students believe they will practice but end up taking other tracks,” she said. “We need to be sure to deliver the message about what the profession offers.”

Dr. Kochevar stressed that Cummings is in the forefront of veterinary medicine, with its Center for Animals and Public Policy, several dual-degree programs and other offerings.

Meanwhile, she said, she and her family are looking forward to life on the East Coast. Dr. Kochevar’s husband, Dr. John Kochevar, is a pathologist who will conduct research at the Tufts School of Medicine in Boston. Their two sons are both students at Yale. The family lived in this part of the country 10 years ago, when John Kochevar was on sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Dr. Kochevar was a Congressional Science Fellow to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

“We like the energy of the East Coast,” Dr. Kochevar said with a wide smile. “We found a lot of energized people up here.”

The family plans to settle in Grafton, she said, in part because it makes sense to live in the community in which Cummings is located.

Dr. Kochevar has a distinguished background, which includes a Norden Distinguished Teacher Award, among other honors.

She will teach pharmacology at Cummings, even as she continues collaborative research efforts in Texas.

As she takes the reins of New England’s sole veterinary college, Dr. Kochevar is enthusiastic about the job, with its prospects for far-reaching rewards and personal satisfactions.

“You go into administration to watch people achieve potential,” she said. “We have a great faculty and caliber of students. As an administrator, I mainly want to see a talented set of people leave their mark.”