How fossil hunting led me to vet med

It has been a long and winding road to vet med for Ewan D.S. Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM), (they/them)—and it all began with a childhood love of dinosaurs.

By Ewan Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM)

I don’t remember Greece, other than the pictures in my dad’s office, but imagine a six-month-old me in 1980, crawling around on rocks at Mt. Olympus (with Athena and Hermes watching over me) tracing fossil shells with my fingers for the first time. That’s probably when I fell in love with paleontology.  

It wasn’t until I was seven that I got my first taste of medicine when my father let me pick up a book called Advanced First Aid at Sea, which detailed makeshift surgeries under desperate oceanic circumstances. I was riveted and became fascinated with late ‘70s marine first aid kits that resembled field hospital supplies.  

By and large though, it was still all about dinosaurs for me, even when I took a brief interest in sheep medicine for a sixth-grade book report in 1991.  

 My interests came together in 1996, when I spent two weeks at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology in southern England. A retired doctor named Dr. Cooper showed me an Iguanodon jaw with osteomyelitis and I got hooked on dinosaur disease. 

“You’ll never be a paleontologist”  

I majored in geology at Bates College and built my own independent course of study in paleoecology. My travels took me to the field in New Mexico for paleobotany, to Wisconsin to study fossil pollen from the last ice age and back to the Isle of Wight multiple times in 2000 and 2001 to study Eocene marine paleoecology.  

At the end of college, I applied for a Fulbright and a Mitchell scholarship to go to Trinity College to study the spread of potato famine spores using agricultural land sediment cores. Like like many people, I didn’t get selected.  

Instead, I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and to study dinosaur proteins as a graduate student at Brown University in geochemistry to study dinosaur proteins. This might have maybe gone well, except that the only funding turned out to be to study Miocene horse teeth isotopes in Indus River delta ocean cores. I said no. I was told my career would be ruined and I would never be a paleontologist.  

The “Jurassic Park” years 

I didn’t listen and went to Montana State University to study vertebrate paleontology with Dr. Jack Horner—the inspiration behind Alan Grant in Jurassic Park—and later with Dr. David Varricchio. 

As a grad student, I worked on T. rex digs in the Hell Creek Formation and was a field crew chief at a site in the Judith River formation in 2003. All was not well though. The funding from NSF was drying up and the department encouraged us to join oil companies. I interviewed with Exxon, and even did some oil exploration workshops, but my heart wasn’t in it. I spent more time on my Tony Blair impression during breaks than seriously considering that line of work.  

Taking the leap to animal medicine 

Since I was already researching dinosaur disease for my dissertation, I decided to give animal medicine a chance, . I started volunteering in 2004 at a local vet clinic with Dr. Moylan and Dr. Sue Geske and the state pathology lab. At the same time,  I started working on almost an entire second bachelor’s to get in my prerequisites for veterinary school.  

Before applying for a DVM/PhD, I finished  my PhD work on paleopathology. I traveled around the country to museums and to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand gathering data, and defended my dissertation in 2007.  

At that point, I got accepted to five vet schools, but I had my heart set on UW Madison.  Happily, I got my acceptance call from them when I was on Prince Edward Island, deadlocked in sea ice.  

I went to UW, intending to focus on zoological pathology or equine orthopedics, but quickly came around to small animal track in my second year. I became interested in urologic surgery because it was a strength of UW’s vet school, but when it came to being in clinics, the medical part interested me a lot more than the surgery part.   

Desperately seeking internship 

I was really interested in complex patient care and oncology—in particular, urinary and colorectal cancer. I knew I wanted to be an internist or an oncologist. When match day 2011 came, I read my unmatched results with an excited toddler on my knee.  

When I scrambled for an internship, a respected private hospital in the Midwest came through. However, it turned out that the nonmatch contract that they were planning had me doing 75% ER—and not paying health insurance for four months. Once again, I said no, which set me adrift, off the path of specialization.  

For three months I hunted for jobs with good mentorship, which found me eventually on a plane to Tucson—on my own dime. There were two interviews, one at U Arizona (before the veterinary program existed) and the other at a practice with some advanced equipment.  

The university interview was with a faculty member who kept saying the word “turds” over and over again—so much so that I began to wonder what I was doing with my life.  

The following morning, UW Madison emailed and offered me an internship slot … if I worked for no pay. It meant not moving and having a good, well-recognized internship. But, when the Tucson practice didn’t let me come in to interview because they were busy with another candidate, I called them from the parking lot to let them know that I had gotten a job, and headed back to Wisconsin.  

“You’ll never be an internist” 

At the end of my internship (at which point my partner and I had a toddler and a baby), I applied to 10 medicine programs. I didn’t match with one.    

I scrambled, and was offered what sounded like a great medicine internship on the other side of the country, but they said I’d work seven days a week and not be involved in procedures. I said no (again), and they told me I’d never be an internist.   

UW was kind enough to give me six months of funding as an oncology clinical trials intern, and I started calling every medicine program that didn’t have a position listed. Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, told me they’d have one in the spring of 2013, and I could come do a working interview. I flew to New Zealand, spent time in the clinics for a week, met with faculty, and they offered me a position. Then we worked for months to secure permanent resident visas.  

Making a match—finally  

In the spring, after we sold our house and most of our possessions, we arrived at Massey … only to be told that there was a struggle with funding and the program might not survive. By December I was told to go back in the match if I wanted to be sure of being an ACVIM diplomate. So, I did, and matched at Purdue. I ended up finishing my residency and an ACVIM Foundation advanced clinical training fellowship in nephrology and urology there.  

I had planned on an academic career and talked to 15 universities (I still have my 38 job spreadsheet somewhere), but many of them were in areas that were unsafe for trans folx.  

 We had no aspiration to live in Florida, but a good job came up and we ended up just outside of Orlando, 17 years after I had started graduate school.  

When I was in elementary school, my science teacher told me I should probably focus on things other than science because I wasn’t any good at it. That was definitely motivating for me through all of graduate school. Those negative comments, like being told I’d never be a paleontologist and never be an internist, were all helpful in driving me to feel like I wasn’t very good at “never.” 

There were so many false starts and dead ends along the way. Many of the other paths would have led to a different life, and I don’t regret that this path wasn’t straightforward.  


Ewan Wolff, PhD, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM), (they/them), comes from Washington, DC originally and is a board-certified internal medicine specialist at BluePearl NE Portland. They are a PrideVMC Industry Liaison, and currently serve on the scientific design review committee and IRB for BluePearl. They have mentored undergraduates, graduate students, professional students, specialty interns and residents and served as an internship director at Affiliated Veterinary Specialists. Currently they are a research mentor for residents and teach regional and national CE, as well as being a research assistant faculty member at UNM Honors College. Outside of daily practice and veterinary research, Wolff has been involved in longterm strategy work at BluePearl and advocacy for gender-diverse individuals in the veterinary profession. They also continue to work on paleopathology research in their spare time. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.    




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