Melinda and Alvin Camus are both faculty members in the College of Veterinary Medicine, but their different areas of specialty underscore the range of possibilities within the field of pathology.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
Both of us earned our veterinary degrees at Louisiana State University, which is where we met. Al also completed a combined Ph.D. and pathology residency at LSU, and I completed my clinical pathology residency at the University of Georgia.
While both of us are in the same department, we have quite different jobs. Somewhat different from many UGA faculty, both of us have primary responsibilities focused on diagnostic service and the training of pathology residents. I am a clinical pathologist who focuses on the evaluation of hematologic, cytologic and biochemistry specimens from all species. I also play a large part in educating professional veterinary students. Al’s area of expertise is fish disease, and he tells others to think of him as “a coroner for catfish.” Al has an active research program centered on pathogen discovery and the microscopic pathology associated with emerging diseases of fish.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
It is difficult for married professionals in the same field to find employment in the same geographic area. And, Al is so specialized that employment opportunities are hard to find. Al’s position at UGA was created in 2006 in conjunction with the opening of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Prior to that, he was the director of the Aquatic Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, Mississippi. I was in general veterinary practice. The opportunity was particularly favorable, because there was also a residency position for me to complete specialty training myself.
What are your favorite courses and why?
Melinda: My favorite class is “Clinical Pathology,” which is taught in the second year of the veterinary curriculum. It is one of the first courses in which professional students are taught to use their learned knowledge and apply it to “think like a doctor.” It is really enjoyable to watch students grow and respond to the application of medical reasoning skills.
Al: My favorite class is “Fundamentals of Fish Disease and Pathology.” I’m biased, but it’s what I do. No comprehensive texts on the histopathology of fish diseases exist, and if they did, none could keep pace with the number of emerging disease threats that affect fish health worldwide. I’ve been criticized for putting too much information on my PowerPoint slides, but this class is my opportunity to synthesize and pass along what the past 20 years have taught and continue to teach me. I hope this material will serve my residents as a useful reference and resource for years to come.
What are some highlights of your careers at UGA?
2017 was a good year for us both. I got tenure, and Al made full professor. Our recognition ceremonies at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education & Hotel were on consecutive nights. But, each of us has had highlights of our own.
Melinda: I was very fortunate to stay on as an instructor, then as a lecturer and then as a tenure-track faculty member after completion of my residency training. Earning tenure and my college’s nomination for a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship were certainly highlights, as was being selected as chair of the Certifying Examination Committee for the American College of Veterinary Pathologists. However, nothing is as gratifying as when my residents pass the certifying exam themselves or when the veterinary students obtain their DVM degrees.
Al: There is a certain amount of guilt associated with answering this question, because what excites me — pathogen discovery — is typically bad for the interests I serve. On a personal note, the biggest highlight of my career at UGA has been the privilege to experience such a diverse group of extraordinary animals. Professionally, work in my laboratory has contributed to the discovery and description of several previously unknown diseases in fish. Most notable is the first complete viral genome to be described from an elasmobranch species and the first shown to cause clinical disease in this understudied group, which includes the sharks and rays. It is hoped that investigating disease processes in cartilaginous fishes will expand our understanding of viral evolution in ancient vertebrate lineages.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
Describing what we do to others makes for interesting party conversation. Each of us tells our story differently.
Melinda: When people ask what I do, I tell them that I am a veterinarian who works at UGA. If they delve further, I tell them that I run a diagnostic lab that looks at cells and blood, just like if they were having bloodwork run by their doctor. I also tell them that I train students to be both veterinarians and pathologists.
Al: Many people I talk with have visited a public aquarium and have some knowledge of aquaculture, or “fish farming.” However, they are often surprised to learn that fish are susceptible to all the same general types of disease causing agents that affect humans and their terrestrial pets, and that specialization in fish health is possible within veterinary medicine. In reality, essentially every specialty area that exists in human medicine, including the field of pathology, also exists in veterinary medicine. That takes me back to the quip above on “coroner for catfish.” The goal of my work is to improve fish health and well-being by investigating the organisms that cause disease, factors that promote their emergence, and methods for their control and prevention. The ultimate goal is to provide a safe, available and environmentally sound food source for a growing human population.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Melinda: Most of my scholarship is in the area of teaching and learning. I enjoy the scholarship associated with adult learning and am working on a project now to assess student perceptions and outcomes related to different methods of teaching hematology. I am fortunate to have collaborators at the Educational Resource Center and across campus who can help me develop and use amazing teaching tools. I also enjoy test validation and quality control and use my work in the laboratory to teach both veterinary students and residents the fundamentals of diagnostic laboratory medicine.
Al: The two are highly intertwined and difficult to separate. Much of both my research and teaching involves histopathology, or the study of microscopic changes in tissues that define specific disease entities. The variety of research and diagnostic case submissions that I receive through the lab are a tremendous—often one-of-a-kind— source of teaching material. Conversely, presenting and discussing cases with residents, often across a microscope, invariably raises questions that lead to new avenues of investigation.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
Melinda: I hope that I am successful in helping students learn to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. And, I hope that students find my classroom to be an environment in which they can flourish and learn from my mistakes. Learning to say “I don’t know” with confidence and to admit one’s limitations is a big and important step for anyone, but particularly for a medical professional.
Al: My hope is that the residents I teach can build upon the fundamental constants of veterinary medicine and pathology while developing an appreciation for the unique aspects of fish disease. As alluded to previously, much of the material I present is scattered throughout a large number of texts and journals. While I try to make my lecture material a comprehensive resource, I also try to reinforce the importance of following the changing and rapidly expanding body of literature related to the field, as well as where to find it.
Describe your ideal student.
This question is particularly hard, as we have the opportunity to interact with so many amazing students. And, as our two children will tell you, we try not to play favorites. But there are some characteristics that we prefer in students.
Melinda: My ideal student is inquisitive, has a love of learning, and is always prepared.
Al: During my general exams while a doctoral student, my major professor and the person I wanted to impress most gave me several questions he knew I would not be able to answer. I was devastated and certain I would be shown the door, but in the discussions that followed, the point he had attempted to make was that you cannot know everything and that you will not always be correct. Of course, we all expect our students to be bright, motivated and hardworking. However, how a student accepts and moves forward from those inevitable defeats, applies what they do know and perseveres to understand what they don’t is what sets my ideal.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
While we enjoy spending time together, our favorite campus hangouts are different.
Melinda: I love to swim, and the Ramsey Center pools are amazing. I have participated with a masters’ swim team through the Athens Bulldog Swim Club, and many of my best memories are in the 50-meter pool. In preparation for a 10-mile open water swim, I once rented a lane and swam 15,000 meters uninterrupted. That was a great day. I also enjoy watching gymnastics and women’s basketball at Stegeman Coliseum.
Al: Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses. When I need inspiration or an escape, it usually involves coffee and a stroll through the campus Trial Gardens. Plants are almost as interesting as fish, and had I not gone into veterinary medicine, horticulture would have been a happy alternative.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
We collectively enjoy spending time with our kids (a daughter and a son), our pets (two cats and two rabbits), and our garden. We also both enjoy reading and spending time outdoors, particularly on the water. Al is an avid woodworker and is very proud of the wooden kayak that he built so that he could accompany me on open water swims. Friday night is date night, and we can often be found after work in Five Points or in downtown Athens.
Community/civic involvement includes…
We have served on the camp committee for Camp Juliette Low in Cloudland, Georgia, for several years. Our daughter was a camper there, and she has since gone on to serve on the staff. Al is also a Master Gardner, and I am involved in lots of volunteer activities for Oconee County High School.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
This is one question on which we will differ a lot, although we find ourselves getting lots of use from our bird identification books, our plant disease books (sadly), and our gluten-free cookbooks.
Melinda: I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies, but I enjoy reading. My favorite genre is mysteries, and my favorite author is Aaron Elkins. He wrote a series of fictional mysteries based on forensic anthropology, which I find fascinating.
Al: This makes Melinda—who is a concrete sequential thinker—cringe, but I enjoy the escape of high fantasy. I have loved Tolkien and “The Lord of the Rings” since my teens. Granted, it’s not “Dirty Dancing,” but nobody puts Frodo in the corner. It is ultimately a story of hope for a better future and highlights that with friends and support, even seemingly insignificant individuals can rise to do great things. As a mentor and educator, I find encouragement and a take-home lesson in that.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
Melinda: I will never forget watching the GymDawgs win a national championship at home in 2008. That was a really, really exciting place to be.
Al: I will never forget the first Ph.D. student I hooded at a UGA Commencement. I don’t know which one of us was more surprised that we had made it down that long river of red ink together. All’s well that ends well.