A Conversation with the New Cummings School Dean

Alastair Cribb talks about his proudest professional accomplishments, his excitement about the future—and his pets

Alastair Cribb with his pet dog Keeper

Over his career, newly appointed Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine dean Alastair Cribb has exemplified the myriad ways that veterinarians contribute to the health and wellbeing of animals, humans, and the world we share.

He’s cared for large animals and household pets in a rural practice in the Canadian Maritimes, investigated the clinical and molecular aspects of how drugs work in animals and people, assessed the safety of drugs while working in the pharmaceutical industry, and helped put a young veterinary school at the forefront of research into diseases affecting animal and human health.

Named the founding dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary in 2006 and to a second five-year term as dean in 2011, Cribb grew the veterinary medicine program there from a small startup working out of a few offices to a dynamic program with approximately 75 faculty, 100 staff, and 250 students, working across two campuses and in the community.

A hallmark of the school is its close association with Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine: the veterinary and medical programs share integrated space and have extensive research collaborations. And by working to expand the school’s applicant pool, he helped increase the number of veterinarians caring for food animals in rural Alberta, Canada, where they were desperately needed for animal welfare and public health.

Cribb most recently served as a professor of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Calgary, having returned to teaching after the conclusion of his second term as dean. He will succeed Joyce S. Knoll, who has served as dean ad interim since former dean Deborah Kochevar left the post in 2018 to become Tufts provost and senior vice president ad interim.

Tufts Now recently caught up with Cribb to learn more about him and what the Cummings School community can expect once he takes the reins July 15.

Tufts Now: When did you first know you wanted to pursue a career in veterinary medicine?

Alastair Cribb: I was a little bit of a late bloomer compared with many people who want to be veterinarians. My father was a veterinarian who ran a rural practice out of our house, so I was exposed to veterinary medicine very early. But I didn’t actually think seriously about becoming a veterinarian until the end of my first year at university. I was exploring a number of possible pathways that interested me. I realized that, compared with everything else I looked at, veterinary medicine was the only field where there were a number of careers I could see myself pursuing—and I knew I’d be happy in any of them.

What were some of your favorite cases in veterinary practice?

There were those cases where I felt really good about having successfully treated an animal—ones where nobody thought the pet would get better and it did, or the owner didn’t have the money for the Cadillac approach to diagnostics and treatment, but I figured out an effective alternative approach. But the ones that stick with you are those ones where you really made a difference for the people as well as the animals.

I had one client who was dairy farmer with a young family. We were wrapping up a routine rural health visit, and he told me, “You’ve really made a difference to my dairy and my family.” And this always stuck with me—the importance of the things we do as veterinarians. There’s the animal and then there’s always the person on the other side of that animal, whether it’s a pet, a food animal, or wildlife.

Another time, a family came in with a dog that had epilepsy. The parents started asking me all these questions, and I spent a lot of time with them explaining what scientists know about epilepsy and its treatments. It turned out their daughter, who was there, also had epilepsy—so they were using the dog’s condition to find out more information about her condition as well. I’m sure their physician would have explained the same things, but they probably just didn’t feel comfortable asking. It’s just one example of how important animals can be in peoples’ lives in terms of acting as icebreakers that allow conversations to occur.

What kind of research do you do?

You can capture what I’m interested in one word—differences. I study pharmacogenetics, which is the genetic basis for why some people and animals respond differently to drugs and chemicals.

For my Ph.D., I investigated a rare adverse drug reaction to sulfonamide, a commonly used antimicrobial in people and animals. I studied dogs and kids who were having these reactions, looking at the molecular similarities and differences between them. Since then, I’ve done all sorts of research—on everything from antimicrobials to anti-inflammatory drugs called NSAIDs, to individual susceptibility to cancer—to understand either why species are different or why individuals within a species are different, whether that’s people or animals. I want to know why some drugs work really well in some patients and not in others.

In veterinary medicine, we make extrapolations across species out of necessity, and so we want enough information to make medical decisions in the smartest way as we can. But in human medicine, an important issue is how we have traditionally developed drugs.

We took healthy young men and we studied them—and then we tried to extrapolate the results to kids and women. But we now know that we’re not all the same, and that the old traditional model does not always work. Just look at heart attacks and heart disease and how they manifest so differently in men and women.

What attracted you to Cummings School?

I had been aware of Cummings because of its great research, and I’ve met many people who trained at Cummings School in leadership positions around North America. But the school really got my attention in 2015, when I was in Boston for the American Veterinary Medical Association annual meeting. Dean Kochevar offered attendees a tour of school, so I took advantage of the opportunity. It was not a structured event, so I got to interact with a faculty and staff members on a casual basis.

I left with a very good feeling about Cummings School. I was really impressed by everything I saw and everyone I met—from the quality of the hospitals and clinical facilities to the entrepreneurial spirit of the people who built the school. My wife happened to be with me on the trip, and when I got back to our hotel, I said, “If there was ever a place where I would consider moving to, it would be Tufts.”

So, when the deanship opportunity came up last summer, I put my name in. When I came to interview, I was looking to see if that impression from 2015 was true, or if it had changed. Everything that I had come away with on my earlier visit was reinforced by the people I met, the messages I heard, and what I saw. So here I am.

What opportunities at Cummings School are you most excited about?

There are several. When I joined the University of Calgary, the veterinary school was essentially a startup, so I spent the first ten years building it from the ground up, including things as basic as policies—there wasn’t a single policy! Cummings School offers the opportunity to come into an established school that’s doing great things and help everyone to achieve even better things.

Another huge new opportunity for me is that Cummings School has an amazing teaching hospital and clinical services network. There are relationships to grow and build with others throughout the university, whether it’s at Tufts School of Medicine, Tufts School of Dental Medicine, or The Fletcher School. And then there’s the whole broader life-sciences industry in Boston, which offers all kinds of opportunities.

How do you hope to engage with students and alumni?

My philosophy as a dean was to carry a full teaching load, and I will probably continue to do the same at Cummings School. That lets you get to know the students and also ensures that you understand what all the faculty members are going through in teaching the students.

I have an open-door policy for students, faculty, and staff. Students will know they can just come right in and speak to me. Some will take advantage of that and others won’t, so I will also schedule more structured opportunities, such as regular meetings with student associations and other representatives. As a dean, you need to make sure you get out of your office and around the whole campus—and in the case of Tufts, to all the clinical sites. To know what’s going on with the students, they need to see you.

The same thing happens when it comes to engaging with alumni. They’re going to be spread across the United States and around the world, but you obviously want to engage with them at any local events that alumni likely will be attending, as well as at national conferences. Most alumni are proud of their veterinary school and to help enrich your programs. Finding ways to involve alumni in your teaching program helps your students, but also helps your alumni remain connected with the school.

What’s key to the future of veterinary education and training?

One of the biggest challenges today is that there’s always more and more information, and we all have ready access to information that’s not necessarily the best. So we need to teach students how to be good critical thinkers, how to access information, and how to interpret it readily.

That’s where the whole student research piece comes in. In educating veterinary students, it’s important to expose them to research so they can consider that as a career opportunity, whether it’s in industry, academia, or government. But the part of the research training that every veterinarian will use is that ability to access and interpret new information. You want your program to do more than just deliver existing information, because students need to be informed consumers of information that becomes available after they graduate.

Do you have any pets?

Over the course of my life, I’ve had twenty-two different pets—everything from frogs and snakes to horses, geese, dogs, and cats. But right now, we have just one pet: a little eleven-month-old cairn terrier named Keeper.

Before Keeper, we had two of the most beloved dogs we’d ever had: a Labrador retriever and an Irish wolfhound cross, both rescue dogs. Veterinarians tend to collect pets and often ones with a lot of problems. The Labrador retriever had been abused and had behavioral issues. We spent years working with her and got her to a really good spot after three years, where she was ready for some companionship. We kept taking her down to the local humane society to find another dog that she would accept, and it turned out to be this little Irish wolfhound cross which grew up to be not so little—over 100 pounds. We had those two dogs for another seven years, and then unexpectedly they both died of different diseases within a year of each other.

My wife and I were quite crushed and thought we weren’t ready to get another dog, but we very quickly realized that we couldn’t live without an animal in the house. We settled on a cairn terrier, and Keeper is a fantastic little dog. He’s basically a big dog in small body. He will go to the park and run around with eight 60- to 100-pound dogs. He’s a great companion to me, but also very independent.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the instances where I’ve positively influenced people’s lives. Much like Tufts’ veterinary school at its outset, the University of Calgary’s had a bit of a rocky beginning. It wasn’t clear it was even going to get off the ground, and I think I played an important role in making that happen. Now, there are a whole bunch of veterinarians in Alberta who wouldn’t have become veterinarians if the school wasn’t here.

It changed their lives in the same way that the creation of Cummings School changed the lives of many Massachusetts and New England veterinarians. I’m also proud of my role in the lives of the graduate students who I encouraged to come back to academia or to find their research calling, in addition to the students and faculty I’ve hopefully helped along the way.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

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