From the time she was a child, Shannan Hall-Ursone, DVM, loved animals.
“My mother was an elementary science teacher,” explains Dr. Hall-Ursone, who grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “She would bring home a snake or a guinea pig for the holidays and I liked taking care of them. They all behaved differently. I enjoyed feeding them and watching how they reacted to my siblings or just how they acted when they were in their enclosures. I am not a fan of snakes at all, but I was intrigued with watching snakes eat.”
While Dr. Hall-Ursone set her sights early on becoming a veterinarian, she didn’t know that she’d ultimately choose to not work with pets, but rather an important biomedical resource: nonhuman primates.
She is one of seven veterinarians who care for the 2,500 research animals of the Southwest National Primate Research Center at Texas Biomed. Recently, Dr. Hall-Ursone was named Assistant Director for Veterinary Resources.
“I love that I get to work with so many different species,” says Dr. Hall-Ursone, who is also a Texas Biomed Associate Professor. “I love being a part of the science. There is so much variety here. I like being able to learn about all of the different projects going on here. There is never a dull moment!”
Becoming a veterinarian required passion, focus and hard work. Dr. Hall-Ursone earned a pre-veterinary science degree with a minor in chemistry and biology at Delaware State University in Dover, then headed straight to the Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.
“It was hard,” she says, “with four years of straight studying. I worked in the summers.”
An internship at Johns Hopkins University provided a life-changing opportunity to work with the Baltimore Zoo.
“I got to handle so many animals there,” she recalls. “Once, I had a duck with gout. One of my co-workers had a cheetah. I shadowed staff in the Comparative Medicine Department and watched a hernia repair on a nonhuman primate. This one surgery completely changed my career path. Before this, I was focused on being a surgeon in a small animal clinic. After witnessing this surgery, I knew I wanted to be a laboratory animal veterinarian.”
As a newly minted veterinarian, Dr. Hall-Ursone got a job at the University of Maryland in College Park. She cared for about 20 different species, including parakeets, canaries, barn owls, bats, ferrets, rodents, sheep, horses and cows, doing everything from cleaning cages to diagnosing and treating the animals.
However, she was still drawn to monkeys.
“I came to Texas Biomed and the SNPRC in 2015 after two other jobs on the East Coast,” she says. “The dream for specialists in nonhuman primates is to work for a primate center. Working as a vet for monkeys is exciting, but has its challenges. Creating bonds with different animals or even just learning their different personalities amazes me on a regular basis.”
As a veterinarian for marmosets, macaques and baboons, Dr. Hall-Ursone performs complex procedures people might assume are reserved for human patients.
“We perform CT scans and PET scans,” she explains. “We use bronchoscopes with cameras down the trachea and into the lungs, and perform bronchoalveolar lavages. The images and samples we collect help determine disease progression and severity. In some protocols, my team is required to give the animals treatments. Then we monitor if the treatment is working to stop or slow down the illness.”
Dr. Hall-Ursone and her colleagues are critical members of the scientific research team, helping primary investigators develop study protocols. One of her main responsibilities is making certain the animals are given the best care. Just like people, primates need regular checkups, and sometimes they need to receive treatment for illnesses or injuries.
“I have a great team,” she says. “It’s a good group of people and we all enjoy what we do, putting our hearts into it.”
Dr. Hall-Ursone and her husband have three children ages 13, 10 and 5. Having a job that helps create a healthier world for them is part of what drives her.
“I love what I do,” she says. “My goal is to help future animals and people live better and longer lives. I am grateful for the animals that play such a crucial role in the scientific discoveries made by our research staff.”
This story appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of TxBiomed magazine. See more stories from TxBiomed here.