As a reluctant 17-year-old post-secondary student, Teresa McKernan (AHT ’86) didn’t picture herself pushing boundaries in veterinary medicine, but that’s exactly what she’s done over a career that has spanned decades and crossed oceans.
In 1983 when she moved from her hometown of Williams Lake to the “big city” of Kamloops to pursue a diploma in veterinary technology at what was then Cariboo College, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. But thanks to supportive, inspiring teachers and engaging practicum opportunities, McKernan soon found her way.
Over the years, she worked in laboratory and vivarium facilities, quickly climbing to senior management, and obtained extensive experience in operations and project management as well as design and construction of renovations and new builds. She is now senior director of veterinary services at the BC SPCA.
Early on, a practicum at the University of British Columbia (UBC) led McKernan to the university’s zoology department, where she worked with a variety of animals, including bighorn sheep, alligators, snowshoe hares, guinea pigs and rats. Following that, she entered the realm of biomedical research when she became UBC’s animal facility manager at the biomedical research centre (BRC). There, she helped implement innovative new practices within the department, reducing potential contamination and increasing animal safety.
“I was the first manager of a barrier facility, where animals are screened before they come in, they go through a quarantine period and anyone interacting with them wears PPE,” she says, adding that she wrote a manual on the new procedures and presented at a conference in 1992.
From animal care to transgenics
While taking care of lab animals, McKernan became curious about the transgenic mice that were being developed at the BRC. Transgenic mice have had their genomes altered for the purpose of studying gene functions and are often used to create humanized mice to mimic human diseases or conditions. The process involves harvesting embryos, adding exogenous DNA to them under a microscope and then implanting those embryos into another female mouse. The surrogate mouse gives birth to genetically altered mice. The process is called micro-injection.
McKernan offered the lab’s scientists her assistance and learned all she could about micro-injecting. When a job opening for a micro-injectionist came up, she was hired.
“I was able to do some really cool things. I made the first transgenic mouse model for the human disease of cystic fibrosis in Canada,” she says. “In those days it was a very rare job. At that time, I think there were three of us in Canada.”
With a strong work ethic and an insatiable desire for knowledge, McKernan spent her days working alongside scientists with advanced education, but her lack of a degree never held her back. After working as a micro-injectionist at UBC for several years, she was offered a position as a senior scientist at a lab in Japan and she headed overseas, accompanied by her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
“We were in a tiny village and my daughter was going to a fully Japanese daycare and I had to work as well as communicate with her teachers, go grocery shopping and do everything else. We were the only English speakers. I had to learn Japanese fast,” she says.
McKernan worked there for more than two years teaching the other scientists micro-injection; they in turn taught her tissue culture and other valuable skills. Her next gig would take her to Singapore, where she was hired to set up a mouse genetic engineering lab there. At the same time, a former boss offered her a position in Canada. With her daughter about to enter kindergarten, McKernan decided it was a good time to head home. By working remotely, she was still able to set up the Singapore lab, though, and then spent two months there training staff before settling into life back in BC.
Upon her return to Canada, McKernan took on a leadership role, training others to do the intricate tasks she had spent so long perfecting. She worked as the director of UBC’s Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics and was the head of the transgenics program. She’d come a long way from her early days at Cariboo College, but she wasn’t finished.
Along with her vet tech diploma and many years of experiential learning, she earned a Bachelor of Veterinary Services Management (honours) degree and became certified through the Canadian Association for Laboratory Animal Science (CALAS) as a registered master laboratory animal technician. She is a former director and past president of the local CALAS chapter and received their Charles River award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the Canadian lab animal science field.
Vet tech diploma leads to multiple roles
After years working in and around labs, she decided it was time to try something entirely new — sales and marketing.
“I thought, ‘I’ve taken care of the animals, I’ve been the technician, I’ve done management, so why don’t I try this?’ It was really fun and totally different,” she says of the years she spent as director of marketing with lab equipment company, Animal Care Systems.
Throughout her career, McKernan has been an active member of nonprofits dedicated to the ethical treatment of lab animals. She understands that using lab animals in medical research can be controversial but emphasizes that compassionate care of the animals has always been a top priority for her.
“At this time animal research still gives us a lot more answers than any computer modelling or other alternatives,” she says. “Organizations that I am a member of, such as CALAS, provide education and training to people that work with laboratory animals to ensure that the highest standards of care and welfare are maintained.”
McKernan has been working with the BC SPCA for a year and is responsible for the management, oversight and strategic direction of the society’s hospitals and clinics throughout the province. She is enjoying the nonprofit realm and appreciates the focus placed on mental wellness.
“Every career path I’ve taken has become my passion while I’m doing it,” she says. “I am really enjoying working at the BC SPCA. Everyone here is very mission focused and collaborates extensively.”
McKernan splits her time between her home base on the Lower Mainland and the other clinic locations in Prince George, Kamloops and Penticton. She has liaised with faculty in TRU’s vet tech program to help students explore their career potential and says she looks forward to future engagements with the department. After all, she knows firsthand all the places being a registered veterinary technologist can take you.