Giving women in veterinary medicine ‘true role models’

Closeup of Dori Borjesson
Dori Borjesson

This morning, when Dori Borjesson walked into Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine as dean, it was a first for women.

Until today, no woman had ever led the college in its more than 120-year history.

But what is most surprising to the new dean is how much it means to the women around her.

“I didn’t anticipate it, but this means a lot to a lot of people,” Borjesson said. “It speaks to the fact that if you don’t see anyone like you or see anyone that has traveled paths similar to yours in leadership positions, it’s hard to believe you can accomplish those goals.”

In a now female-dominated profession, where women make up more than 70 percent of veterinary students, Borjesson’s appointment makes her one of just 11 female veterinary deans in the United States. There are 32 veterinary colleges.

“Women in veterinary medicine are now starting to have true role models whom they can relate to and watch build programs,” she said. “That’s important for women as well as everyone to see.”

Borjesson comes to WSU from the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine where she was chair of the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. She is a board-certified veterinary clinical pathologist and was the director of the UC Davis’ Veterinary Institute for Regenerative Cures. She received her DVM from UC Davis in 1995.

Despite always knowing she wanted to be a veterinarian, Dr. Borjesson entered veterinary school later than most. While many veterinary students start at age 21, she entered at 27.

She blames her fascination with ecology and biology.

“In college, I decided I didn’t want to be a veterinarian, I wanted to change the world instead.” she said.

After graduating from Colorado College in 1988, Dr. Borjesson first worked conservation jobs with state fish and game agencies throughout the West before attending veterinary school.

“I met a number of wildlife veterinarians and it made me realize you could be a veterinarian and you could work in wildlife or conservation.”

A love for animals

Ever since she could remember, it was always the animals that drove her.

Raised in Beaverton, Oregon, at age 13, Dr. Borjesson took her first job at Sorrento Animal Hospital in Tigard, Oregon. She was also a volunteer at Portland’s then Washington Park Zoo.

“As kids, animals give us the chance to learn to care for something outside of ourselves,” Borjesson said. “They improve our mental health; they are essential in agriculture. We don’t think about it, but animals are powerful.”

Dr. Borjesson is a firm believer in the impact of the human-animal bond, the study of which is an academic discipline founded at WSU by the late Dean Leo Bustad. She co-founded the Mercer Clinic for the Pets of the Homeless as a veterinary student in 1992, a clinic that provides free care to the pets of homeless people in Sacramento, California.

The program, modeled after Seattle’s Doney Coe Pet Clinic, has been running for 24 years.

Dr. Borjesson said WSU’s One Health Clinic — a similar space where people experiencing homelessness with companion animals can get basic medical and veterinary care in a side-by-side setting — was a draw for her.

“We are not as generous as we should be to people who are different than us, or who have fallen on harder times,” she said. “We need to move away from that.”

Other WSU selling points were the Palouse’s rolling landscape, which she is excited to explore; the college’s faculty; and their ongoing research in global animal health and WSU’s Rocky Crate Endowed Professorship in Wild Sheep Diseases and the Elk Hoof Disease research program. Dr. Borjesson completed a master’s degree on desert bighorn sheep in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

‘One of the whitest professions’

While she wants to get a feel for the college before making too many changes, there is one area she already knows she wants to improve: diversity.

“It’s not just a WSU issue, it’s a veterinary medicine issue. The profession as a whole is a white profession. It’s one of the whitest professions and there has been a lot written about that,” she said. “It doesn’t feel very welcoming to others, I suspect.”

To begin to change that, Dr. Borjesson has already spoken with the college’s Counseling and Wellness team to champion their programs and consider reinvigorating the Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment (VOICE) chapter at the college. The program was started by veterinary students at Cornell University and aims to increase awareness and sensitivity to socio-cultural issues in the veterinary profession.

“It’s an opportunity for everyone to be heard and included. VOICE really speaks to wellness for our students, faculty, and staff,” she said. “And without outside perspectives you can’t make the best decisions.”

Dr. Borjesson’s husband, Dr. Sean Owens, who served as associate dean of student programs at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, was instrumental in organizing the VOICE chapter there. While retired, she said he may assist her if he can be of help. Dr. Owens is also a board-certified clinical pathologist.

Dr. Borjesson plans to create initiatives that address compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine, as well as ways to limit the financial burden on recent graduates.

“I want to think about how we build wellness and sustainability into our profession so people can have a longstanding, healthy career,” she said.


For Dr. Borjesson, the mid-July move back to the Pacific Northwest feels a bit like a ‘homecoming.’

Her family, including her husband, daughter, Lilly, age 17, and all of their pets- three dogs, a cat and a horse- are still completing the move from California’s Central Valley. “My family has been so supportive of this new professional and personal chapter- none of this would have been possible without their truly enthusiastic backing”.

Dr. Borjesson, however, plans to leave her research laboratory behind.

She specializes in adult-derived stem cell research and spent the past 12 years examining how stem cells alter the immune system.

Her lab will close when her last doctoral student completes their research in the summer of 2021.

“I am excited to be a full-time dean engaging with all of the college’s faculty, students, staff, alumni and stakeholders,” Dr. Borjesson said.

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