Variety in the species of life attracts state veterinary diagnostic lab leader

COLLEGE STATION — Looking back, there was a natural progression from manatees and beached whales to panthers, wild turkeys and most recently Texas cattle.

Sure, they all are animals. But for Dr. Bruce Akey, they have each been part of a trail of discovery that defined his career path.

“I like to dream big and go after things, and I’ve found that culture here,” said Akey, who became director of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, headquartered in College Station, in March.

Akey admits to a love for animals “since I was a little kid,” but he didn’t originally set out to pair that with a profession. In college, in part due to home influence as the son of a Naval officer, he first majored in marine biology, later changing to a broader biology degree for his bachelor’s.

Then, a job with the agricultural experiment station at the University of Florida led to graduate school were Akey studied parasitology.

“We did everything from manatees and beached whales to Florida panthers and wild turkeys,” Akey recalled. “It was a lot of fun — a lot of fun!”

Dr. Bruce Akey, Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Dr. Bruce Akey, Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kathleen Phillips)

At some point, his major professor and mentor there admitted that he wished he had gone to veterinary school.

“We were working with wildlife,” Akey said. “And he said a veterinary degree would have opened up a lot more opportunities in terms of access to the clinical knowledge and experience of disease pathology and such. It also would provide the clinical tools to use surgery for implanting tracking devices and access to drugs to be used to immobilize animals for research.”

That seed grew into Akey’s interest for working on wildlife diseases, so he headed to veterinary school after earning a master’s rather than continuing in an academic doctoral program.

“A PhD degree makes one a specialist in a very narrow area, whereas a DVM is a very broad clinical degree,” he said. “There are lots of different directions one can go with a veterinary degree.”

And many of those directions came his way. Akey has been a practicing clinician, a regulator, a researcher and a diagnostician.

The role of diagnostician, however, served his desire for challenges and constant changes.

“To me diagnostic labs are like Christmas every day,” he said. “We get about 400-600 packages a day. When they arrive, we don’t know what’s in the packages.

“We open them up and it could be anything from a mouse to an elephant piece,” Akey said. “We don’t know what’s coming every day, which makes every day a little bit of a CSI adventure trying to figure out what’s making something sick or what’s killing them.”

Daily challenges, he said, are what keeps the four labs he oversees in the state “on the cutting edge of technology” with 164 employees total in College Station, Amarillo, Gonzales and Center.

“Diagnostic work benefits the livestock industry and companion animals as well,” Akey said. “Part of what we emphasize to every new hire is ‘you’re not just running a test. In fact, you have somebody’s livelihood in your hands. You know that the results you turn out are so important, because there is somebody on the other end who could literally be making life-and-death decisions for their animals based on results.’

“All of our folks are very cognizant of that in the hundreds of thousands of tests we perform each year.”

Though he’s now in an administrative role, Akey likes to stay close the lab work in progress.

“I still am able to keep my fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the diagnostic lab day in and day out,” he said of his administrative role. “I get to hear about interesting cases. It’s still got plenty of variety.”

Akey is also overseeing construction of a new facility at the College Station location, a task he also handled when he was director of the diagnostic lab at Cornell University prior to coming to Texas.

“I have the opportunity to help plan, design and build a new laboratory facility,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to rethink work processes and to really think creatively about workflows.”

He said the new facility, for instance, will have an “open lab concept” in which different sections — such as bacteriology, serology and virology — will be able to share common technological equipment rather than duplicate them in individual little rooms as in the current 40-plus-year-old building.

The environment also will be brighter for the employees, he said, because windows and a clerestory on top will be used to bring natural light into the building, which should be completed by December 2016.

The building will also enable the veterinary diagnostic lab to provide enhanced service to Texas residents and businesses. That’s important, he said, because state-supported diagnostic labs used to be subsidized for up to 80 percent of their budgets, but now receive only about 35 percent from the state.

“The effect has been pushing us into more of an entrepreneurial and business-type mode where we have to generate money from fees we charge, and we have to be more and more cost effective and cost conscious about what we do,” Akey noted.

In the meantime, a lot of private labs have sprung up to perform services once supplied only by the state-supported facility, he said.

Diagnostic labs in general nationwide also are playing catchup to an increasingly sophisticated clientele who are used to getting answers via electronic devices 24/7, he said.

“We’ve got to be there to provide the type of services they want and also in the way that they want the results. I want to work on some ways to fundamentally change the way we do business with regards to the reporting of test results.”

Along with returning results electronically, Akey said, he hopes to work interpretive information into reports.

“In the past, both in veterinary diagnostic labs and in human clinical labs, we would do a test for you, give you that result and say ‘good luck.’ It’s up to you to figure out what to do with the information,” he added. “I think what our clients are looking for is more value than that. We can give them more value by surrounding our raw test results with more interpretive information to help them sort it out.

“We are very much here for public service, and so we want the public to know about us, to know what our capabilities are and that we are a resource for them.”

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