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Blending Science, Medicine and a Love of Animals

By Katie Sigeti ’06, philanthropy manager, alumni programs
Lifer Olivia Lenz ’09 studies immunology as a postdoctoral researcher while honing veterinary skills on weekends.
Lifer Olivia Lenz ’09 embodies the Torrey scholar, artist and athlete—traits she carries with her to this day as a veterinarian and postdoctoral researcher.
 
Olivia graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s in neuroscience. After college, she began laboratory work full-time at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at Penn, studying the genetics responsible for sleep and circadian rhythms. 
 
While pondering medical school or a Ph.D. in neuroscience, she found inspiration in the book The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which describes how veterinary scientists discovered the viral origins of ebola in the 1980s. Realizing the potential to blend science, medicine and her lifelong love for animals led her to veterinary school at Cornell University. After graduating as a doctor in veterinary medicine in 2020, she headed back into the lab to assess if she still wanted to pursue academic research.
 
Fast forward, Olivia is now a postdoctoral researcher in a lab focusing on the immunology of inflammatory bowel disease, specifically ulcerative colitis. “The type of research I do is called basic science, meaning that I study fundamental biological processes like how immune cells talk to each other,” she shares. “My work has the potential to influence both human and animal medicine.”

Olivia continues to hone her veterinary medical skills by performing surgeries on the weekends at the local animal shelter, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society. “Usually, I go a few days per month to do routine surgeries like spays, neuters, umbilical hernia repairs, laceration repairs, etc.,” she says. “I help care for cats and dogs who don’t have homes or whose owners opted for a more affordable spay/neuter option. The best feeling in the world is witnessing how robustly a sick, injured or neglected animal bounces back with a little basic medical care and some love.”

In early 2022, Olivia co-authored a paper detailing the first case of the COVID-19 delta variant in a cat in the United States. “We partnered with another lab that specializes in viral genetics and discovered that the viral genome isolated from the cat was almost identical to the viral genomes circulating in humans in the same geographic region,” she says. “In the realm of viral genetics, this is basically how you prove that one living thing got the virus from another living thing. This is a different field from my usual work on inflammatory bowel disease, so I co-authored this paper with a graduate student in our collaborating lab. I wielded my clinical knowledge, and he brought his specialized big data viral genetics knowledge.”

Throughout Olivia’s 15 years as a student at LJCDS, she took advantage of a myriad of opportunities in the classroom, in the pool and on the stage. She credits LJCDS for laying the foundation that launched her into a successful career and life path. “For 15 years, I received a strong foundational education with all sorts of enrichment activities both in and outside academics,” she says. “These experiences are directly related to some truly excellent teachers who went above and beyond for their students at LJCDS—they were strong pillars that set me up to learn how to learn in college and to keep learning ever since. Country Day, for me, fostered that type of multifaceted human experience, an outlook that I cherish and maintain to this day.”
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