Dr. Sean Spagnoli and his virtual teaching set up

May 21, 2021
By Jens Odegaard 

If you’ve lived in Oregon for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the stories of “cattle mutilations” on Eastern Oregon’s high desert, juniper, bunchgrass and sage ranchlands. Cattle carcasses are found by ranch hands. The cattle are missing genitalia and eyes – the wounds so clean they look like a surgeon did it. There are no footprints to be found. The carcasses are dried out – no blood anywhere.

Who did it? “It’s always aliens or Satanists,” said Dr. Sean Spagnoli with a wry laugh.

Spagnoli has heard these stories plenty of times. “We get phone calls at least once a year,” he said. He’s an assistant professor of anatomic pathology at the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine and holds doctorates in anatomic pathology and veterinary medicine.

Unsurprisingly, his answer to the whodunit involves neither Martians nor cultists.

He uses the whole scenario as a teaching opportunity both to those calling in with these mysterious inquiries and to the veterinary students he instructs at the CCVM.

“What I do is teach post-mortem change,” Spagnoli said. “They talk about 'cattle mutilations':

  • All of the wounds have surgical incisions. Well, what do we use maggots for? We use maggots and microsurgery to clean up wound edges. It's going to look like a scalpel was there.
  • You look at an animal and it’s been drained of blood ... Most of the cattle ranches are beef ranches in the desert. Well, it’s been sitting out in the sun for 48 hours, an animal that has essentially an internal heater in the rumen – that’s 300 pounds or more – and wrapped in leather. Where is that blood going to stick around? And you haven't been out there on your ATV for 24 to 36 hours. And that's how long it takes for an animal to rot. The blood goes into the dirt.
  • ‘Oh, it ate its eyes and its genitals.’ And it's like, ‘Yeah, those are the soft parts and coyotes exist.’”

It’s this humor and candor in laying out the facts, that’s made Spagnoli a student favorite at the CCVM.

This year, they chose him as the recipient of the Zoetis Distinguished Veterinary Teacher Award. It’s an honor that goes to one individual at each veterinary college or school in the United States or the Caribbean and is considered the preeminent educator award at each institution.

“It is clear Dr. Spagnoli loves to teach,” wrote one student in the nomination materials. “He remembers what it is like to be a student and provides appropriate resources and emphasizes learning outcomes in a clear and understandable fashion. This guy is funny!! He makes class so fun and memorable.”

As a student, Spagnoli spent much of his time being taught by professors whom he felt would rather not be there or were focused mainly on downloading knowledge with a superiority complex. “I really base a lot of my teaching on like, ‘OK, what did I really hate about vet school?’ Let's try the opposite of that. And maybe we get somewhere,” Spagnoli said.

Spagnoli’s “opposite” approach boils down to a few key things.

  • Conversational learning. “I was a terrible vet student. I sat in the back row, and I had a little French Press, and I would just get hot water from the dispenser and drink coffee in the back and be on my phone l. I never paid attention to lecture, because there no reason to. You had somebody up there talking and there was no engagement,” Spagnoli said with a chuckle. “You can teach like the guy at the party who just doesn't shut up or you can actually engage in a conversation when you're teaching. People would much prefer to be at a party having a conversation than just listening to somebody go on.”
  • Connecting the dots. “I want people to be excited enough about the topic that they will talk about it outside of work, because it's interesting. But also to the extent that the knowledge is ingrained in them, that they have the facts, but rather than simply recalling the facts, they can place that back in the context of other knowledge that they have,” Spagnoli said.
  • Respecting students as equals and colleagues. “If you're educating, you have to come from the point of view that you're to a certain extent on equal standing with the people that you're teaching. Otherwise there's that subconscious frisson, just that little vibe of discomfort and distrust, that gets in there. And I think it really stymies a lot of educational efforts. But I think if you come at it as like, I'm also a person, I just happen to have been doing this longer, and there's stuff that I'm not going to know. I will defer to you. I think it’s really humanizing. I think it generates a real rapport with people,” Spagnoli said.
  • Stoking enthusiasm. “There’s so much interesting and really unique stuff about what we do as veterinarians. It’s a really unique intersection: You have to be a scientist. You have to be a therapist. You have to be an economist. You have to be good at business. You have to be able to not freak out when you've got a two-ton horse that's trying to kill you and there's nobody else around but the farmer who's just kind of laughing at you. You have to be all of those things pretty much all the time,” Spagnoli said. “And so what I think is great about veterinarians is they're in this position to be scientists that are seen as fellow human beings … it's this great nexus of compassion and being able to deal with people and to show them that like science in everyday life is actually a really good and enriching thing.”

It’s an approach that’s working.

“Dr. Spagnoli deserves to be recognized for many reasons but primarily his enthusiasm for teaching. I have never been to a lecture presented by him and found myself bored or confused. His passion and enthusiasm really encourages a positive learning environment. Additionally, he is always willing to stop and spend more time on difficult concepts. His attention to his students’ individual needs is unparalleled and for that he is very much appreciated,” wrote another student in the nomination materials.

“Spagnoli rocks!”