From plants to puppies

I’m Aimée Llewellyn and I’ve been the canine genetics specialist and health information manager at the Kennel Club, in London, for the past 3 years. I started my research journey in plant metabolomics, but “changed species” to enjoy the best of both worlds – both research and applied science. My focus is to continue to improve health and welfare resources for all dogs – from veterinary research through to public education.

Aimee Llewellyn Measuring dog

An early interest in the environment

I spent most of my younger years helping out on my grandparents’ 85 acre farm in the foothills of the Cascade mountain range, in Oregon, USA. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t a surprise that I had an early interest in the environment. Deciding how I was going to use my natural skills and interests proved rather more difficult, and in the end I have had an unconventional scientific progression. There have been a number of times along my personal and educational path where striking a balance between theoretical “hard” science and impatience to see practical solutions seemed impossible. Along the way, though, I learned two very important things – diverse scientific experience breeds creative solutions, and not having everything come to you easy (or in a straight-forward way) can make you brave.

With the high costs of education in the USA, I had to work hard to gain scholarships to help with the cost of my undergraduate education, and with the help from relatives, I was able to gain an AS(Sci) from Cottey College, in Nevada, MO. It was there that I met Dr Brenda Ross, my extremely patient chemistry teacher, who helped me cope with my terrible imbalance of being a maestro in the laboratory with a severe lack of confidence when it came to written exams.

After Cottey, I ended up choosing to read Environmental Science, which I thought would lead me to a career that struck a nice balance between biology, chemistry, and the environment. I also thought that if I was moving on, I might as well make the most of it, and chose to study in the UK. I ended up at the University of Hertfordshire, which had an exceptional Environmental Science course. It was there that Dr Avice Hall (MBE) ignited a passion for plant pathology and genetics, and inspired me to stretch myself and planted the seeds (pardon the pun) of confidence in my abilities as a researcher.

Collecting maize pollen

Collecting maize pollen

Becoming a Research Scientist

After University, I had initially hoped to do a PhD, but instead landed a job as a senior scientific assistant at Rothamsted Research, working in plant metabolomics. I honed skills from novel experimental designs to robotic high-throughput processing across a naturally diverse subject area. With decent publications accumulating, and experience, I managed over the 7 years there to work my way up to Research Scientist, despite not having a PhD.

I relished the achievements and the relationships built with the excellent research teams, but still felt like I wasn’t as purposeful as I could be – and that I wasn’t really using my skills in communication as well as I could. And, while this is a generalization, many scientists really struggle to effectively communicate to the wider public about their work. There came a point when I knew that I could do more for “science” by really working with the wider world to engage them with my researcher colleagues, than I could achieve as a researcher myself.

My work at the Kennel Club

I started with the Kennel Club in 2012, with the task of continuing and building on the health and welfare work that Prof Jeff Sampson had started 15 years before. The Kennel Club was interested in developing new tools and resources to help dog breeders improve canine health in terms of both inherited disease, moderate phenotype (how the dogs look), and population genetics (i.e. the breed structures). My normal week now is pretty evenly split between leading a small team dedicated to canine health, liaising with internal and external international research partners, and working directly with the general dog owning public – either through lectures or developing web and other resources.

Corgi with Kennel Club pamphlets

Corgi with Kennel Club pamphlets

I have access to over 200 years of history, and health and pedigree data on 215 breeds covering 30+ years. Using the Kennel Club’s resources, and working with partners such as the Animal Health Trust, Royal Veterinary College, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, I can directly effect change in canine improvement.

The flag-ship resource is Mate Select – which is revolutionary in how dog breeders and the general public can have access to thousands of individual dog’s DNA test results, Estimated Breeding Values, Inbreeding Coefficients, and Screening scheme data.

For me, this has been a huge shift from working away in a laboratory all day. It has also been an amazing opportunity to work for a company where being female is categorically not a hindrance to job progression and opportunity. I am proud to be working where the CEO, Rose Smart, and Secretary, Caroline Kisko, are such strong female role models. Indeed, of the Kennel Club’s 9 senior Executives, 8 are women. Given the “traditional” nature of the Kennel Club, this is a valuable comment on what change can happen when people are appointed on merit and not on sex – a lesson that many other established companies in London could learn from.

Oh, and that PhD that I had dreamed of doing? I’ve enrolled at the University of Nottingham Veterinary Medicine and Science, with the support of the Kennel Club, to gain a part-time PhD based on my work and research in canine health.

Aimée Llewellyn