Oct. 9, 2020

Champion mentor earns cattle industry award for his passionate support of vet med students

Gordon Atkins selected for honour from veterinarians across Canada and the U.S.A.
Award-winning vet med mentor Gordon Atkins with ‘Eastside Lewisdale Gold Missy’ – a famous cow who w

You might say that what Dr. Gordon Atkins doesn’t know about cows likely isn’t worth knowing. But Atkins, who’s been a cattle veterinarian for nearly half a century, would disagree.

A professor in livestock health at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), Atkins believes in life-long learning. And he mentors students to embrace the same philosophy.  

  • Photo above: Award-winning vet med mentor Gordon Atkins with ‘Eastside Lewisdale Gold Missy’ — a famous cow who was supreme champion at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. Atkins provided lifesaving surgery in Missy’s early life and she went on to sell for $1.2 million. Photo by Sylvain Nichols

Atkins’s tireless support of UCVM students earned him the Merck Animal Health Mentor of the Year Award from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP).

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving,” says Dr. Karin Orsel, DVM, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at UCVM, who spearheaded the award nomination.

“Gordon has an endless passion for cattle medicine and producers, and he is beyond generous in sharing his time and energy with anyone who wants to learn, 24-7.”

Touching lives and shaping careers

Atkins’s fan base of current and former students, dairy farmers, and cattle producers alike is considerable.

Gordon Atkins (centre stage with a dairy cow) with students from UCVM’s Class of 2020 during a dairy health rotation in Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec.

Rae-Leigh Pederzolli

“Dr. Atkins has probably been the biggest influence in my educational career and my veterinary career," says Dr. Dennis Klugkist, DVM, a dairy cattle veterinarian who was in UCVM’s first graduating class in 2012. “I’ve never had a professor or mentor who is so passionate about what he does and about passing that knowledge on to students. Even now, I’m eight years out and he’s still my go-to guy. I talk to him regularly if I have questions or need advice and he’s always there to answer your phone calls.”

If it weren’t for Atkins, Klugkist might not have finished the program. “When I was going through third year and the dreaded OSCEs (evaluative clinical exams), I had a particularly rough go and I told Dr. Atkins I was thinking of quitting. That night he showed up at my front door. He convinced me not to do it and I’m grateful for that.”

Coaching students at the Dairy Queen and riding mechanical bulls at ag fairs

Dr. Megan Dick, DVM, UCVM Class of 2020, says while Atkins’s accolades are too numerous to list, his ability to instil a thirst for continuous learning and his willingness to go the extra mile for students is legendary. “One of the more creative teaching methods he employs is taking the students to Dairy Queen during this rotation for a discussion about Dairy Comp 305 over ice cream.”  

“I am a huge supporter of Dr. Atkins,” says Dr. Rae-Leigh Pederzolli, DVM, a rural mixed animal veterinarian.

Her favourite memory was going to an agricultural fair while on a dairy medicine rotation in Saint Hyacinthe, Que. “There happened to be a mechanical bull there,” Pederzolli says. “As soon as Dr. Atkins spotted it, he looked at me and said ‘If you ride it, I’ll ride it.’ Well, off we went, and by the end, all of us had rode the mechanical bull. But Dr. Atkins was by far the champion.”

But along with the fun, Pederzolli says Atkins prepared her for her career in many ways.

“He told me many times that when I graduate I just need to go out in practice, be brave, and keep learning. That’s exactly what I have done.” 

His smile and encouragement are contagious

Dr. Carling Matejka, DVM, UCVM Class of 2018, says Atkins dedicated a significant amount of his personal time to students.

“He was always willing to take us on call to gain extra experience, answer our questions after hours, and thoroughly explain concepts to help us understand,” she says. “My fondest memory was at the AABP quiz bowl competition when we exceeded expectations and made it to the semi finals. I will always remember the grin on his face.”

Gordon Atkins with UCVM students who were the first-ever Canadian team to win the AABP Quiz Bowl, from left: Brenden Hilgartner, Megan Dick, Nurmo Atabayev, and Rae-Leigh Pederzolli.

Edouard Timsit

Celene DeWit, a third-year student at UCVM, has wanted to be a dairy veterinarian all her life and feels lucky to have Atkins as a mentor. “Even on the days where I feel like I’m not going to make it through school and am drowning in coursework, his smile and encouragement have been so contagious that it makes me excited to keep working towards the goal,” DeWit says.

‘If they learn to love cows, it is for me a special bonus’

Atkins has a well-deserved, scroll-length list of awards, including the Carl J. Norden Distinguished Teacher Award (2011 and 2018), and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Teacher of the Year Award.

Gordon Atkins gets a standing ovation on winning the Carl J. Norden Distinguished Teaching Award in 2018.

He finds joy in helping students accumulate the knowledge and skills they need to excel in their careers. “To see the passion and enthusiasm that they display as they transform in four short years from inexperienced first-year students to true professionals at graduation is gratifying,” he says. “And if they learn to love cows, it is for me a special bonus.”

A member of the AABP since the start of his career, Atkins credits the organization’s professional development offerings for his being able to teach the best and most current in bovine medicine to his students.

“The AABP has been the backbone of my continuing education for my whole career and I wouldn't be teaching, I wouldn't have been able to stay current in all of the areas of bovine medicine and surgery if I hadn't had the opportunity to attend the conferences for well over 40 years,” says Atkins. “There is no other recognition that is more special for me than the Mentorship Award from the AABP.”