Student Keeps Feet on the Ground, Eyes on Space

Interest in space started at age 12

Lisa Cox

Apart from Laika, the Soviet space dog of the 1950s, what connects veterinary medicine and space history? Ask Lisa Cox, a U of G history student whose academic and personal interests are wide enough to span both worlds.

By day, she studies the down-to-Earth history of livestock disease – an interest that led her across campus to the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) and ultimately to a role in the college’s 150th anniversary celebrations this year.

After-hours, Cox indulges what she calls a “geeky” fascination with the history of space and space travel. Geeky or not, she has parlayed that interest into occasional lectures on campus, including a talk given to visitors during U of G’s inaugural Space Day this past spring.

She previously had nothing to do with the veterinary profession before her arrival at Guelph as a master’s student in the Department of History in 2005.

Following undergrad studies in history and environment at Trent University, she had thought about looking at outbreaks of agricultural pests. Her scope soon widened.

“I started reading more about veterinary medicine,” says Cox. Working with history professor Stuart McCook, she completed her MA in 2007.

Her PhD, also with McCook, now involves historical studies of bovine tuberculosis. Cox has looked at how scientists, regulators and farmers worked to control the disease in Ontario and New York State from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.

New laws played a key role. So did early OVC grads. “An army of veterinarians in Canada and the United States went out and tested on farms. Most were recent grads,” says Cox. “That’s how a lot of people got their first job.”

Two years ago, OVC advertised for a student research associate to work on projects for its 150th anniversary celebration. Cox got the job.

That has meant plenty of poring through U of G Library archives. She was also part of a student team that last year organized more than 10,000 items in OVC’s museum collection.

The collection continues to grow. This year, Sharon Bell, DVM ’83, now practising in Pembroke, Ont., donated items belonging to her great-grandfather.

George Bell, an OVC grad from the 1880s, practised in Kingston, Ont. He wrote about veterinary medicine and developed livestock remedies, including Dr. Bell’s Livestock Laxative and a concoction called the “Veterinary Medical Wonder.” He also served as principal of a veterinary school opened at Queen’s University in the 1890s. The school lasted for only a year.

“They couldn’t keep it going,” says Cox. Eyeing a photo portrait, surgical tools and other items displayed in the OVC seminar room, she adds: “I was happy to get that collection. Because the Queen’s school opened for such a short time, it’s very nice to have artifacts from there.”

Cox is producing an anniversary coffee-table book for OVC for release this fall. She has also spoken to various groups about the college collection and about the environmental history of farming.

But how did she get on the agenda for this year’s Space Day?

Held in June, the event attracted about 500 people to campus. Visitors learned about space-related research at U of G, including growing plants for long-term space flight, analysis of Mars rover data and “tickle tests” on shuttle astronauts’ feet.

A self-described “space nerd,” Cox spoke about the teaching of space history. For that, she drew on a lecture she gives each semester for a first-year history of science course.

That lecture in turn draws upon her nearly lifelong interest in space.

Cox was about 12 when she toted her first telescope into her backyard in Cambridge, Ont. By then, she had already been gobbling up books about space between episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She also read and watched Carl Sagan, whom she admired for both his scholarship and his ability to make science and astronomy accessible.

Two years ago, during a visit to Cornell University to hunt down information about veterinary medicine, she found a moment to honour Sagan. “I very geekily sought out where his office was when I was finished at the archives.”

She was 15 when the Mars Pathfinder touched down with the first wheeled rover to operate on the surface of the red planet in 1997. That year also brought comet Hale-Bopp into the night sky for Earth-bound viewers like Cox. “A lot of exciting things have happened.”

Today she owns three telescopes. Patting the snub-nosed Meade instrument on the table before her, she says, “You can see quite a lot with this one.” She has spotted nebulae and tracked several planets.

Cox still likes to lug her telescopes into the countryside outside of light-polluted Cambridge – or all the way to her boyfriend’s farm in Michigan, where sometimes she finds herself gazing heavenward all alone.

“It’s just an interesting pastime. I enjoy the solitude of looking at the stars.”

On her reading list recently: The Fallen Sky about meteorites; Failure Is Not an Option, by Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director who led efforts to save the crew of Apollo 13; and The Day We Found the Universe about Edwin Hubble. She subscribes to astronomy magazines – SkyNews and Sky and Telescope – and used to belong to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

She was an undergrad at Trent in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

Two years later, Cox received her undergrad degree from former Canadian shuttle astronaut Roberta Bondar, then serving as Trent chancellor. Cox had already met astronauts Marc Garneau and Bjarni Tryggvason as a high school student at national science fairs. She met astronaut Mike Good during U of G’s Space Day this past spring.

Cox says she never aspired to become an astronaut. As a youngster, she’d also enjoyed reading about history.

Space and history came together during a recent visit to her hometown. She’d grown up in Cambridge but never noticed the historical plaque downtown. It honours Otto Julius Klotz, who grew up there and became Canada’s first Dominion astronomer in 1885.