In the Lab: The Swiss Army Scientist
Kevin Dhondt has “the good sense of farmers”
Kevin Dhondt, a veterinarian with experience in virology and immunology who works for Charles River in L'Arbresle and Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, France, is not afraid to course correct when necessary.
“I started my veterinary career as many of us do – I was very attracted by the call of the wild, to cure lions and elephants,” he joked. “Then I understood rapidly that this will not match with my objectives for having a family and to be present for them. I reconsidered my plans and went into the dogs and cats practice. I did some internships, but I was rapidly bored by the routine of the cases, because it's mainly vaccination and neutering.”
Kevin wanted a challenge, coupled with stability. He decided to switch from veterinary medicine to science, but because of the university system in France, the transition was not as easy as just switching majors.
“It was hard to choose science as a veterinarian, because there are almost no bridges between the grande école (elite higher learning system) and the universities,” he said. “It was not easy, so I needed to go to the university for evening courses. So I was with the cows during the day and then I have to rush to my house, take a shower and go to the university for the evening lessons.”
Anyone who has every worked with cows will understand the necessity of stopping at home for a shower, but after earning his DVM and Masters in Science, Kevin proved again that he was far from squeamish when he chose his PhD lab.
“I have always been interested in infectious diseases, so I applied to a lab working on zoonotic viruses, in biosafety level four laboratory,” he said. “It was very exciting working in such an environment with the space suit and working with very deadly viruses. When you're working with such deadly viruses you have to be very calm and quiet and control every one of your gestures. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.”
Working in such a high-stakes lab taught Kevin the value of planning and control. Though it was fun to feel every day like he was on the set of a movie, he also broadened his skillset, making him perfect for his current role – overseeing Veterinary Professional Services for RMS near Lyon, France. His veterinary background, coupled with his rigid training in biosafety, makes him a careful biosecurity caretaker for his sites’ laboratory animal colonies.
“When you deal with biosecurity it's quite similar to biosafety,” he said. “In the BSL IV laboratory there were a lot of procedures for biosafety, and biosecurity is exactly the opposite. So for biosafety you ensure that your virus will not get out of the lab, and for biosecurity you have to be sure that [contaminants] will not enter the lab.”
He is also adept at recognizing the needs of clients, since he himself was a Charles River client before he started working for RMS. For his role he can deal with anything from client services to quality assurance; surgery to animal health monitoring; and often he is dealing with emergencies.
“I remember that during my recruiting interview, I presented myself as a Swiss knife for a biology,” he said.
Even if he doesn’t have the right tool, he knows where to get it. “If you need to cut a tree, you will not do that with a hammer,” he said.
In describing his job Kevin relates a cross between general scientific knowledge, and what he calls the “good sense of farmers,” or pragmatism. According to him, “the easiest solutions are often the best.”
During quarantine Kevin spent two days a week at the office, and the rest at home with his wife and two young daughters. He has spent some time making improvements to his house and is a self-proclaimed DIY enthusiast. Like a Swiss knife switching between scissors and a magnifying glass, he has also spent time trying to show his daughters “how beautiful is the world for those who know how to look at it.”