Pathology stories part three: A day in the life of Scott Daugherty

It’s mid-afternoon in the necropsy lab and sunlight pours through tall windows onto a busy scene. Pathology technicians and interns are doing the “pathology dance” as they call it, shuffling and dodging one another as they share work space in the center of the room. They flit between the specimens they’re working on and the sample collection containers or the tools at their respective stations. The folder of daily cases is getting slim once more and the last few dissections of the day are being prepared. Scott Daugherty has just pulled on his boots to get back to work for the day. 

Scott is a pathology technician, working in both the necropsy lab and histology lab. His morning starts as early as 4am with coffee and getting the family ready to go so they can spend the start of their days together. He’s at the office around 8am where he checks the necropsy lab to see what cases he might be working on that day. If the case folder is particularly thick, he’ll jump into scrubs and get started right away. If there’s time, though, he heads to histology or to the museum archive of historic tissue specimens. Like the other pathology technicians, one of Scott’s responsibilities is curating a zoological histology collection that dates back nearly a century. It’s not just a museum archive, but a database as well, and some of the slides are incredibly rare. Some of these slides represent the only known samples of entire species, and caring for and cataloguing them is an ongoing mission. 

A former keeper-turned-pathology technician, Scott’s route to the Disease Investigations team was an internal one. He began as a keeper in Santa Barbara before moving to the San Diego Zoo. When a temporary position in Disease Investigations opened, he took the opportunity with the intention of expanding his professional knowledge and exploring other zoological careers. He’s been part of the pathology team ever since. “I get to look at the same animals I’ve been working on for ten years in a new light,” he says. “It’s a unique viewpoint.” 

In particular, he notes that being part of Disease Investigations adds a new perspective on an animal’s life and legacy, especially because the San Diego Zoo goes so much further than most other zoological institutions to not only have immediate animal welfare outcomes but also find patterns that can improve welfare and conservation long-term. Measurements taken now might not be needed immediately, but they could provide a foundation for future research and conservation efforts. 

What he likes best about his job is that, while the discovery of new things is exciting, he really enjoys getting to know more about each species, and getting to explore animals in ways not normally possible. “There are some attributes animals have that you can’t really appreciate [just seeing them in the zoo],” he says. “When you have to move [a rhinoceros] you get a true sense of the weightof them, for how big the animal really is.” Getting to know and understand animals keeps the work interesting, and it’s a new way to understand and relate to species. He has even written about his role and the importance of it. 

Around mid-morning, Scott heads to rounds, where the team goes over the previous day’s cases and discusses anything needed for the rest of the day. If he hasn’t already begun in the morning, Scott spends the afternoon in necropsy or histology, going through the case files one by one. For every single specimen, he and the other pathology technicians measure the animal’s size and make external observations first. This observation includes any kinds of bumps, injury, or evidence of disease. Then they open the specimen and examine the organs and other internal features. There is often a request book of specific tissues to sample, and each dissection is tailored to the needs of the case. The samples are put into formalin, a solution to keep them from breaking down until they can be turned into slides. 

On alternating days, Scott might be in the histology lab where he takes the “fixed” samples and creates slides to represent every sample taken from each specimen. This includes a range of tissue to show where the healthy tissue transition to diseased tissue. The vital role of preserving an animal’s legacy is in his hands, and it’s a job he takes very seriously. As he puts it, “This is an opportunity for animals to reach out and communicate and touch other people’s lives beyond their own lifetime.”

That’s quite a legacy to leave. 

Many thanks to Scott Daugherty for taking the time to speak with me about his work. Read more about the Disease Investigations team here.