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Student Experience

From Research Fellow to Rodeo Royalty, Dual-Degree Student Rides High

Rachel Gagliardi, an NC State College of Veterinary Medicine student and Miss Rodeo North Carolina 2023, seizes every opportunity to excel in the research lab, the rodeo arena and beyond.

Miss Rodeo North Carolina, Rachel Gagliardi, poses in a laboratory. She has long, dark hair and glasses and is wearing a cowboy hat, a pageant sash and a brown and turquoise jacket.
Rachel Gagliardi is a DVM/PhD student at the College of Veterinary Medicine who works in The Schnabel Equine Sports Medicine Laboratory. She was named Miss Rodeo North Carolina 2023. (John Joyner/NC State College of Veterinary Medicine)

Before age 8, Rachel Gagliardi had never ridden a horse, much less dreamed she would one day conduct equine biomedical research and compete for the highest rodeo queen title in the country.

Gagliardi, a dual-degree DVM/Ph.D. student at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, finds much of her life now revolves around horses, 18 years after she first hopped onto a saddle for riding lessons gifted on her eighth birthday.

As part of her Ph.D. program funded by a prestigious GAANN Fellowship in Molecular Biotechnology, she spends most days researching potential therapeutics for equine osteoarthritis in a College of Veterinary Medicine lab. For her DVM degree, Gagliardi logs long hours in the college’s Large Animal Hospital honing her clinical skills. In her spare moments, she takes care of her own three horses and trains them to compete in rodeo events.

Continuing her dedication to equine welfare, Gagliardi also found the time in late 2022 to compete in and win the Miss Rodeo North Carolina competition.

That title came with a responsibility of traveling around the state and nation throughout 2023, promoting both the professional sport of rodeo and its agricultural heritage. It also gave her a public platform to talk about the care the sport’s horses and livestock receive and showcase how she brings her NC State veterinary training into the arena.

NC State College of Veterinary Medicine student and Miss Rodeo North Carolina 2023 Rachel Gagliardi explains how she takes her veterinary training into the rodeo arena and explains that her work advocating for equine and livestock health initiatives — supported by her NC State community — is only just beginning.

Becoming Miss Rodeo North Carolina propelled Gagliardi to the Miss Rodeo America competition in Las Vegas in December. She placed outside the top 10 competitors but was grateful for another chance to spread her message of representation and inclusion.

“Really, what is important to me is that I went out, I had a great time and I represented North Carolina,” Gagliardi says. “People ask me, ‘How do you do all that with your studies?’ It’s a balancing act, and I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of this program here at NC State.”

As a dual-degree student in an eight-year program, Gagliardi alternates between taking research and clinical courses and is finishing an intensive, research-based dissertation to earn her Ph.D. before completing her DVM curriculum.

Gagliardi says the opportunity to conduct equine osteoarthritis research with Dr. Lauren Schnabel, a professor of equine orthopedic surgery who runs the Schnabel Equine Sports Medicine Laboratory, is one of the main reasons she chose to attend NC State.

Gagliardi comes from what she calls a “non-horse family.” Though she did not start riding horses until she was 8, horses are now the center of her research studies and rodeo hobby, and she owns three of her own. (John Joyner/NC State College of Veterinary Medicine)

Schnabel and other mentors at the college have given Gagliardi the resources and encouragement to pursue her academic, personal and professional goals. Schnabel says she is thrilled to see Gagliardi succeed in her studies and research and use her knowledge to mentor others.

“Rachel is a talented DVM/Ph.D. student dedicated to her chosen career of equine medicine and to teaching and serving as a role model for younger generations,” Schnabel says. “I am very proud of all that Rachel has accomplished and how she continues to represent our field of veterinary medicine so eloquently and with the highest level of integrity.”

Gagliardi became interested in studying osteoarthritis as an undergraduate after one of her horses broke his leg while practicing for the barrel racing rodeo event. She now researches translational methods to relieve symptoms of the degenerative disease in horses and humans using an in vitro model she developed.

As Gagliardi’s veterinary experiences grow, so do the opportunities for her to apply her training in the rodeo world.

These moments are sometimes clinical, like when she adjusted a horse’s rib in the field before a riding event last May. Others are educational, like teaching the public about the extensive animal welfare rules that govern the sport.

Gagliardi has set her sights on one day winning the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Veterinarian of the Year award, a title granted to rodeo veterinarians who show exemplary dedication to livestock care over their careers.

In the meantime, she looks forward to graduating with her Ph.D. in Comparative Biomedical Sciences this year, completing her DVM degree in spring 2026 and then pursuing an internship focused in equine sports medicine and rehabilitation.

“Coming to the College of Veterinary Medicine really set me up for success long-term,” Gagliardi says. “The dual-degree program here has been so incredibly encouraging of my journey as Miss Rodeo North Carolina and my individual studies. The research, clinical and teaching experiences I’ve gained here are critical to shaping my future as a competent and confident veterinarian.”

Gagliardi helped design the newest Miss Rodeo North Carolina crown, which features landmarks from the state’s coastal and mountain regions. (John Joyner/NC State College of Veterinary Medicine)