BENTONVILLE, ARK. — Along the path to becoming a veterinarian, Stephanie Clark, Ph.D., realized her true calling: understanding and applying the science behind companion animal nutrition. Clark’s impressive educational background and career in the pet industry makes her a leader at pet care consulting firm BSM Partners, where she works with manufacturers to develop and test pet food formulations.
“It truly makes me proud of the research work we are doing at BSM Partners and those who we have collaborated with for the betterment of animal welfare,” she said.
In the following Q&A, Clark shares her story, advice, and how she hopes to leverage her love of research to better the pet food industry.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Clark: I am a board-certified companion animal nutritionist, licensed animal technologist, and assistant director of special services at BSM Partners. We are the largest pet care consulting firm and work with hundreds of clients from across the country and around the globe.
In my role at BSM Partners, I work with my colleagues to create pet food that meet pets’ nutritional requirements by formulating and reviewing formulations for compliance and efficacy. We also conduct research, including in-home AAFCO feeding trials, digestibility trials, claim substantiation, and applied nutrition research. Lastly, we lead a strong education initiative within our team and publish technical writing for pet parents and the industry.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Clark: My career in the pet food industry probably did not start the same as others. I was on track to become a veterinarian when I fell in love with research. I began to focus my graduate work on animal nutrition, specifically companion animal nutrition. While I am a licensed veterinary technologist and have spent a fair amount of time working in emergency veterinary hospitals, during my graduate studies, I conducted numerous research projects on how to improve animal welfare through food, nutraceuticals, and the gut microbiome. My role within BSM Partners has provided many opportunities to apply my veterinary medicine background to research and formulations, specifically formulating with functional ingredients at efficacious levels.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Clark: One of my biggest challenges was re-entering the pet food industry after my post-doctoral work. I had spent about a year in the pet food industry before returning to academia and working on my post-doctoral studies at Mayo Clinic in collaboration with Nestlé Purina. When I finished my contract and began looking for a job in the pet food industry, I found it difficult to land a position with being education heavy but having limited experience.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Clark: This is a hard one for me, as some of the proudest moments in my professional career were a team effort. The research team at BSM Partners designed and conducted one of the largest, most comprehensive dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) research projects, and soon it will be ready for publication. Coming from academia, a project of this caliber was something only seen on a dream board, but our peers in veterinary research and academia came together to support this study, all for a better understanding of how we can formulate to meet the needs of pets. It truly makes me proud of the research work we are doing at BSM Partners and those who we have collaborated with for the betterment of animal welfare.
PFP: What is top-of-mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Clark: Gut health. Taking care of the microbiota has the potential to improve quality of life for our pets. The gut microbiome interacts with a variety of different organ systems, such as skin, immune system, metabolic, and cognitive and behavioral function. So many internal and external factors can affect the gut that can cause digestive disturbances, but we can formulate our pet’s food and use supplements to support homeostasis to the microbiota. To me, that is extremely impactful to the pet’s health, and we have the ability to do that.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Clark: Sustainability, health benefits, and digestibility testing. There is no surprise that sustainability is vital, but I’ve seen great strides in the last few years for sustainable packaging, processing, and product sourcing. Health benefits are becoming more popular with the humanization of pet food. We all want our pets to live a long, healthy life, and functional supplements, treats, toppers and diets may be making that possible. Lastly, digestibility testing is on the rise. I personally love gut health, so taking a diet that is formulated well and manufactured smoothly, but is also highly digestible, is a fantastic trend.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Clark: We truly care about pets. Everything I have done and continue to do is with the pet’s best interest in mind. I have heard comments that the pet industry’s top priority is their bottom line, but the people I have had the opportunity to work with and meet truly care about animals and what is best for them.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Clark: Start interning. I don’t think I would have faced some of the challenges that I had if I had done more internships or had gotten more work experience. I spent a lot of time in veterinary hospitals, which made me a stronger formulator, knowing the result of the diet and its effects on the animal, but not having industry experience straight out of school posed some challenges.
Also, don’t let a “rejection” stop you. Think of rejection as a door closing to make room for another opportunity. There were many rejections along the way to where I am now. I was not accepted into a specific academic program, but now have a Ph.D. and post-doctoral experience at one of the top-rated teaching hospitals, Mayo Clinic. I was rejected from technical writing opportunities, but now I am a reviewer for a handful of scientific journals and editor in chief of our website content. I was rejected from a nutrition-related role, but now I am a nutritionist and formulating consultant for pet food and clinically. These are just a few of my examples but, ultimately, keep persevering.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Clark: By default, I am a dog person. I have two dogs.
My first dog is my modelesque, 12-year-old beagle, Gracie Lou Freebush (for the Miss Congeniality movie fans, you get the reference). She’s the dog I took to pre-vet school with me, only to have her be a social butterfly with all the other students. She would greet the prospective students and give them a tour. She now spends most of her days sunbathing on the deck that overlooks our pond.
My second dog is my 11-year-old American Staffordshire and Dachshund mix, named Anny. Anny spent the first two years of her life in an abusive situation until she was owner-surrendered. She hid in the back of her cage, malnourished, missing hair, and with a broken hip that healed badly, so the shelter deemed her unadoptable as the amount of care she would need was more than what most people can do. However, I fostered her over the weekend and fell in love. Nine years later, she is one of the most loyal dogs. Anny loves playing fetch and hopping in the snow.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Clark: Someone once told me, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Life is not about being the smartest, fastest, or best, but showing up every day, putting in the work, and treating others with respect. Those attributes go a lot further in life.
Stephanie Clark, Ph.D., was a key contributor to our December 2019 article on vitamins and minerals. Her research on canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) has also been published on our website. Clark earned her Ph.D. in animal science, food and nutrition from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she specifically studied nutraceuticals and the gut microbiomes of companion animals.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.