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New faculty profile: Dr. Alistair Hayden

Alistair Hayden. Photo: Provided

The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has recently welcomed many new faculty members to our academic departments, each one bringing a unique set of skills and experience that enriches our college every day. In this Q&A series, you'll get to know their interests, expertise and more.

Dr. Alistair Hayden, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health

Q: What has been your academic/career path leading up to Cornell?

My path into this field has been winding, but two goals that have steered me are wanting to learn about how the world works and wanting to have an impact. In undergrad, these goals manifested as a double major in geology and physics with thoughts of becoming a K12 teacher. I did a masters researching Antarctic climate change while part-time co-teaching middle school science, and then did a Fulbright in Finland to learn more about teaching. Then I went to Caltech to study rivers on Earth and ancient rivers on Mars. When I graduated, it became clear to me that an impactful application of geoscience is in disasters, so I went to work for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Hundreds of billions of dollars of damage are now caused annually by weather and climate related disasters in just the U.S., so working in emergency management is quite the opportunity to have an impact.

Q: What drew you to CVM?

The interdisciplinary and impactful work--my new colleagues represent a broad range of expertise, helping many communities in many ways.

Q:What is your academic area of expertise?

I look to understand and link the physical aspects of natural hazards with the social aspects that turn them into disasters. By better understanding these two facets, I aim to help communities increase their preparedness and resilience —important aspects of emergency management. A key tool that I use in this effort is geospatial analysis.

Q: What drew you into this area? Any specific experiences, mentors, influences that helped guide you?

Several disaster experiences have shaped my choices. Chief among those experiences were weathering Hurricane Maria on a small island, evacuating from the 2020 Bobcat Fire, and of course living in the time of COVID. At some point it clicked that my expertise in geoscience/geospatial analysis and interest in helping communities naturally fit into working on disasters like the ones I had experienced.

Q: What past professional work are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of serving as a division chief in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. I led the California Earthquake Early Warning Program, which was a program at the intersection of emergency management and cutting-edge scientific research and a key part of California’s emergency preparedness portfolio. With numerous partners, we were building a network that could detect earthquakes and issue alerts to the public within seconds in order to save lives and prevent damage.

Q: What about your academic work are you most excited about and why?

I am excited for new collaborations that will enable me to tackle similar problems from totally new angles.

Q: What impacts or applications do you hope to see your work have on the world, human/animal/planetary health?

I hope to advance the public-health discipline of emergency management. Bringing the field into better alignment with the changing hazard landscape will help save lives, improve health, and prevent damage worldwide.

Q: What questions are you looking to answer next/areas you plan to explore?

Broadly, I aim to work on climate resilience and use geospatial tools and advance public health in a variety of communities. One specific short-term goal is to increase inclusion of wildfire smoke management as part of wildfire management plans—recent work shows that in California’s 2020 wildfires, around 100 times more people died from smoke than from the flames.

Q: What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I play bagpipes.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

I get to help solve problems that affect huge numbers of people and train students to do the same. Emergency management is becoming a very visible and high-impact field for nearly every community and employment sector.

Q:What’s the most challenging part?

The time pressure. When a disaster is happening, deadlines are way outside of your control. It is a skill to learn to constantly re-evaluate priorities and complete the most necessary items in the time available.

Q:What are the benefits of working at CVM? At Cornell?

There are fantastically interesting collaborators, and structures that actually encourage pursuing those collaborations.