New department unites veterinary medicine and public health

The College of Veterinary Medicine launched its new Department of Public and Ecosystem Health Oct. 25 after extensive campus consultation. This is the college’s sixth academic department and its first new department in over 20 years.

“This department unites the programs and activities at the College of Veterinary Medicine that already leverage a One Health approach, and will link interdisciplinary work that benefits the well-being of people, animals and the environment,” said Lorin D. Warnick, D.V.M., Ph.D. ’94, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “The department brings together veterinarians, research scientists and public health practitioners with the goal of addressing critical health problems through education, research and community engagement.”

Dr. Alexander Travis seated outdoors with two black Labradors
The founding chair will be Dr. Alexander Travis, professor of reproductive biology and director of Cornell’s Master of Public Health Program. Photo: Carol Jennings/CVM

“The launch of this department at the College of Veterinary Medicine is an important step for Cornell in preparing the next generation of scientists to meet the complex health challenges that attend changes in climate, animal habitat and human behavior. The new department will provide a home for Cornell’s outstanding public health program,” said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, who served as dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine from 2007 to 2015.

The founding chair will be Dr. Alexander Travis, professor of reproductive biology and director of Cornell’s Master of Public Health Program.

“It is an honor to help start this unique department,” Travis said. “Most academic departments are organized around either a specific subject or a common disciplinary approach. Instead, we unite faculty from different professions and disciplines to work together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”

The challenges are organized within three main themes: Healthy food systems, encompassing everything from food production to consumption and associated nutritional and health impacts; emerging health threats, which grapples with topics such as novel infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and climate change; and biodiversity conservation, which is needed to preserve the systems on which all life depends.

These challenges effectively boil down to two things, said Travis – sustainability and equity. “Many of the worst problems plaguing us today stem from the unsustainable ways that humans interact with other species and the environment, and the inequitable ways that we interact with each other,” Travis said.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the need for a department to focus on these interconnected issues, he said.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 provides an excellent example of how unsustainable use of wildlife and unsafe food systems combined to enable the emergence of a new infectious disease,” Travis said. “And we’ve seen that the worst impacts of the pandemic have been borne by the most vulnerable among us, here in the U.S. and around the world.”

In addition to emerging infectious diseases, the department’s three themes encompass a host of interconnected problems facing humanity. Climate change affects human health and food production, and increases the frequency of historic disasters, such as fires and floods that harm people and can drive wildlife to extinction. Poverty and discrimination affect people’s nutrition, environmental exposures, stress and more. And loss of biodiversity reduces humanity’s sources of food and medicine, making people more vulnerable to disease and reducing services, ranging from pollinating food crops to protecting people from storm damage or keeping air and water clean.

Addressing these complicated problems requires diverse disciplinary expertise – not just in veterinary medicine and public health, but also in the realms of ecology, social sciences, and policy.

“Cornell has experts who are the best in the world in their fields. We plan to build on that excellence in research, teaching and practice through university-wide collaborations, so we can maximize our impact in New York and beyond,” Travis said.

The new department contains 26 founding faculty members, all of whom come from other departments within the College of Veterinary Medicine. Each teaches in the veterinary curriculum and/or Master of Public Health Program, supervises graduate and professional students in scientific research, and engages in clinical or public health practice.

The department plans to grow its programmatic offerings for students, including combinations of degrees – such as D.V.M./M.P.H., M.S./M.P.H., and Ph.D./M.P.H. – because students will increasingly need to use a multi-disciplinary, systems-based approach as they attempt to tackle the world’s issues in their careers.

Dean Warnick speaks to a group of faculty in the new department beneath a tent outside the college
Dean Warnick speaking to members of the new department this summer. The new department contains 26 founding faculty members, all of whom come from other departments within the college. Photo: Elizabeth Goldberg/CVM

Travis is well-suited to running a department that unites many different areas of focus for comprehensive solutions to problems. His research explores a diverse set of subjects, including fertility in humans and animals, and efforts to help alleviate poverty and hunger in developing countries, work that indirectly benefits local wildlife. He has served as associate dean of international programs and public health at the college and is founding director of the Master of Public Health Program.

Said Warnick, “The Department of Public and Ecosystem Health builds on our college’s roots and long history of contributing to advances in public health — and is another way Cornell is embracing challenges facing humanity, animal life and our planet.”

Written by Melanie Greaver Cordova

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.