The College of Veterinary Medicine has added a sixth department to its roster, aiming to tackle public health across disciplines.
Officially established Oct. 25, the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health is the first department the college has added in more than 20 years. As the new academic hub launches, the 2018 to 2022 strategic plan for the department is to solve the world’s most pressing health challenges — centered around sustainability, equity and engagement, according to Prof. Alexander Travis, reproductive biology, and the founding chair.
Although Cornell has a global and public health sciences major in the College of Human Ecology and a master’s program in public health, this new department offers a hub where students and faculty from different disciplines, such as ecology, social sciences and policy, can congregate — uniting veterinarians, researchers, Ph.D. students and public health professionals.
The department’s 26 founding faculty members all come from current departments within the College of Veterinary Medicine. The roles of these faculty members include participating in public or clinical public health practice, teaching the veterinary or the master of public health curriculum and overseeing professional and graduate research.
According to Travis, the idea for the department grew out of a planning session at the Atkinson Center for Sustainability, a place for collaborative sustainable research across Cornell’s colleges and schools. Travis and his colleagues suggested a public health program that would tackle emerging health threats such as antimicrobial resistance, biodiversity conservation and nutrition.
But amid the 2008 financial crisis, plans were put on hold. The department was officially put in action about six years ago.
The department is organized around three big challenges that try to address major societal problems — including achieving healthy and sustainable food systems, tackling health threats such as emerging infectious diseases like the COVID-19 pandemic and conserving biodiversity.
“We’re in our planet’s sixth mass extinction crisis and all three of those challenges tie with each other very well,” Travis said. “It’s about trying to effect change. We have a mix of both tenure track and professors of practice who are working with students. It’s a highly engaged learning approach.”
As the department progresses, it hopes to further encourage students to tackle world issues in their careers. One such ambition is increasing the combinations of degrees students can seek, such as M.S./MPH, DVM/MPH and Ph.D./MPH programs.
For now, the current offerings are sparking excitement on campus.
“I’m getting emails from other faculty on campus who are reaching out to see if they can gain an affiliation with the department,” Travis said. “It seems like people are excited about what we’re trying to do.”