The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine recently launched its new Department of Public and Ecosystem Health. It’s the college’s sixth academic department, and its first new one 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,” says Lorin D. Warnick, DVM, PhD, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine.

“This 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,” adds Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, who served as dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine from 2007 to 2015. “This new department will provide a home for Cornell’s outstanding public health program.”

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,” Dr. Travis says. “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.”

Three themes

These challenges are organized within three main themes:

1. Healthy food systems, encompassing everything from food production to consumption and associated nutritional and health impacts.

2. Emerging health threats, grappling with topics such as novel infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and climate change.

3. Biodiversity conservation, which is needed to preserve the systems on which all life depends.

These challenges effectively boil down to two things — 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,” notes Dr. Travis, adding that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for a department to focus on these interconnected issues.

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.

“Cornell has experts who are the best in the world in their fields,” says Dr. Travis. “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 State and beyond.”

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