Dominic Travis

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Dominic Travis

Dr. Dominic Travis readily gave up living in the bush, working in Africa’s national parks, and serving as a veterinarian for Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees to help build the college’s new Ecosystem Health Initiative and help solve global problems from his desk in St. Paul.

“The focus of ecosystem health is to think more big-picture than other types of medicine and in significantly different terms, and the goal is to solve big, messy problems,” says Travis. “The world has big problems that are getting bigger and that need different approaches based on team science.”

Travis is the perfect person to help build the Ecosystem Health Initiative because he is an unconventional health professional who has been practicing a different kind of veterinary medicine since he graduated from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1997.

Even his road to veterinary school was unconventional. He spent six years in an undergraduate program at North Carolina State University, playing soccer and studying political science before migrating toward biology. He eventually graduated with a degree in zoology and intended to become a marine biologist.

“After graduating, I bartended and just hung out. I was tired from six years of studying,” he jokes. During his down time, he became interested in veterinary medicine and began volunteering with a mixed-animal practice that contracted veterinary services to Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Michigan. On his first day, veterinarians from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo were performing artificial insemination on Binder’s cheetahs.

Dominic Travis with elephants

“I loved it — all of it,” he says. “I figured, if even the thing I was least interested in—small animal medicine—was so fun, maybe veterinary medicine was the profession for me.” 

As a fourth-year veterinary student, Travis, who was more interested in disease research and conservation than traditional veterinary medicine, applied for a scholarship in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where he spent six months studying and working with field veterinarians in wildlife preserves.

“When I got back from Africa, the interconnectedness between animals and humans was blatantly obvious,” he says. “I knew then that I wanted to work in veterinary health, environmental health, and One Health.”

His first job as a veterinarian was at New York’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a U.S. research facility dedicated to keeping livestock disease-free.

“I immediately found out I was not born to be in a lab after ruining a few experiments,” he jokes. “I was also not in love with the lab-animal approach.” Despite it not being a perfect fit, Travis was able to leverage his hands-on experience with pathology and epidemiology to apply for a master’s program and residency in veterinary epidemiology at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

“At some point, I realized I was doing all of this work to get back to Africa and One Health, but I couldn't see an open door,” he says. “The very day that I was discussing my depression with myself, I saw on a veterinary listserv that Lincoln Park Zoo was looking for a veterinary epidemiologist.” 

The world has big problems that are getting bigger and that need different approaches based on team science.

He went to work for the zoo after completing his master’s and residency and spent his first years there studying how disease spreads among endangered species being transported between zoos for breeding. He then moved into conservation research, where he became vice president of conservation and science, managing about 50 people working in 15 countries.

“The more I managed, the more I disliked it,” he says. “I also felt I was not done with my research work, and it was hard to do both.” In 2010, he became the African liaison for the College of Veterinary Medicine’s RESPOND project, which was part of the United States Agency for International Development’s Emerging Pandemic Threats Program.

“I was already working four to five months in Africa, and the University of Minnesota asked me to live in Uganda for about nine months a year,” he says. Travis continues his work in Uganda and with Jane Goodall, studying infectious-disease outbreaks, such as Ebola, anthrax, and other illnesses in chimpanzees and other primates. He recently received a University Grand Challenge Grant to investigate how climate change and conflict affect the resilience and health of animals and humans.

After more than a decade of high-profile fieldwork, Travis was ready for a more permanent lifestyle of marriage and children. This lifestyle change coincided with an opportunity to help build the college’s new Ecosystem Health Initiative, where he oversees U.S. and African professional and graduate students in various research projects.

But most of his time is spent developing the Ecosystem Health Initiative, which provides leadership and global partnerships to define and develop solutions to the big issues facing global public health, including declining biodiversity, lack of food and water security, illegal global wildlife trade, and emerging diseases that are transmissible between humans, domestic animals, and wildlife.