Jeff Bender

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Jeff Bender

For two decades, Jeff Bender, a professor and epidemiologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Public Health, has been a sentinel for disaster.

His specialty has been to study, monitor, and predict outbreaks of highly infectious diseases that can swoop in—sometimes literally, on the wings of wild birds—and spread to millions of domestic animals and sometimes even humans. These diseases, including influenza, foodborne disease, and antimicrobial-resistant organisms, can cost society billions of dollars and threaten many human lives. From a public health standpoint, they are some of the worst threats imaginable.

Early this year he was named director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s One Health Workforce Project. He works with government officials and educators around the world to train health professionals and veterinarians to better prevent, detect, and treat infectious diseases. “It’s interdisciplinary, it’s intersectoral, and its collaborative,” he says. “Emerging disease threats is where our focus is.”

Given the sprawling nature of his job and the dire consequences of failure, how does he come to work each morning?

“Excited!” says Bender. “Just because the challenges are good and broad and you have multiple partners. That’s what’s kind of fun about the project.”

Jeff Bender in a field

The results of these collaborations include student projects such as rabies vaccination programs, human and animal health-related student clubs, and e-learning activities at institutions around the world. 

“I might be meeting in Washington, D.C., one week and the next week I might be meeting with faculty in Southeast Asia,” he says. 

Some of Bender’s notable headaches have occurred closer to home. Like many researchers at the University College of Veterinary Medicine, he was deeply involved in tracking and analyzing the rapid spread in 2015 of H5N2 bird flu in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest, which killed or forced producers to kill more than 43 million turkeys and chickens. 

Though that outbreak has ended, other livestock diseases are looming. Similar kinds of avian flu are active in Europe, Africa, and China and capable of crossing to North America via wild birds or domestic poultry. 

“That is a good example for why we need to have a One Health Workforce to actually deal with this versus maybe a siloed approach for dealing with these complex issues,” he says.

Bender is also co-director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, a consortium of several agencies dedicated to helping reduce injuries and illness among farm producers and workers.

“I’ve always been interested in that interface between human medicine and veterinary medicine,” says Bender. “I was a confused pre-med, pre-vet student.” In school he was concerned with famine, food production, and food animals. “Veterinary medicine was a unique way for me to serve at that human-animal interface of providing a safe food supply for needy parts of the globe.”

Bender has a bit of a personal stake in food animal production. He worked summers on an uncle’s ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota. And 16 years ago, he bought a small farm in Ham Lake, where he raises chickens, geese, and sheep.

And an emu. 

“I inherited it when I bought the farm,” he says. “They didn’t want to move it. They asked if I would keep it and I said OK.”