Katey Pelican

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Katey Pelican

Growing up near Boston, Katey Pelican rode horses. She read books about wildlife, and was fascinated by creatures of all shapes and sizes. “I was obsessed with animals,” she says.

That interest eventually led Pelican to the University of Minnesota, where she earned a DVM and a PhD, and then to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a wildlife physiologist at the National Zoo. Surrounded by exotic and often endangered bugs, birds, and beasts, it felt like a dream job. But she missed the people and culture of Minnesota, and when the U called in 2009 to offer her a position leading its new Ecosystem Health Initiative, which focuses on the intersection of animals, humans, and the environment, Pelican saw it as a rare opportunity.

“One thing I learned in the conservation world is that we’re often myopic in what we do,” she says. “We often don’t bring in all the players that need to be involved in solving complex problems.”

Dr. Katey Pelican with Dr. John Deen.Dr. Katey Pelican, who led the University of Minnesota’s effort to join RESPOND, a program focused on building global capacity for emerging pandemic threats, with Dr. John Deen

The mission of the Ecosystem Health Initiative is to train university faculty and students around the world to address emerging challenges at the changing interface of humans, animals, and the environment. Pelican’s work has focused on the human-animal links that produce such dangerous diseases as SARS, avian flu, and HIV.

Shortly after joining the University, Pelican was critical in obtaining an award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for RESPOND, a program focused on building global capacity for emerging pandemic threats. She is currently the principal investigator for the USAID One Health Workforce project—one of the largest awards ever given to the U of M, with a ceiling of $50 million.

The program’s focus on global pandemic threats means that Pelican is often on the road, traveling to visit partners in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. As evidence of the program’s ongoing success, she points to the 75 universities they are working with worldwide that are building sustainable relationships with vulnerable communities to train health professionals at the front line of disease emergence.

Dr. Katey Pelican with her public health team at Makerere University in Kampala Uganda.Dr. Katey Pelican with her public health team at Makerere University in Kampala Uganda.

“We’ve been able to create relationships with communities that result in education and capacity-building,” she says. “In many places, we’re helping to assess and prepare the workforce that will be needed when the next outbreak happens. Who will deal with the next Ebola virus, for example?”

When she’s not on the road, Pelican likes to relax with her family, going folk-dancing with her husband or cooking for her two teenaged children (“I try to bring home curry mixes and other interesting finds from my international trips,” she says). She loves the U’s land-grant mission and the collaborative nature of its faculty and researchers. She also appreciates Minnesota’s culture.

“I feel like the state has a culture of responsibility and a global outlook,” she says. “Back east, people talk about the things they own and have. Here, people talk about what they do and the things they care about in the world.”