Rob Porter

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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM

Rob Porter

Dr. Rob Porter applies sweet-tooth science in a pathology course for second-year veterinary students by teaching about lung diseases using cookie decorations.

The cookies are cut to resemble lungs and the sprinkles, food coloring, and icing represent different pneumonias. Students spend an hour and a half embellishing the treats, matching toppings with disease characteristics.

Despite how unappetizing it might seem, the students always consume their culinary artwork.

“The reason I do is this is that it is fun and it actually makes them connect the color with what’s going on in the tissue,” Porter says. “I find it effective for students who are visual learners. I hope when they get to the fourth year and they have to recollect what a particular pneumonia looks like, they will remember this class.”

Porter, professor and pathologist at the College of Veterinary Medicine, believes strongly in the addition of visual learning for improving retention and memory.

Another exercise he uses involves having second-year students make clay models of intestinal diseases and then present lectures on what they have learned.

Rob Porter with Dean Trevor Ames

“The teaching philosophy is known as ‘group learning,’” he says. “Students are not just sitting in a lecture room getting fed information. They have the responsibility of learning the material and creating the artwork. And I think that responsibility helps with their retention of the material.

“It’s a headache for them because they have a lot of other things to do. But it truly builds up their confidence because they know more than their colleagues on that topic and they’re in charge and then they have to teach it to their classmates.”

As a researcher in the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, Porter has focused on the problem of reovirus in turkeys, which causes lameness in males in their 15th or 16th weeks of life. The virus affects the long tendon of the back of the turkey’s leg in the region similar to a human Achilles tendon.

The only way to stop the disease has been culling infected birds from flocks and euthanizing them. The problem is not insignificant, with 15 to 30 percent of flocks as large as 15,000 birds suffering the impact.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of this disease in the Midwest,” he says. “It’s emotionally and economically devastating for our turkey producers.”

The disease generally affects male turkeys at a time when they are almost ready for processing, usually around 19 to 20 weeks. Detection techniques that can be used earlier may help producers either treat birds with anti-inflammatory drugs or simply process them earlier, Porter says.

The reovirus research team at the diagnostic lab is putting the finishing touches on a rapid molecular test, much faster than virus isolation, that can be performed in two hours to determine if a bird is infected with reovirus.

“We’re excited to begin testing the rapid detection test we’ve developed,” Porter says.

The test doesn’t really solve the problem, however. The answer is the development of a vaccine that would protect birds from reovirus and save turkey growers millions of dollars in lost revenues, Porter says.

Robe Porter standing out side of the VMC

To that end, the University’s Rapid Agricultural Response Fund gave Porter and his colleagues a grant to work on a reovirus vaccine.

“We’re very thankful for the support,” he says.

Porter knows well the financial and personal cost of disease. During the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak of 2015, he had the unenviable job of calling producers who had flocks that tested positive for the disease. On phone calls, he could hear some producers weeping.

“I understand why they were crying,” Porter says. “That was their livelihood. They understood someone was going to come out to their property and remove all their birds, and they were not going to have anything to do production-wise for three months. They were wondering how they were going to support their families.”

Raised in Akron, Ohio, Porter came from a blue-collar family. He was the first family member to ever attend college, starting at Ohio State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and then his veterinary medical degree. He later completed his PhD and pathology residency at Colorado State University.

Prior to coming to Minnesota, Porter was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. While he enjoyed teaching at the University of Wisconsin, he knew Minnesota offered some unmatched advantages, among them a chance to collaborate with producers in the nation’s leading turkey production state. When his wife, Patricia Porter, received a job offer from the University of Minnesota Foundation (Patricia is now vice president, medicine and health), Rob soon found a faculty job at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

When not donning a lab coat or lecturing, Rob shares time with Patricia, bicycling and ballroom dancing. He collects animation cels from popular films, with a specialty of sorts in pieces by Charles Schulz.

“It’s nice to work in the city where Charles Schulz once lived,” he says. “The sculptures of his characters can still be found around St. Paul—including right outside our own Veterinary Medical Center.”