Journey is the reward for world veterinary award winner

CSU professor honored for applying research to help developing countries
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A self-described big-picture thinker, Dr. Mo Salman said he is lucky to have the opportunity to practice his beliefs through his work. The result has been a distinguished, 37-year career marked not so much by accolades—although there have been many—but by the people and animals he's helped the world over.

Dr. Salman
Dr. Mo Salman

The Colorado State University professor's latest honor, however, may be the most prestigious of all. He is the third winner of the 2010 Penn Vet World Leadership in Animal Health Award, a prize that comes with $100,000 in unrestricted funding. The award is underwritten by the Vernon and Shirley Hill Foundation.

It is presented annually to a veterinarian who has dramatically changed the practice and image of the profession and substantially influenced the lives and careers of others.

Two veterinary students—Nikkita Patel and Brittany Gross—also received $100,000 each through the annual Penn Vet Inspiration Award competition, which is also funded by the Hill Foundation (see story). All three gave presentations at the Sept. 28 award ceremony on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Neither here nor there

Dr. Salman, who founded CSU's Animal Population Health Institute in 2002, has made a name for himself conducting research that benefits both people and animals globally. Just this year, he helped the institute and CSU's Institute for Livestock and the Environment win a $15 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to study the impact climate change has on livestock around the globe, particularly in developing countries.

This new program will emphasize an interdisciplinary approach, Dr. Salman said, with scientists from sociology, atmospheric sciences, animal science, soil sciences, economics, and veterinary medicine working together. The program is intended to not only conduct research and collect data but also apply the findings in the local environment to benefit the entire community, particularly the low-income social classes and women.

For all his life, Dr. Salman's interest has been in animals in general, but mostly with livestock health and its impact on production. Specifically, he is interested in animal protein as a means of improving the well-being of society.

Dr. Salman was raised in Baghdad, Iraq, and recalls being "an average veterinary student" at the University of Baghdad. After graduation in 1973, he started a small poultry farm with a former classmate and ran it for a short time. He then left the country at 22 because he felt limited in his opportunity to pursue his interests in animal health owing to the political and social systems there.

So he jumped from being a pharmaceutical salesperson in Lebanon to part-owner of a broiler poultry farm in Oman to a veterinarian who treated mostly camels in the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Salman grew anxious to move to a place where he could extend his scientific and technical knowledge.

He found his calling in the United States, where he immigrated in the late 1970s, first to Chicago as an intern at a small animal practice and then to the University of California-Davis, where he worked in the mastitis extension program before he started his master's in preventive veterinary medicine, which he obtained in 1980.

Initially he was resistant to pursuing a doctorate, but one of his instructors, Dr. Margaret Meyer, convinced him, saying that he needed a doctorate if he wanted to maintain his interest in global animal health.

"I agreed with her, with the condition that I conduct my research outside of the USA since my master's thesis research was in California, that my PhD research was conducted across the border in Mexico," he said.

Outside the boundaries

That was in 1983. Since then, Dr. Salman has continued to apply his domestic research in the United States to international settings. His work in building animal health infrastructure has taken him all over the globe. 

"I find it's a challenge for me to apply (my research), especially in developing countries. You see what will work and what won't work. I also believe we have a mission in life, in some way we transfer whatever we use in one area to another area that's either deficient or doesn't have the same opportunity," Dr. Salman said.

He has found that using established, scientific epidemiologic tools and approaches works best to build the infrastructure of national animal health programs, particularly in countries recovering from war or just becoming established. The approaches focus on assessing available resources and building a priority list for major animal health issues.

That's not to overlook the importance of communication as well. Dr. Salman said he knows the importance of adapting to local political and cultural systems.

"I also find any type of interaction and discussion with the locals usually will lead to new ideas or modification of whatever I thought to apply. I like to call it two-way learning. I don't go there and say, 'I'm an expert and you have to listen to me.' I say, 'I share with you and you share with me,'" he said.

For all his work, Dr. Salman has further ambitions. He would like to explore ideas in applying nonconventional methods to control important animal diseases in specific situations. For example, he is not a strong believer in vaccination as the sole strategy for controlling infectious diseases.

"I think there are plenty of options that can be applied to control some of the current diseases instead of using vaccines. I am not against vaccination but I think this option should be considered after simultaneous assessment of all other options," he said.

Role model

Dr. Joan C. Hendricks, the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said she is proud that this is the first time the award has been given to a current member of a veterinary school faculty in the United States.

"What I love about Dr. Salman is not only his field of study (the kind of field where he has a broad impact) but also the kind of work he's done has had a global presence. He embodies the kind of impact we want our students to see what you can do as a veterinarian, and he's a perfect role model for that," Dean Hendricks said.

Dr. Salman said, in all honesty, he's more impressed by the student awards than his award.

"Yes, I appreciate the recognition, but I think for the students, especially the financial support will mean a lot," he said. "From my side, I am almost two-thirds through my career, whereas you give that type of award to a starter like these two students, and the impact of the award and recognition should be much more significant than the award given to me."

The idea for the award originated from conversations between the donors, Vernon and Shirley Hill, and Penn Vet administrators when the question was raised, "What would the impact be if you gave a student $100,000?"

"For most students it would come close to doing away with their student debt, and it would free them up to really achieve dreams or at least with a dramatically reduced debt load," said Dr. Joan C. Hendricks, the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Thus, the Penn Vet Student Inspiration Award was created. The donors then agreed the idea should be broadened to include an award to be given to a veterinarian who impacted the field of veterinary medicine.

"What we were trying to convey is this is the biggest veterinary award anywhere … to be the kind of thing that would really get international attention," Dean Hendricks said. "The goal is that this would elevate our profession to the kind of standards that the various fields that are recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize are at.

"Nominations are open to veterinarians worldwide. This year 22 submissions were received. Each member of a secret panel, which is made public after the awards are given, ranks the contenders. Then collectively, they agree on a winner.

Former Penn Vet Dean Alan Kelly chooses the panel from people from around the world who have themselves been leaders in veterinary medicine.