A Lesson in Pig Farms and Giving Back

Posted on January 20th, 2011 by

Written by Jessie Doig ’10

Dr. Scott Dee (photo submitted)

Upon walking into the office of Dr. Scott Dee ’81 at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, two things immediately caught my attention.

The first was the unassuming man sitting at an almost bare desk — except for the computer, pens, and a few family pictures. The second was a collection of  pig figurines displayed on bookshelves on the opposite side of the room.

The first observation was a bit surprising considering that so many professors I’ve known have desks cluttered with papers that need grading or have been graded, important publications of their trade, and teaching materials. The reason Dee’s desk isn’t cluttered is easily explained by the second observation: all those plastic, glass, and ceramic pigs.

Dee isn’t a teaching professor (although he does mentor three active grad students). Instead, he is a research professor for the university and spends 4 out of 5 days of his work week at veterinary clinics or pig farms in southern Minnesota, which means he is barely at his office desk more than one day per week. It all makes sense.

A Lifetime of Work

Dee has spent his entire career practicing pig medicine, specifically working to understand the transmission of the porcine reproductive and respiratory system (PRRS) virus and how to prevent infection of farms. That’s been 20 years of service to the swine industry, researching a virus that costs U.S. producers over $700 million a year, and thus making the virus the most economically significant swine disease in the world.

Dee’s critical role in all this swine business is in determining the aerobiology of the virus; proving its ability to spread six miles in the air as well as identifying the climactic conditions that enhance this spread. Now, he is in the process of mastering techniques in how to stop its spread throughout pig farms in Minnesota. These are great accomplishments considering that just eight years ago there had been little research done for such a devastating disease.

In honor of his service to the swine industry, Dee was named the 1996 Swine Practitioner of the Year by the American Association of Swine Practitioners and was honored with the Pfizer Award for Research Excellence in 2007. Both prestigious veterinary accolades, they show how much Dee’s work has really meant to the swine farming world.

So the question I was just itching to ask Dee: Why pigs?

At the beginning of his career, Dee had very little agricultural experience and had thought he wanted to be a companion animal vet. However, following his junior year of college at Gustavus, Dee got a unique externship opportunity in his hometown of Rochester at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. It was here that he learned of some other facets of veterinary medicine: farm animals and research. During his time at Mayo, he worked with farm animals that had human conditions and could be researched for human diseases.

His whole outlook changed following his Mayo externship. Dee says, “I had a career-changing experience with Mayo Clinic because I learned that more existed than just dogs and cats, and I had a new calling. Pigs are interesting because they are in a herd . . . I’d never seen population medicine and I really liked it.

Dee continued working with pig farms, specifically in Illinois and Minnesota. He really liked the way pig farmers worked, explaining that they are smart, economically driven people, and he enjoyed pairing with them trying to solve problems of the herd.

Following his time at Gustavus, Dee applied to the University of Minnesota Veterinary School. Despite all of his interest and work with animals prior to applying to vet school, it took him three attempts to be admitted. By that time, he was close to receiving his master’s in microbiology and was ready to become a licensed veterinarian.

His veterinary medicine degree led him to Morris, Minn., where his practiced pig medicine for 12 years. While practicing, he finished his Ph.D. on the PRRS disease, an emerging disease during his time of study.

In working with swine farms around the Morris area, he first realized the true impact of the PRRS virus. A whole farm of pigs could be devastated if a PRRS outbreak occurred. Not only did he understand that the welfare of the animals was at stake, he recognized that the virus was a huge impediment to the financial well-being of the pig farmers and their families. Because this was such a devastating occurrence in the swine industry, Dee decided to rejoin the University of Minnesota and work on cracking the PRRS epidemiologic or virus code.

Now that he has accomplished that, Dee is researching methods to stop the spread of the virus by incorporating air filtering systems in the barns where pigs are kept. He is working with three different veterinary clinics in southern Minnesota. His filtering systems are currently being tested by clients who own farms located in Pipestone, Fairmont, and Saint Peter.

The Barefooted Band Man

Dee is the first to admit that his college experience at Gustavus was one of the most influential things in his life; it led him to becoming an accomplished veterinary swine researcher. As a fourth-generation Gustie, Dee was destined to go to Gustavus from the beginning; considering that most of his relatives had attended.

Upon arriving to the school as a first year, he quickly jumped on the pre-vet trail (he’d wanted to become a vet since he was five) and named biology his major. Though he mentioned the large amount of studying as a biology student, what he remembers most is how everyone was willing to help one another out. Students and professors alike were always willing to work together.

“It’s highly challenging and highly collaborative place that prepared me very well for veterinary school. There were some outstanding faculty members who were really nice people who cared a lot about how the students did…they helped to build the collaborative spirit in students because they were one of us, and not just standing on a pedestal speaking at us,” remarks Dee.

Dee went on to say that he particularly remembers those in the Gustavus biology department that made an impact on his experience, including professors Art Glass, Ward Tanner, Bob Belig and his favorite, the late Charles Hamrum. Professor Hamrum was Dee’s adviser throughout Gustavus and was the man to write him the Mayo Clinic recommendation that changed Dee’s entire career outlook.

Dee went on to say that the academic rigor of Gustavus was higher than what he faced in vet school. Gustavus taught him how to manage his time, process large volumes of material, and to handle academic pressure. “My analytical chemistry professor, Richard Jensen, taught me how to use my time wisely, a skill set I practice daily,” he notes.

Giving Back

“I’m a huge believer in the fact that one of our obligations in life is to give back to those that gave to us,” says Dee. “Gustavus was a significant component for me in moving on to the next phase of my career. So, if I’ve got some type of ability to give to others in my place such as applying to veterinary school, I want to help.”

Aside from his huge investment of time in his PRRS research and time spent at home with his family in Alexandria, Dee has been an important resource for students at Gustavus hoping to get into vet school. He currently serves as the chairman of the University of Minnesota Veterinary School Admissions Committee and acts as a mentor to help guide current Gustavus students through the vet school application process.

More recently, Dee has become even more involved with Gustavus after being contacted by Gustavus development officer Jim Rothschiller, who is heading up initiatives to get alumni back on campus and find ways for alumni to engage with current students.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Jim,” says Dee, “He has helped me connect with the college because of President Ohle’s vision of re-connecting the college with its alumni. It’s a great plan.”

Rothschiller was the one who helped connect Dee with Megan Thompson, a 2010 graduate of Gustavus, who met Dee and was offered a student position at the University of Minnesota assisting him with swine research.

It was this opportunity that helped Thompson begin to narrow her veterinary interests and become a more confident vet school applicant. She has also attended swine conferences and seminars and has made important connections to the Ph.D. students and faculty at the University of Minnesota.

When Thompson first began thinking about vet school, she admits she didn’t have a clear path in mind, especially considering she didn’t know what connections or experiences were crucial to have on her applications. Currently, Thompson is in the process of applying to veterinary school and owes much to Dee for mentoring her and helping to open doors for her in the veterinary field.

“To be bluntly honest, I wasn’t even sure how to make myself an appealing applicant to veterinary schools.  This is where mentors like Scott help; they can provide opportunities for exploration, exposure, and experience to help students decide on a field and become strong candidates for postgraduate programs,” notes Thompson.

Dee works closely with the current Gustavus pre-vet advisor, Jon Grinnell, in communicating vet school requirements and mentoring students to help prepare them for post-graduate education. The University of Minnesota Veterinary School is the only vet school in the state which means their acceptance ratio is extremely low. Only 100 out of approximately 1,200 applicants are admitted.

Grinnell has been very appreciative of the help Dee provides on campus. He reflects, “His enthusiasm for helping out Gustavus students will lead to good things for them and for the College . . . He’s been a great help to me, too, in educating me on how to prepare students for vet school and careers in veterinary medicine.”

It is clear that Thompson and Grinnell have benefited from Dee’s willingness to return to the campus and get involved with students. This year, he has already become a resource to two current seniors who are looking ahead to vet school. He has take these students under his wing by visiting with them on campus and reviewing their application files to help them better prepare for the competitive road to vet school.

Explains Dee, “Now we can do so much more than just write a check…connecting with students in particular makes me feel really good because I know how they feel even though I’m 52 years old. I remember all those scary moments and those challenging classes. I know how valuable that help is for students.”

Grinnell probably best sums up Dr. Dee’s interest in giving back: “People like Scott Dee have Gustavus in their blood, just waiting for the right moment for it to come out. I think Scott has found his time now.”


One Comment

  1. Bridget says:

    How fortunate the Gustavus students are to have alums such as Dr. Dee who are willing to mentor them and help them into the future that awaits them after Gustavus!