Of honor and friendship
by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
One of the most successful partnerships in WSU history began in failure.
It was the spring of 1975, Kansas State University. Guy Palmer was given a piece of ore in an analytical chemistry class and told to figure out how much nickel was in it. He got it wrong, earning an F.
This happened to be in the highly competitive environment of undergraduates vying for veterinary school. About one in ten applicants would gain admission, so it was not exactly in students’ interest to help each other out. But Terry McElwain saw Palmer struggling to redo the assignment while working on a second one. He offered to lend a hand.
“There’s no reason for him to help me,” Palmer recalls thinking. “He doesn’t even know my name.”
The second attempt failed. Palmer stubbornly tried again while working on a third assignment.
“Terry again jumps in,” says Palmer. “He makes it possible for me to redo it.”
Again, Palmer failed, or so it seemed. This time, the course instructors checked their own work and realized Palmer was right all along.
It was the beginning of what Palmer now calls two “long, parallel, intersecting paths.” They would both go on to fail on their first attempt to get into veterinary school. But more than 30 years later, they would bring to WSU the largest private grant in its history. They would also receive one of the highest honors in biomedical research and human health care, election to the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine.
Along the way, they have enjoyed a friendship that ran through veterinary school, where they were lab partners, then doctoral work at WSU, where Palmer lived in McElwain’s basement. They both had faculty positions at the University of Florida, then moved back to the Palouse to spend the past two decades as WSU faculty.
One might speculate that, without their friendship, WSU may not have received the Gates Foundation’s $25 million challenge grant for global health. But it’s just as interesting to see how gracefully they both razz and respect each other as they chat in McElwain’s office, just three doors down from Palmer’s.
“He actually owes his whole career to me,” teases McElwain.
“Actually,” he says, minutes later, “I followed him his entire career. I’ve been in his footsteps.” Which is true, if you stick to just time and geography.
They both had WSU residencies in veterinary pathology and what McElwain calls “fundamental experiences that brought us together with some common vision,” including time in Africa with their Ph.D. advisor, Travis McGuire. But they also had separate paths for much of their careers. Palmer has focused on researching infectious diseases and how they persist in animals around the world. McElwain has focused more on disease surveillance and detection, plus administrative work since 1993 as the head of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. He was instrumental in developing a coordinated network of animal disease diagnostic laboratories watching for outbreaks of diseases like monkeypox, mad cow, and the recent H1N1 virus.
“We’ve been able to work side by side at a fairly high level without ever feeling competition between the two of us,” says Palmer. “The fact that we had some different interests and were kind of reaching to the top of a certain area, and they were different areas, made that possible.”
At the same time, McElwain was best man at Palmer’s wedding. Palmer watched McElwain’s children grow up. More recently, their work has intersected to where they have appeared as line items in each other’s budgets. They don’t finish each other’s sentences, but they do trust one another to make decisions in the other’s absence.
“Communication obviously after this many years is very efficient,” says McElwain. “It doesn’t take many words for Guy to know what I’m trying to convey and vice versa.”
Their ease, trust, and respect eventually helped them start to think of their work in broader terms. Five years ago, the two pondered a question: How can we take all of our experience and do something to address issues in global health equity among people worldwide? While they concentrated over the years on animal health, they’ve been intensely aware that two-thirds of human diseases start in animals. They’ve also seen the precariousness of smallholder farmers who rely heavily on a few animals for their livelihoods.
“That’s when we started talking about what became the School for Global Animal Health,” says Palmer. “That really came out of conversations that Terry and I had together... The school came out of a shared vision, a vision that many other people helped shape early in our careers.”
Election to the National Academies is an honor, says McElwain, but he says it is chiefly a tribute to WSU and its role in their careers. “It was all done here,” he says, “from the training onward.”
But the conversation, resolve, and shared vision that has led to the School for Global Animal Health, that’s the hallmark of friendship.
“The thing that’s been really great for me, and I know Guy feels the same way, is that at this stage in our career we are able to look at the broader impact of what we do, and we’re doing it together more than we’ve actually worked together for a number of years,” says McElwain. “And that’s been a fun, fun thing to do.”
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