Fall 2016 Issue

5 Questions with Dr. Tom Kawula

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04 Ph.D. | Photo by Henry Moore, Jr.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

For the past 34 years when anyone asked me this question all I had to do was say that I was born and raised in Idaho, and it was enough to launch an entire dinner conversation. I’ve enjoyed describing to people what it was like to grow up in the west, and the fact that Idaho borders Washington and Canada, not Illinois. I guess I’m going to have to find a new opening line. My wife Carol and I have lived the majority of our lives in North Carolina, and we have grown some deep roots and lifelong friendships. I have to confess that we have become accustomed to fall weather lasting through Christmas, winter ending in February, and thunder storms that will knock your socks off. Oh, and grits. Do any restaurants in Pullman sell slow cooked grits?

What excites you most about your new position as director of the Allen School?

The short answer is that the Allen School’s mission and approach to improving global health and health disparities reflects my personal values and professional goals. Like most people I want to work at something that is meaningful and has lasting positive impact. At the heart of the school’s mission is that most human health issues are inextricably linked with animal health, but it is more complicated than simply knowing some infectious agents can jump species. The school was launched with the understanding that individual disciplines cannot adequately address human or animal health. Collaborative research across disciplines is something I have advocated throughout my career. I am hopeful I can help to steer the school’s developing culture to one of mutual respect, collaboration, and research excellence that will benefit animal and human health. Another big draw for me is WSU is launching a medical school, which represents a huge opportunity for creating efforts at solving complicated human and animal health issues.

Can you share a little about your career?

I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my doctorate because at the time it was one of the few places where faculty were applying new molecular biology approaches to understanding infectious disease processes. After a postdoc at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine, I got my first faculty job at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. In 1992, I returned to Chapel Hill where I was faculty until now. My research includes understanding pathogenic mechanisms of infectious agents and how they relate to human health. I also learned very early on that I love, and am pretty good at, graduate student training and career development. During the six years I was the director of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology’s graduate studies, we averaged 50 doctoral students in our program, and in the graduate school I developed interdisciplinary research and education programs. More recently I directed a National Science Foundation funded program to expose undergrads from underrepresented minorities to research in biological sciences.

What might our college be surprised to know about you?

I was a bacteriology and biochemistry major at the University of Idaho, but honestly, at that time, I was a little lost about what I might do for a career until I met professor Lois Miller. A world-renowned geneticist who, among other things, developed Baculovirus cloning and gene expression systems. She was tough, never smiled, and never gave any indication of what she thought of you. On the last day of class, she returned our final exams. She put mine on my desk and said, “Turn it over.” On the back was a note that read: You are a talented fellow. You should consider going into research. “Think about it,” she said. So I did. I saw Lois at a conference about 15 years later. I introduced myself, told her I was an assistant professor at UNC and thanked her for the encouraging note that gave me direction. She looked puzzled and said, “That doesn’t sound like something I would do.”

What is your vision for the Allen School over the next year? 5 years?

The Allen School is stocked with talent in a lot of disciplines. One of my first goals is for us to recognize and strengthen the connections between our individual research interests and to take even more collective approaches to solving animal and human health issues. The real glue will come with graduate and post-graduate training programs in global animal health. Graduate training is the single most important factor for making strong interdisciplinary connections. The Allen School is poised to become an international leader in global health. The model established by Drs. Guy Palmer and Terry McElwain is innovative, and my goal is for WSU to be recognized as an international leader in establishing solutions to health problems and disparities.