Dr. Holly Ernest holds the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Disease Ecology.
Dr. Holly Ernest holds the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Disease Ecology.

The University of Wyoming’s efforts to combat diseases affecting wildlife, livestock and humans in the state have received a boost with the arrival of a new faculty member in UW’s Department of Veterinary Sciences.

Dr. Holly Ernest has joined the university as the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Disease Ecology. She comes from the University of California-Davis, where she has been a professor of wildlife genetics and population health since 2010.

Her expertise lies in the ecology, population health and genomics of wildlife populations and veterinary medicine. Her research will focus on population-level impacts and genetics of diseases of wildlife and domestic animals such as respiratory illness in bighorn sheep and domestic sheep, blue tongue/epizootic hemorrhagic disease, brucellosis, chronic wasting disease, tularemia and plague. Her work will take into account climate, habitat alteration, land use and other environmental factors as they relate to animal disease ecology and management.

“The simple diseases, we know how to control. However, at least some of the inability of human and veterinary medicine to contain more complex diseases lies in our failure to consider the impacts of the interrelationships of environment, human activity, climate and other factors on the emergence and spread of infectious diseases in and between people and animals,” says Will Laegreid, head of the Department of Veterinary Sciences and director of the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory. “The knowledge and expertise Dr. Ernest brings to UW will help us to understand these relationships and, hopefully, use that knowledge to prevent or control disease.”

The 2006 Wyoming State Legislature established the Excellence in Higher Education Endowment, which included a $70 million endowment to create senior faculty positions for highly distinguished scholars and educators at UW. The legislation states that the endowed positions must expand university instruction and research in disciplines related to economic and social challenges facing Wyoming.

Ernest received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell University in 1980; a master’s degree in veterinary physiology and pharmacology (1982) and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree (1986), both from Ohio State University; and a Ph.D. (2001) in ecology from UC-Davis. At UC-Davis, her research included wildlife health in species ranging from bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions and sea otters to great gray owls, Swainson’s hawks and hummingbirds -- and their disease-causing agents including nematode worms, bacteria and viruses.

“I genuinely look forward to working on the health challenges facing wildlife, livestock and people in our rapidly changing environments,” Ernest says. “The work of my new disease ecology and genomics research team will help provide practical answers for better prevention, control and management of diseases that threaten wildlife populations, livestock well-being and human health. My work at the University of California-Davis and background as a veterinarian prepared me well for these challenges and included research, veterinary medicine and public outreach.”

The Department of Veterinary Sciences, part of UW’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, aims to develop ecological frameworks for understanding important diseases, and generate novel approaches to be developed and tested for disease control and prevention -- using strategy for interdisciplinary teaching and research that protects and improves the health of animals, humans and the environment at local, regional, national and international scales.