Elizabeth Lautner, DVM, MS, rises to every challenge that greets her, and walking away from problematic situations is never an option in her book.
Growing up on a family fruit and livestock farm in northern Michigan, Lautner was around animals all the time and knew from a young age she wanted to be a veterinarian. However, the road to become a veterinarian was not exactly easy, but smart thinking, sheer determination and a little push from her father made each new chapter in her career possible.
The idea that a young woman wanted to enter a male-dominated field was not exactly a popular notion. However, Lautner never let anyone else hold the pen in her life’s story. Working for a veterinarian in order to obtain a recommendation was the only thing standing between Lautner and studying veterinary medicine at Michigan State University.
Supporting her dream, her father went with her to visit the family’s veterinarian with the goal of obtaining the necessary reference. Together, they asked the local veterinarian to let her work with him to obtain the proper recommendation. The response was, “She can be a technician, but not a veterinarian.” Her dad immediately replied, “She wants to be a veterinarian, and you are going to help her.”
Honestly, Lautner knows she would not have gotten the chance if her dad had not stood up for her. She says that is the reason she kept her maiden name when she got married.
The dynamics of the business and the fast innovative pace drew Lautner to specialize in swine medicine. Since the generation interval is short, the effect of recommending a change, adjusting a vaccine regimen or modifying a treatment protocol can be seen quickly, especially compared to cattle. Additionally, she enjoyed implementing the new technologies that the swine industry offered, from new barn designs to new equipment to new vaccines.
Unfortunately, new diseases also are a large part of the pig business. Yet, she says, “You really got a chance to keep getting challenged. You see something new, and you would have to work through how to manage it and how to give the best advice to the producer.”
She recalls walking in the barns and seeing the “mystery disease,” or porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, for the first time. “It was heart-wrenching though because you saw the devastation it caused, and the producer was looking to you for the answer. I had to say I don’t know,” explains Lautner with a heavy sigh.
Yet, the magnitude of the challenge did not stop her from finding a way to make a difference for her clients. She says, “You got to be part of helping to identify what to do through your network of veterinarians.”
In fact, Lautner has always appreciated the swine practitioners for being a tightly connected group and open to sharing information, even if they were competitors. From the beginning years of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, this group of professionals knew they had to band together to deal with the animal health issues for the sake of the hog producer and animals. She says, “There is a comradery. You could call someone up and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing for that?’ People were very forthcoming with information. These are your peers and really helpful. I think that is what I liked the most.”
A close veterinarian-client relationship has never been a new concept for pig farmers. Lautner always admired her hog clients for keeping her challenged. Even before the internet, they were well-read and built their own information network among their peers and allied business partners. Everybody working on the farm contributed to the conversation to solve the problem of the day. It was important to include everybody because they were at the front lines, and different observations were important in making decisions.
She believes that the swine industry on a whole knew that the problems needed to be solved together. It did not matter if you were a producer or company representative or association staff person or veterinarian or researcher. It took an army to advance the industry.
A new career
Turning the career page, Lautner was hired as the first veterinarian at the National Pork Producers Council. At the time she was not searching for a new job title. However, a conversation at dinner turned into a job offer. At first, her reaction was “no” because leaving her clients would not be easy, but the new opportunity meant making a difference for the entire hog-farming community.
The job titles at NPPC evolved with the ever-changing pork industry, but the purpose of solving real-world problems and making a difference did not. Lautner joined NPPC at the same time the Pork Quality Assurance program was just getting off the ground. Her task was to evolve the program, adapt it to the industry changes and provide the latest training and education. She vividly remembers being presented her first goal to grow the PQA program from 68 certified producers to 5,000 by the end of the year. She openly admits with help from good friends and colleagues, the goal was achieved. The program’s success also benefited from the proactive nature of the NPPC, launching the program at a time when swine veterinarians were transitioning into more consulting roles and served as a good management guide for producers. Swine practitioners became the ambassadors of the program, humbly steered by Lautner. She says, “It fit in well with the mindsets of producers, ensuring they are doing the right thing. It had benefits for everyone.”
Over the 10 years, Lautner’s responsibilities were broad, including developing standards for programs that focus on producer education, food safety, swine health, pork quality, environmental issues and animal welfare.
The number of veterinarians on staff with NPPC also grew with the program work. Hiring the right team members was essential. In fact, she hired the same veterinarians U.S. hog producers work with daily today at the national association — Paul Sundberg, Liz Wagstrom and David Pyburn — only reaffirming her dedication to hire the right people who can carry on without her.
She says, “It is nice to see them be leaders in the industry.”
Similar to her experience in private practice, Lautner says the hog producers she worked with at the association were very progressive. If there were issues, the pork leaders rolled up their sleeves, did the research and put the program in place.
Lautner’s position with the NPPC also gave her the opportunity to represent the swine industry on many government working groups. In 2001, the emergence of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom brought a lot of attention to emergency management and how to prepare for a nationwide disease outbreak. Her active participation led to the next chapter in her life, as the director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Lautner was offered the job when the Plum Island facility was being transferred from the USDA to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Again, at first she said “no,” but with a nudge from her husband, she accepted the position and oversaw the facility for two years as it made the transition. “It was challenging because I went from supervising about seven or eight people to managing an island,” Lautner says.
She says one quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt serves her well: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Lautner believes in pushing yourself to see if you can do it or not, and leading an agency with a very critical task was far beyond her comfort zone. For her, it was important that this new department under Homeland Security would still remain focused on animal health. She says, “It was a great opportunity. It was very interesting in being on the frontlines of a new department. That is rare.”
After two years and two months, Lautner says it was time to leave the island and join her husband and three children back in Iowa full time. After a couple of months off and helping her mom recover from surgery, she became the director of the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa. In 2013, Lautner was appointed to her current position as associate deputy administrator, science, technology and analysis services after a reorganization of veterinary services (VS) at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. In this position, she oversees operations and programs of the National Veterinary Services Laboratories, the Center for Veterinary Biologics, the Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health, and the Office of Scientific Interagency Coordination. The reorganization brought together the science groups of VS. Her team is responsible for bringing the latest and best science to meet the animal and public health needs of VS and stakeholders and to inform policy decisions.
Innovation is essential to the diagnostic labs, and it is important the labs are equipped to detect animal diseases from around the globe. She says, “Technology tools keep changing, and it is our job to evaluate if the latest, best equipment and techniques are present in the labs. No field is static. If you stay where you are, then you are going backward.”
As a general rule, Lautner supports diversity among a team whether it is a group of volunteers or employees.
Lautner will downplay the fact she was one of the first few female veterinarians practicing swine medicine. While there were times that her gender kept her from getting a job, it was just a temporary setback. In fact, Lautner recognizes that the U.S. pork industry is very forward-thinking, and women were accepted as active members and leaders early.
During her tenure with NPPC, she had a front row seat as women leaders were elected to the board and later led the national organization. Lautner says it made the organization better-rounded. Diversity of thought and approaches is important to the dynamics of a group, and the group was missing half of its active producers. She says, “It was exciting to me to watch them step forward and take leadership positions as committee chairs and officers.” Today, the swine industry really does not see gender, but people.
Lautner points out that by 2020 there will be five generations employed in the workplace. That can be a challenge as a leader because it is important to foster a work environment that nurtures the different generational needs and keeps harmony among the team. Communications alone can be a trial because some want to receive emails, whereas others want the information face-to-face. However, having the different generations on a team can be beneficial because each has different things to contribute. As they work together, they start to respect each other and rely on each individual’s strength to accomplish the task at hand. The diversity brings innovation and a better end product, Lautner explains.
Over the years, Lautner says the pork industry has always done a great job doing the right thing, but today it has to be more visible. Today’s consumer wants to see how things are done on the farm, and it is up to hog producers to demonstrate that. She says, “You have to be a spokesperson for your industry even if you may not want to, whether it is in your local community or a national basis.”
As a pork producer, it will be significant to keep up with the science and the technology. A new animal disease can emerge at any time, Lautner says. A biosecurity plan is as good as your neighbor’s and your ability to implement your plan day in and day out in your unit and production system. However, biosecurity is not likely to be enough. Lautner notes that just as porcine epidemic diarrhea virus emerged in the U.S., more diseases perhaps not even detected in other countries yet are likely to be found in the future. A recent publication noted that there are likely over 300,000 viruses that have not yet been detected that could infect mammals! Rapid detection of either a foreign animal disease or newly emerging diseases is critical. It is critical, Lautner says, for the industry and government to work together to be able to quickly assess a new disease detection and determine what is the most appropriate response.
In urging producers to report something out of the ordinary to the federal and state animal health officials, Lautner notes that this does not necessarily mean action or that a red flag will be placed over the farm. There is a real value in having a good reporting system so you know the scope of the disease. She says, “If you don’t get a good, complete picture of what is going on, then your response may not be appropriate for the situation. Having the knowledge helps the industry and government make good decisions.”
Overall, Lautner offers these pointers on protecting the farm from emerging foreign animal diseases:
- Producers need to be educated and make sure all employees on the farm are also educated about new diseases.
- If you see something suspicious on the farm, then you should report it to your veterinarian.
- Early detection of disease can minimize impact on the individual operation and the entire swine industry.
- Secure a good biosecurity plan.
- Work with your state and local resources on developing an emergency plan and make sure the training has occurred.
For the pork industry, producers’ leadership is key, and it is important to get involved. Lautner says, “The producers are the ones that are dealing at the front lines with the issues and the problems. They are the ones that can explain the impact of how the issues are addressed.”
As Lautner’s life story unfolds, one common thread appears in black and white — making a difference. She says, “For myself, I wanted to make a difference in animal health, and I was able to do that in different ways. When I was in practice, I had hands-on opportunities to contribute one-on-one with producers. At pork producers organizations, I was able to work on animal health issues for all producers. Plum Island was a chance to work to protect the industry from foreign animal diseases. At NVSL, it was using excellent diagnostic capabilities to contribute to animal health solutions. Finally, the position I am at now allows me to be spread across many animal health areas in addition to diagnostics such as licensing of animal vaccines, disease monitoring and surveillance, epidemiological investigations, and coordinating with other governmental agencies. Hopefully, I am providing the resources and the directions to do the right things for animal health stakeholders including, of course, the pork industry.”
Lautner says life on the family farm served as a solid foundation for her flourishing career. Her parents — a teacher and farmer — are her role models and inspiration. Her father had polio and had no use of his left arm, but he still farmed and never complained. He just dealt with it. Her mom also had a strong but quieter influence. As she looks back, she remembers her mom being persistent about taking her to a female doctor. In the 1950s, that was rare. Lautner says, “I think my mom wanted me to see role models that you can do something different than being the classic teacher or nurse.”
Across Lautner’s career path from studying in college to every position held, the job was demanding and can take its toll. Good mentors are important. She says if Dave Ellis, professor at Michigan State University, had never invested the time to load up interested veterinary students to visit hog farms, then she would never have specialized in swine medicine. Overall, she says you need to be open to learn from everyone from the teenager in the veterinarian office to producers to peers. She says there were always peers and mentors she could lean on; however, her biggest support comes from her husband, Tom, and their family.
Reviewing the pages of Lautner’s life story, it is easy to see why her peers see her as a “Master of the Pork Industry.” No matter the job at hand, she works hard to bring people together, even when there are diverging perspectives, and finds a common goal to work toward. Mutual respect can reach mutual goals quickly. Lautner says she always tries to respect others’ opinion even when she does not agree with the person. Moreover, she adds that when you communicate with others, especially those who do not see the full picture, it is necessary to bridge the information gap without getting defensive.
Being a good leader is about building trust with people, so you are seen as a trusted resource and people know you are going to follow through, says Lautner. Moreover, being competent in your career is about lifelong learning. It is important to keep absorbing knowledge and to keep up with your field. In all her positions, listening and being open-minded are important skills.
Above all, Lautner strongly believes if you have a passion for what you do, then it is really not work. At the end of the day, passion is vital to being a successful professional in any field. Lautner says, “No. 1, make sure you have a passion for it. If you do not have passion, then you cannot bring the drive and the determination to it to make a difference.”