Patrick Halbur, DVM: Veterinarian and University Department Head is a Man on a Mission

May 14, 2014

7 Min Read
Patrick Halbur, DVM: Veterinarian and University Department Head is a Man on a Mission

When it comes to his goals for helping pork producers, there are several clues that Pat Halbur, DVM, is an ambitious man. First of all, there is his 39-page curriculum vitae (CV) that provides an impressive list of research projects and collaborations. A closer look reveals that, in addition to documenting his hard work and accomplishments, the CV serves as a timeline of pork industry challenges. However, many of those have been overcome thanks to research he helped conduct on diseases such as porcine circovirus (PCV), among others. The second clue: the signature line on his email, listing not only a DVM, but a master’s degree and doctorate in diagnostic pathology, too. Those designations and the rather lengthy title that goes with them, professor and chairman of the Iowa State University (ISU) Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, and executive director of the ISU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, mean this man works hard to support his pork producer stakeholders. And if you haven’t gotten the message by now about how hard he works on your behalf, you should hear the career goals he is hoping to achieve.

This Carroll County, IA, native credits his parents, Robert and Mary, with teaching him the importance of family, hard work and education. “My parents provided the motivation and resources to get all nine kids [in his family] a college education, and five of us obtained professional degrees,” he says. Halbur was raised on a diversified grain and livestock farm. While he was growing up, he remembers being impressed by the professionalism and impact the local veterinarians had on his parents’ farming operation. He attended ISU to obtain both his undergraduate and DVM degrees before entering private practice in southeastern Iowa. There, he worked with veterinarians Stan Teggatz and Keith Stecker, who, he says, served as great mentors. He reflects, “I loved working in the veterinary practice. It was perhaps the highlight of my career.”

While Halbur was engaged in his veterinary practice, his wife, Therese, completed her residency in pediatrics at the University of Iowa. When Therese became a pediatrician in Ames, Halbur returned to ISU to further his education in diagnostic pathology, earning his master’s and doctoral degrees. He accepted a position as an assistant professor at ISU in 1994, and spent 12 years as a diagnostic and research pathologist. “I had gained an appreciation for the importance of the ISU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) to the success of the clients in my veterinary practice and to animal agriculture in Iowa,” he says. “I am very appreciative of the opportunity I was given to return to ISU to live the land-grant mission as a diagnostic pathologist and researcher. That was, and still is today, the best possible job in academia.”

The Halburs have four children: Adam, Mary, Christopher and Martin. “I have a remarkably talented wife, and our four kids seem to be on the right track. I consider my family to be my greatest accomplishment,” he says.

Halbur strongly believes in the mission of land-grant colleges such as ISU to provide teaching, research, outreach and Extension services to the people of the state. It has helped him keep his personal priorities and those of the diagnostic lab in sharp focus during the seven years he has served as administrator. Each year, the VDL investigates 50,000-60,000 cases and conducts about 1.5 million diagnostic tests. The lab has been at the forefront in initially diagnosing and investigating the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) outbreak that is terrorizing the U.S. pork industry.

“It is so important to understand who your customers are, and to keep connected to them and be passionate about helping them succeed,” he says, noting that the same advice also held true for when he was a partner in private veterinary practice, and now when he administers the VDL, veterinary field service unit and food-animal hospital at ISU. “Livestock producers are our customers. Their problems are our problems.”

Halbur reaches out to build successful teams of stakeholders to help find solutions to producer problems. He says one of the things he has learned over the years is that many times it takes influence or pressure from someone outside of a system or organization to initiate needed change. He has worked hard to keep legislators and other thought leaders informed about how the land-grant mission is served by a strong veterinary diagnostic laboratory and veterinary school. His eyes light up as he demonstrates how he uses examples such as small vials containing segments of pig intestines from an animal that succumbed to PEDV when talking to legislators. “Examples are so important to help make the message stick,” he says.

Even though the VDL has relatively good funding support and the recognition of legislative leaders now, that was not always the case. The lab had become financially dependent on working with diagnostic samples related to diseases such as pseudorabies (PRV) at one time. The eradication of the disease, while positive, caused a financial crisis for the diagnostic lab, leading Halbur and his mentor, John Thomson, DVM, MS, at the time dean of the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine, to seek legislative support in 2005. Their efforts eventually resulted in a direct funding appropriation to the VDL. Halbur remembers this as one of the highlights of his career.

“Now the Legislature knows who we are, which helped us to grow the resources for the ISU VDL, and ultimately for the Iowa livestock industry. We are using those resources to hire great people, and it has been extremely rewarding to watch as those people have transformed the ISU VDL and food-supply veterinary medicine education and research at ISU,” he says.

Ambitious Goals

Now that the ISU VDL is more secure, don’t expect Halbur to sit back and relax. He has an ambitious set of goals, such as working toward the establishment of a global veterinary diagnostic laboratory system. “If we were better able to get a pulse on what is occurring in pig diseases around the world, we may be better able to keep them out, and/or respond to them much more quickly and effectively if they arrive.”

He would also like to see an end to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRS). “My Ph.D. was on understanding the pathogenesis of PRRS in growing pigs. I completed that in 1994 — 20 years ago. Before I retire, I would like to contribute in some way to truly solving PRRS. Perhaps that would be through eradication, discovery of a highly effective vaccine, or discovery of a less-susceptible host or something else we have not yet even considered.”

Halbur also wants to be a part of establishing a truly effective and real-time disease surveillance system that would have ownership from all stakeholders.

He feels good about having had opportunities to identify gaps in pork industry knowledge. The research teams that he has been a part of have advanced the understanding of PRRS, PCV, hepatitis E virus and other diseases through applied research.

“In particular, I’m proud of having had the chance to play a role from discovery of the emergence of some of these diseases to the production of highly effective tools for prevention and control, such as the current porcine circovirus vaccines.”

Looking to a Bright Future

There is no doubting Halbur’s enthusiasm for what is being accomplished within his department at ISU. Anyone accompanying him on a tour of his home turf in the diagnostic lab and veterinary teaching hospital will become motivated. While walking through the halls, he talks of plans for expansion of the facilities in the future. “I am so glad that I have had opportunities to identify gaps in our knowledge, and to be part of diagnostic service and research teams that have advanced understanding of several diseases,” he says. “It’s really remarkable to think about the continuously growing interest of swine veterinarians and pork producers when it comes to accessing and applying the very latest technology in animal health. There is likely no other industry where useful information is translated so quickly from the research lab to the farm and back.”

Looking ahead, he sees nothing but opportunity for animal agriculture. “I take great pride in the fact that now over 50% of the veterinary students at ISU College of Veterinary Medicine chose to track toward a career in food animal or mixed-animal practices. Many of these students have minimal or no background in animal agriculture when they arrive, but have been turned on to all the opportunities in animal agriculture while being here,” he says.    

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