By Whitney Baxter
When the Starbuck wildfire broke out in southwestern Kansas in early March 2017, Daniel Thomson packed his truck and left his northeastern Kansas home to assist impacted farmers. A similar call to action happened in mid-March of this year when Iowa State University announced the move to online courses and working remotely. This time, Dr. Thomson loaded his stock trailer and headed north to Ames to lead the animal science department through these unprecedented times – two weeks earlier than anticipated.
“It’s one thing to go through a crisis, and another to go through a crisis together,” Dr. Thomson said.
Originally scheduled to begin April 6, Dr. Thomson joined the Department of Animal Science March 23 as the new department chair. John Patience, professor in animal science, had been serving as the interim chair since Donald Beermann retired in January.
Dr. Thomson has spent the past 15 years at Kansas State University as the Jones Professor of Production Medicine and Epidemiology. He comes from a long line of Iowa State graduates and is one of three Iowa State-trained veterinarians in his family. His father, John Thomson, was a previous dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine before retiring in 2010.
Dr. Thomson comes back to Iowa State in time to celebrate two important milestones: this year marks the 30th anniversary of receiving his bachelor of science degree in animal science, and the 20th anniversary of receiving his doctor of veterinary medicine degree, both from Iowa State.
He said it’s humbling to be back on campus, leading one of the top animal science programs in the nation.
“Getting to be in this animal science department is like being part of the Alabama football team,” Dr. Thomson said, apologizing to Cyclone football fans for referencing Alabama’s program. “Every year they’re the best in the nation. It’s a humbling responsibility and comes with high expectations.”
A lot has changed since he was a student on campus, he said. When he left, he didn’t have email or a cell phone; now, he uses his cell phone and email constantly for work-related communication, especially during this time of remote work.
His schedule has been filled with weekly faculty meetings and small group meetings with faculty, staff and students. He’s also been reaching out to students to make sure things are going OK for them. He said having the opportunity to listen to others and help solve their problems is what drives him.
Self-described as a “boots on the ground” type of person, one of Dr. Thomson’s favorite quotes is from George S. Patton, who said, “No good decision is made from a swivel chair.” So, it comes as no surprise he’s been traveling to farms to get a feel for the impact of work faculty and researchers are doing in his department.
He plans to feature some of the department’s work during his weekly Doc Talk show on RFD-TV, which airs each Monday and Sunday to discuss current management practices related to the animal agriculture industry.
What began with 5-minute daily TV interviews during his previous position at Kansas State University soon led to a 30-minute show that caught the attention of RFD-TV. Doc Talk has been running for the past 10 years with more than 400 episodes and has 9 million viewers.
The show has increased attention to animal health and well-being, Dr. Thomson said. One of his favorite “fan” memories was a couple who drove to Kansas from Texas. The wife of an avid Doc Talk viewer said she never knew what to get her husband for his birthday. So, they drove to Kansas to spend the morning of his 79th birthday with Dr. Thomson.
“The show is fun, and we will have the ability to highlight Iowa State research, education and outreach to millions of people as our faculty are guests on the show,” Dr. Thomson said. “We will also be able to increase the visibility of Iowa farms, ranches and veterinary practices. Nobody has better faculty, staff and students than Iowa State University.”
With just one month back at Iowa State under his belt, Dr. Thomson already has goals for the department, including finding ways to better coordinate teaching, research and Extension areas within animal science. He also wants to make sure students are being trained to match the outcomes expected of employers.
“In the end, it is all about people. We need to build relationships and listen to what our stakeholders need. We have so many capabilities at Iowa State,” Dr. Thomson said. “Being good in one species is not an option because Iowa farmers and ranchers are in the top 10 production as a state in nearly every animal commodity group. We can solve genetic issues in a line of poultry through our research, train students so they are ready, day one, to manage swine facilities through our undergraduate programs or provide Beef Quality Assurance training for producers in the field. We will support all three areas of the land grant mission.”
“Somebody asked me how I define success,” he continued. “To me, when you talk about the heritage of Iowa State University, think about the giants that came before us and the importance Iowa agriculture has on the world - you hope to leave it a little better than you found it.”
April 21, 2020