Posted October 25, 2023
Featuring John B. Kaneene
Kaneene Award
Kaneene was awarded the K. F. Meyer/James H. Steele Gold-headed Cane and Honorary Diploma. Steele, who graduated from the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine with his DVM in 1941, is considered the father of veterinary public health.

This summer, Dr. John B. Kaneene was awarded the K. F. Meyer-James H. Steele Gold-headed Cane Award in Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health at the 2023 American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual conference. This award, presented by the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society, recognizes Dr. Kaneene’s contributions and career accomplishments in veterinary epidemiology, public health, and one health.

Kaneene, DVM, MPH, PhD, FAES, DAVES, is a University Distinguished Professor and the director of the Center for Comparative Epidemiology (CCE) at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU CVM). Here, he shares about his experience receiving the award, as well as his career accomplishments and the path to get there.

What does receiving this award mean to you?

It means a lot! It’s humbling that colleagues of mine have recognized my contributions to this field of both animal and human health—locally, nationally, and globally. I have been very touched by that.

Did you enjoy the award ceremony?

Yes! There was a celebratory dinner held the night before the ceremony, and that was awesome. Then at the actual ceremony, many people kept showing up throughout the reception, including our current dean, Dean Douglas Freeman, and it was all wonderful to see. I had people who went to school with me that gave me a shock. One person was from England, I couldn’t hold my tears and we just hugged. It was emotional. Many of my graduate students also showed up, and I am very fond of my students and learn so much from my students because they challenge me. The former Dean at MSU CVM, Dr. Lonnie King, nominated me and he was there as well.

When you reflect on your career, what stands out as your top contributions? What are you most proud of?

I can think of a few things. My training of graduate students from many different countries to think critically and look at health, both animal and human, is one of my major contributions. I receive a lot of messages from former graduate students, and what makes me feel good is what they’re doing themselves to carry the torch. Also, my teaching of Epidemiology to MSU’s Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Human Medicine, and Osteopathic Medicine. In addition, I’ve taught epidemiology and public health at many universities around the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Thailand, India, Brazil, just to mention a few.

Second would be obtaining grants to support my research and graduate training from a variety of sources, such as the State of Michigan, USDA, USAID, NIH, CDC, WHO, IFD, and from foundations like the Morris Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. My research has been conducted in the USA on a state, national, and global level as well.

Third, I am very proud of the program we started in Thailand 22 years ago. We won an 8-year NIH grant to take both MSU human and veterinary medical students to learn how to conduct research in an international setting. I am extremely proud of this project because we were not only able to go there to conduct research, but I was able to participate in setting up a veterinary student exchange program between MSU and the newly opened veterinary school at Chiang Mai University, and we still run that program today. We started this program for our students to go to Chiang Mai University, and then Thai students to come to MSU as well. We maintained this except during COVID (2019-2022), and in fact, two Thai veterinary students who were here recently just left. They observed our Summer Clerkships at CVM.

Please share more about your exchange program with Thailand.

I have spent a lot of time in Thailand, and I have been given a lot of awards from them as well. The King was very impressed by our program, and once at graduation, the King came and gave me a nice tie as a gift to show his appreciation. He also said that he would continue supporting the program we had started with a future gift.

That story about working with Thailand has an interesting origin. In the corridor outside of my office, we hang research posters, and one gentleman, a client here at the MSU Veterinary Medical Center, where he used to bring his dogs, was standing there looking at my posters. He then knocked on my door and said, “Who is Dr. Kaneene?” I was in the middle of writing a grant, but I welcomed him in my office, to chat. His name was Ronald Joseph and he said, “I’m very impressed by your work. You have worked in many countries, and you worked in areas that interest me, such as zoonotic diseases - humans, animals, and wildlife.” He shared that his wife, who recently had passed away, had been very interested in wildlife, and for him to see me do that work would make her smile. He also stated that he had been friends with Dr. Ulreh Mostosky (who was a professor in the CVM until 2005) for more than 45 years, and would like to recognize and honor him with a gift to the CVM.

After my long conversation with Mr. Joseph, he decided to fund an Endowment in the future to support the activities of a Professorship or Chair in Comparative Epidemiology and Genetics. Mr. Joseph wanted to fund this gift through his estate to recognize my work in comparative epidemiology and my contributions to human and zoonotic diseases. Due to Mr. Joseph and Dr. Mostosky being interested in genetics, Mr. Joseph suggested that the endowment be called “The Ron and Lee Joseph Endowed Professorship or Chair for Comparative Epidemiology and Genetics.” He wanted to help this vital work continue in perpetuity through the faculty here at the College. Along with the many items this Endowment will fund, it also states in the Endowment that when I retire, I, along with Dr. Mostosky and others within MSU, are to be consulted and assist in a recommendation of the Professorship or Chair. [Unfortunately, Dr. Mostosky passed away in 2020.] And with this unsolicited future gift from Mr. Joseph that began with him reading and recognizing my research posters, of course I wrote to my graduate students and highly encouraged them to make posters!


How did you first become interested in epidemiology?

I was raised in Uganda, near Lake Victoria (the second largest lake in the world after Superior) which is where the Nile River begins and continues all the way to Egypt. My father was a livestock (dairy and sheep) farmer and used to wonder how foot-and-mouth disease keeps coming up in our area. He would ask “Where does this disease come from, and why is it that sometimes it will disappear, then re-appear everywhere many times? Is it brought by the wind or water?” And he stated that if he were to go to school again, he would be interested to learn how a disease comes and goes.

I was fortunate enough to be admitted to a veterinary school, there was only one female professor who was an Epidemiologist, and in her first lecture she stated that we will be studying how diseases originate and spread and the factors that affect that spread. I was very interested right after that first lecture—she was awesome! She knew how to explain everything, and at the end of the course, I went to her to express my interest and asked what I should read. From that time on I was very interested in epidemiology.

I had received a government scholarship to go to veterinary school because the demand for veterinarians was so high and there was no veterinary school in Uganda. I was sent to attend a veterinary school at the University of Khartoum to study veterinary medicine. Eventually, they built a veterinary school in Uganda, and they started to recruit people who trained outside of the country. Due to being ranked at the top in my class, the veterinary school in Uganda had invited me to join the new faculty as Assistant Lecturer, and I accepted. They were interested in people trained in Epidemiology and Public Health.

Then, I traveled to the USA and attended the University of Minnesota where I earned my Master of Public Health (MPH), with an emphasis in Epidemiology. Following the completion of my MPH, I continued there and finished my PhD in Epidemiology as well. By then, at home, there had been many changes and I just could not go back to Uganda. I interviewed many places and Minnesota wanted me to stay, but I chose MSU because when I came here, I found that the faculty was international and diverse. MSU has so many people from all over the world, and that really impressed me. I remember saying “I think I’ll fit in here. I’ll do three years and I’m out of here.” That was my plan—and of course now I am still here!

MSU has been an amazing place to work. My wife (as she rests in eternal peace) and I will always be indebted to MSU for allowing us to grow, blossom professionally, and raise three amazing children. THANK YOU MSU and GO GREEN!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.