DHS fast tracks licensing of animal vaccine to prevent potential outbreaks

Michelle Colby, branch chief, Agricultural Defense, Department of Homeland Security

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Following outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in Great Britain in 2001 and South Korea in 2011, U.S. officials were concerned about ensuring a similar incident wouldn’t occur here and lead to the deaths of thousands of farm animals and mean the loss of billions of dollars for the food industry.

USDA research chemist Marvin Grubman developed an animal vaccine in collaboration with biopharmaceutical company GenVac.

Michelle Colby, branch chief of Agricultural Defense for the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate, led the team that helped shepherd the vaccine to licensure.

“This is the first ever foot-and-mouth vaccine licensed for manufacture in the United States,” said Paul Benda, director of the DHS S&T Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. “The breakthrough could potentially save the country billions if not trillions of dollars and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals if there were an outbreak.”

Randolph Long, of the DHS S&T Chemical and Biological Defense Division, said Colby and her team “coordinated all the pieces of the puzzle” to make the case for licensing the emergency vaccine before an emergency situation occurred.

Michelle Colby, branch chief, Agricultural Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security
For their efforts, the Partnership for Public Service named Colby and her team as finalists for the 2013 Service to America Medal in the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement category. The medal honors federal employees who have made significant contributions to the U.S. in the areas of law enforcement and homeland security.

Colby was recently interviewed on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. She also answered the following questions about herself and her career in the federal government.

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
Collaborative, Empowering, Intuitive

What’s the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
When I graduated from vet school, the professor giving our commencement address advised us to “Find a job you are passionate about, one you would do for free (just don’t tell anyone that’s how you feel).” That really resonated with me, because I need the work I do to be meaningful. Graduating from vet school, even with a minimal amount of debt, it is tempting to focus on the job that might pay the most so you can quickly get rid of your debt. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues burn themselves out doing jobs they didn’t really care about. I’ve always been lucky enough to have a job I’m passionate about, and to get paid for doing something that is really important to me.

Who is your biggest role model and why?
Everybody. Everyone has their own unique talents, so I think I take a little bit from everyone I work with and use that to form my “ideal.” I’m a firm believer in the phrase “There is no one right answer,” so I guess it makes sense that I take the best of everyone around me and come up with a collaborative role model.

What’s the last thing you read and what’s next on your reading list?
The last book was “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School” by Alexandra Robbins; next on the list is “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt.

What’s your favorite bureaucratic phrase?
Collaboration is when a group of diverse people come together to identify a solution that meets the needs of all.

The Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a gallery of all the Sammies nominees here.