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Outstanding alum leverages agricultural education, opportunities
"I am overjoyed at the opportunity to acknowledge Kennedy’s tremendous contributions in the threat agent neutralization arena due to his exceptional accomplishments as highly deserved … We continually rely on his expertise for guidance in recognition of critical knowledge gaps and outlining the path forward for satisfying mission requirements, which directly affect our nation’s warfighters."
– Yvette B. Gonzales, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, Intelligence and Capabilities Integration Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"Kennedy also impresses me with his friendly, enthusiastic demeanor and his strong ethic of teamwork; his willingness to give of his time and talent for the betterment of all around him. I just like working with the guy – I know I can count on him to give me great answers or work on it until he does."
– Scott Mullin, program manager, ballistics and explosive engineering section, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas
Kennedy Gauger strode through the doorways of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources seeking a master's in microbiology and left in 1981 with a Ph.D.
He'll return this September with outstanding alumni award nominators crediting him with making the world a safer place.
Gauger's academic focus had been bioremediation to destroy environmental pollutants, but 9/11 pushed him in another direction.
"The events of 9/11 and the subsequent threat of the anthrax letters later the same fall had a profound effect on my career," says Gauger, principal scientist in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
The Boulder native would use his experience in environmental microbiology and soil science to find and control biothreat agents due to terrorism or through natural presences. He's spent the last 17 years as a technical consultant to the U.S. government defense community.
A Safer Place
Gauger's understanding of the science related to biological threats has been instrumental in improving the nation's ability to respond to these threats in the hands of those intent on harming us, says Michael Regester, vice president of Signature Science, LLC, in his nomination letter.
"In many ways, he also contributed to the safety of the world as a whole," says Regester. "I have witnessed the impact he has had in protecting our nation and its resources, specifically as it relates to the prevention of risk to human, animal, and agricultural health. His professional life has encompassed nearly all forms of how a scientist can contribute one's skills to society."
High praise for anyone.
Gauger received his bachelor's degree in biology from Yankton College in Yankton, South Dakota, before enrolling in the college of agriculture at UW. He and agriculture have been companions since.
Discoveries that led to the development of antibiotics originally intrigued him – those and the ways microorganisms are part of our lives led him to study microbiology as a graduate student.
"I was most interested in programs that taught applied microbiology and that had a strong emphasis in hands-on education such as that learned in the laboratory," Gauger notes. "The University of Wyoming College of Agriculture had such a program. For me, it was a straightforward decision to apply to graduate school in Laramie because of the microbiology department's teaching approach, their curriculum, and the responsibilities that were afforded to us as teaching assistants."
Every Course Exciting
He says every course was exciting – not that they were easy, but because there was so much interesting science to learn.
Gauger never lost interest.
"I never wondered why the information that was being presented was being taught. All of it was relevant," he says. "I give credit to the excellent faculty members and their commitment to undergraduate and graduate student education and research. I also enjoyed the friendship extended by other students and technicians and the shared support as we worked together to advance our educations. To this day, I don't think I could have chosen a better place to go for my graduate education."
While working on his thesis, he applied for and received a job in the soils testing laboratory. The job would prove fortuitous in later years.
"I had a good chemistry background from undergraduate school, so I was able to understand the chemistry," he says. "However, I needed to work hard to learn soil science, which I did. This opportunity was one that significantly shaped my background and understanding of agriculture."
Professor Stephen Williams was a newly minted Ph.D. when he arrived at UW and Gauger was running the laboratory. Williams became Gauger's adviser.
Pedagogy is a two-way street, says Williams.
"As a faculty member, I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. With Kennedy, he and I stumbled on a synergy of interaction where we both learned a lot. But the reality is, I learned so much more from him than he ever from me."
One of Gauger's most enduring attitudes was passion, says Williams "It included maintaining a positive attitude, keeping a proper and often humorous perspective on what we do and on the human condition, and recognizing opportunity even in the face of catastrophe and sometimes danger."
Ag Experience Proves Fortuitous
Gauger studied different soils topics and learned soil science as a whole.
"At the time, little did I know how important that knowledge would help me later in my career," he notes. "I have applied much of what I learned then to understand the behavior of soil bacteria such as Bacillus anthracis, the causative bacterium of the disease, anthrax. I have worked extensively with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) used as a biopesticide and as a simulant for B. anthracis. I have traveled to numerous facilities that produce Bt and learned about the industrial production in massive fermentors (20,000 liters and larger) and the processes for harvesting (continuous centrifugation and ultrafiltration) to obtain the Bt. "
Much of the biothreat agent work involved soil sampling – a skill learned in agriculture.
"I have trained many others, scientists, students, and nonscientists (e.g., law enforcement officers) on how to properly collect soil samples without causing cross contamination," he says. "On numerous occasions, I have needed to have soil samples chemically and physically characterized for work related to bioremediation as well as biothreat agents. Had I not gone to an agricultural higher education institution, I likely would not have had the experience needed to acquire these skills and to be able make critical project decisions later on."
Gauger would become an assistant then associate professor of microbiology at South Dakota State University in Brookings, and then he went to work for private firms.
Leads Multimillion Dollar Projects
Gauger has trained personnel and has overseen multi-million dollar projects, both in the continental United States and outside the country. One such project was the mitigation of pathogenic organisms at Vozrozhdeniya Island or "Resurrection Island" in the Aral Sea near Uzbekistan. The site was used by the former Soviet Union to develop and test biological weapons. "Most of my success has been the result of being presented with an opportunity and not being too afraid to pursue it," Gauger says. "In cases where I worked directly with biothreat agents, or there was a concern for exposure, I obtained the immunizations necessary to protect myself should there be an unplanned exposure. Also, we always used well-defined biosafety practices prior to going to any of these locations or entering production facilities. Often, this was a requirement of a host facility so it ended up being part of the job. This always ended up being a personal choice. No one who was presented the opportunity was coerced into receiving an immunization."
Opportunities built upon one another, and coincidence and education advanced his career. Project management responsibilities resulted from his experience. He had worked on a project in the U.S. that involved collecting biological field samples from a variety of locations for a number of different purposes ranging to validating newly developed analytical methods, collecting a variety of different types of samples – wastewater, surface water, soil, air – and sampling from different aspects of industrial microbiological processes.
"It was a complicated project, but I had skills in all aspects of the project and managed a wide variety of staff," he notes. "I also worked directly with the primary client and the client's clients. I like people and came to clearly understand client needs and expectations. It was a lot of fun but not something I envisioned that I would be doing when I was in graduate school. By progressing in my career, I became ready for this new and challenging opportunity."
Never Stop Learning
Twenty-one years later, he still credits education.
"I was deliberate in seeking programs that would provide me hands-on and academic preparation," he says. "When I left UW, I went to South Dakota State University and had my own microbiology program in the College of Agriculture that started my experience in industrial microbiology, which provided skills relevant later in my career. One can never stop learning. However, the easiest way to keep learning is to always retain one's curiosity and enthusiasm so the work continues to be of interest."