Tom Yuill

Professor Emeritus, Pathobiological Sciences, Forest and Wildlife Ecology; Director Emeritus, Nelson Institute

For more than 50 years, UW-Madison alumnus and professor emeritus Tom Yuill has been working with university leaders to expand interdisciplinary research and international collaboration on environmental and ecological initiatives. From his time as the first associate dean for research and graduate training at the School of Veterinary Medicine to his time as the director of the Nelson Institute where he helped to establish a partnership with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, Yuill has been instrumental in the creation of community partnerships.

For Yuill, communities and systems have long been of interest. As a graduate student at UW-Madison, Yuill studied viruses and the way in which they impact ecosystems. When he graduated, he entered the military, serving as a medical researcher at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in that National Military Medical Center before travelling to Bangkok, Thailand where he worked for over two years before he says he realized he wanted to return to building communities at UW-Madison.

“I knew I could do what I really wanted to do at Madison,” said Yuill. “The thing that attracted me back was the tradition of interdisciplinary studies and collaboration.”

When Yuill returned to Madison, he began working with the University on a research and training project in Columbia. With a background in Spanish and interest in community partnerships, Yuill was excited to travel to the foothills of the Andes to study viruses in disrupted ecological areas. In fact, Yuill enjoyed it so much that he continued this work for two years then part-time for over 15 years.

By 1981, however, Yuill had the opportunity to return fulltime to the Madison area to serve as the Chair of the Department of Veterinary Science and eventually as the first associate dean for research and training at the School of Veterinary Medicine. Yuill served in this role for 10 years, but eventually was drawn to a new, international agriculture program led by the World Bank and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This project sent Yuill to Bolivia, where he spent a year working on various projects. It was during his time in Bolivia that he learned of a directorship with the Nelson Institute, then the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES).

“While I was in Bolivia, I applied for the director job and soon found out that I had been selected,” said Yuill. “I knew this would be a fun opportunity to work with other disciplines and colleagues such as those in the social sciences and the humanities. I also knew that IES had recently gone through a rough patch, having lost its authorization to be a tenure home and having been without a director for nearly two years.”

While there were some challenges, Yuill said he was prepared to take a leadership position as he believed in the “good faculty engagement and wonderful students” at IES. After joining IES, Yuill said one of his first leadership decisions was to establish a Board of Visitors who could help to guide the future of the Institute. Yuill says he also worked with then Chancellor David Ward for IES to  compete for cluster hires and reinstate the Institute’s authorization as a tenure home.

“My leadership approach was, when an opportunity comes along, to work with the Institute’s faculty and staff to help to make it happen,” said Yuill. “I am proud of the growth of the Institute in general and the ability it had to expand existing programs and develop new initiatives during the ten years that I was its director.”

During Yuill’s time as director from 1992 to 2003, he says he is particularly proud to have doubled the number of affiliated faculty. He is also proud to have helped to establish the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), which now has a number of faculty, research staff, and students working on environmental challenges in agriculture, air quality, climate, energy, public health, the urban environment and water.

“My greatest personal experience was the development of my appreciation for the importance of interdisciplinary interaction necessary to define and address contemporary environmental problems and support development of faculty and staff initiatives,” Yuill said. “Also, I was able to address the need for active international programs in order to broaden geographic and cultural horizons in an organized way. One of these, our interaction with the Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico, remains active today and I am able to continue participation in it as an emeritus faculty member.”

While Yuill played a role in a number of significant Nelson Institute initiatives, he says he is most honored to be a part of the Institute’s legacy, which he says continues to “underscore and strengthen the campus recognition that interdisciplinary efforts are needed.”

“The Institute cuts across the traditional school, college, department structure. The Institute has provided a welcoming environment in which faculty representing a variety of disciplines can come together to establish new research and instructional initiatives focused on environmental problems that are beyond the scope of a single discipline. The Institute has created a setting in which established Institute programs can evolve and where new environmental initiatives can be created,” Yuill said. “My hopes for the future are that the campus will continue to recognize the importance of environmental challenges that society faces and will support the Institute as the unit able to address them through formation of future leaders, generation of solutions through interdisciplinary research, and their application through outreach to the public and to decision-makers.”