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Hanley Sustainability Institute

University of Dayton biology lecturer receives master’s degree in sustainability from Harvard

By Mark Gokavi

A Harvard University pennant given to her by a student hangs on the wall in biology lecturer Mary Ellen Dillon’s office at the University of Dayton. Now, she’ll be able to add a master’s degree from Harvard in sustainability.

Dillon, a Hanley Sustainability Institute Sustainability Scholar who also co-teaches SEE 301, decided in the fall of 2014 that she wanted to add another degree. A week later, in what she called a “confirmation from the universe,” UD announced the gift that would lead to the formation of HSI.

“This is my passion,” recalled Dillon. “For my own edification, I just need to do this.”

After several years and classes - including a summer at Harvard’s campus - Dillon finished her thesis in June 2020 - “The Impact of Restricting Antibiotic Use in Livestock: Using a 'One Health' Approach to Analyze Effects of the Veterinary Feed Directive.” 

“I officially graduate Tuesday, Nov. 10,” said Dillon, who said she may consider walking in a commencement if possible. “I’m officially a Harvard grad.”

The abstract of Dillon’s research stated a Jan. 1, 2017, U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandate restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock production was in response to concerns about the increasing resistance to antibiotics by bacteria.

She wrote the goal of requiring veterinarian permission for the use of antibiotics was to promote more judicious use of antibiotics in order to preserve their effectiveness.

“First I collected primary data - both qualitative and quantitative - through individual semi-structured interviews,” she said. “In order to gain multiple perspectives of the Veterinary Feed Directive, I interviewed over 50 independent cattle farmers, nine large animal veterinarians, and a small number of large scale poultry and swine producers.”

After examining government data, she looked for changes in antibiotic consumption by livestock, looking at the years before and after the new regulations, and any accompanying changes in antibiotic resistance in the species of bacteria responsible for most food-borne infections.

Her research concluded veterinarians and livestock producers appear to have successfully adapted to the regulations and the mandate appears to be working by decreasing the consumption of antibiotics by livestock and reducing the occurrence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that inhabit both livestock and humans.

“I was almost surprised by how much I enjoyed conducting the stakeholder interviews,” Dillon said. “I immensely appreciated the opportunity to literally meet farmers in their fields, or even chat by phone, and hear their perspectives.”

Dillon’s research also led to the formation of Flyers Against Antibiotic Resistance, a student-run organization working with members of the UD community to spread awareness about antibiotic misuse.

“Through this project, I have made connections with agricultural researchers from Ohio State University,” she said. “Thus I may have an opportunity and hope to continue to participate in other such studies once this pandemic has passed.”

For more sustainability news and information, visit HSI’s news blog, the Hanley Sustainability Institute website and the sustainability program website. To sign up for HSI’s Sustainability Spotlight newsletter, register here.

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