In 1999, an outbreak in New York City of an exotic, mosquito-borne virus seemed of little consequence to Colorado. Four years later, John Pape was at the center of the state’s intensive public health response to combat a massive epidemic as West Nile virus reached Colorado. During the epidemic, Pape led state-wide public education, investigation, and control efforts. Analysis of data collected by his team and collaborative research projects with multiple partners, including Colorado State University, resulted in more than 30 scientific articles that changed the understanding of the threat posed by this emerging disease.
During his nearly 30 years with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pape has been on the frontline of nearly every emerging disease from eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome to hantavirus pulmonary syndrome to chronic wasting disease. As an epidemiologist with the state’s Communicable Disease Program, he had statewide responsibility for zoonotic disease surveillance and control.
He retired from the state last year and, this year, is being honored with the 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Pape graduated in 1982 from the then Department of Environmental Health at Colorado State University with a degree in environmental health and a concentration in epidemiology.
“I’ve seen tremendous changes in not only which diseases we are concerned about, but in the scientific progress that has assisted our work, from the advances in data analysis that allow us to more quickly unravel complex epidemiological patterns, to molecular fingerprinting to track where and how pathogens are being transmitted,” said Pape. “When I started there were no computers.”
Though not a veterinarian, Pape functioned in that capacity for the Department of Public Health and Environment for 25 years. In recognition of his service, he was made an honorary member of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.
Pape joined the state health department following graduation and moved to Grand Junction where he worked as a field epidemiologist, investigating cases of communicable disease, including zoonoses, on the Western Slope. His work with Dr. John Emerson, state public health veterinarian, resulted in Pape being promoted to his assistant. When Dr. Emerson, (CSU ‘50) retired two years later, Pape assumed that role.
“The department was not going to hire a new veterinarian,” said Pape, “because, and this may come as a surprise, the state had no money back then, so I just took over the position.”
The irony for Pape is that when he came to Colorado State University, his intention was to apply to veterinary school. When he realized how difficult it was to get into veterinary school, especially lacking experience in the field and referrals from veterinarians, he began looking at other degree options.
“Now I might have a chance of getting Dr (John) Reif (a Professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences) or Dr. (Lance) Perryman (Dean of CVMBS) to write me referrals for veterinary school,” joked Pape.
Pape said his environmental health degree was an excellent fit for him that led to a productive and rewarding career in public health. Although retired, he continues to consult on some longer-term epidemiological research projects and has co-authored several recent journal articles. He currently has assumed responsibility for running the household of his extended family, while deciding on his next challenge. Considerations include working on an advanced degree through the Colorado School of Public Health to pursuing some opportunities for a “second” career.
“Regardless of my next endeavor,” said Pape, “CSU will always remain a part of my life.”