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Nelson Receives NC State Veterinary Medicine Distinguished Alumni Award

Phillip Nelson
Dean Phillip Nelson speaks to the class of 2019 graduates from the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Jeff Malet/WesternU

Phillip Nelson, whose 40-year career in veterinary medicine has included researching cats as biological models for human HIV and serving as a vital voice for diversity in the profession, is the recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award from the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine.

Nelson, who received his Ph.D. in immunology and biotechnology from the CVM in 1993, has served as the dean of the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona, California, since 2007.

Earlier this month, Nelson gave a virtual Distinguished Alumni Lecture as part of the college’s inaugural Fall Program on Race and Representation, discussing his personal connection to historically black colleges and universities and sharing his story as a Black man navigating veterinary medicine as a student and then as an educator. Nelson earned his DVM from Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979.

He was recognized as a distinguished alumnus during NC State’s annual Evening of the Stars Gala, held virtually this year. 

“What does this award mean to me? It’s a mixture of things,” Nelson said in a taped acceptance speech played during the ceremony. “It means that I’ve had a chance to do something with my life. It means the institution that helped me do something with my life recognizes the accomplishment. And that’s important.” 

After receiving his DVM, Nelson launched a prolific career in teaching, research and administration. He completed a small animal internal medicine residency at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1983. That year, he was named head of the department of small animal medicine and surgery at Tuskegee.

One of Nelson’s students at Tuskegee was Ronald Baynes, now a professor of pharmacology at the NC State CVM. 

“I was privileged over 30 years ago to have been shaped and molded by many wonderful faculty at Tuskegee, and Dean Nelson is one of many who stands out because of his passion for teaching and genuine compassion for his students,” says Baynes. 

“I just loved his very engaging teaching style. When the lecture was over, you just wanted more.”

Baynes crossed paths with Nelson again. When Baynes began his Ph.D. at NC State, Nelson has just completed his own Ph.D. at the college. He has kept in touch with Nelson over the years at alumni reunions and professional meetings. 

“He still has that engaged compassion and drive for his faculty to succeed as he did for the students in his first classes,” says Baynes. “The veterinary profession has benefitted from Dean Nelson’s impact on veterinarians and faculty in so many ways.”

After earning his Ph.D. from NC State, Nelson was named associate dean of Mississippi State’s CVM in 1994, where we worked for 11 years. 

This award] means that I’ve had a chance to do something with my life. It means the institution that helped me do something with my life recognizes the accomplishment.

Nelson first joined the WesternU CVM as the executive associate dean for the college’s preclinical programs in 2005. A consummate veterinary clinician-scientist and professor, Nelson has developed and taught courses on clinical diagnostics, immunology, ethics and clinical medicine throughout his career. 

His research has focused on feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus infections to guide understanding of the human form of HIV, as well as the development of lymphocytic immunity in dogs and cats.

Nelson is a consultant on diversity in the veterinary field and a member of the multicultural affairs committee of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Nelson has received numerous honors for teaching and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Tuskegee University.

Previous recipients of the CVM’s Distinguished Alumni Award include Operation Catnip founder and shelter medicine professor Julie Levy, innovative leader in global health Wondwossen Gebreyes and Kady Gjessing, the creator of the Dr. Kady M. Gjessing and Rahna M. Davidson Distinguished Chair in Gerontology at the CVM, the largest endowed chair in NC State University history.

“[This honor] is also validation for the investment and trust and faith that North Carolina State placed in me,” said Nelson during the ceremony. “Thank you.” 

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine