Dan Ernst retires after 40 years of service in animal care

After 40 years of service to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Dan Ernst retired at the end of 2020. Through his four decades of service, his expertise in caring for research animals facilitated hundreds of research discoveries that utilized animal models.

Ernst began as a poultry worker in 1980 and then moved to a career as a lab animal technician in the School of Medicine and Public Health. He retired as an animal research technician advanced in Biomedical Research Model Services, the school’s provider of laboratory animal care and husbandry that is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International.

Dan Ernst

Richard Halberg, PhD, associate professor of medicine and oncology, directs the facility and reflects on how his own list of accomplishments as a cancer biology researcher can’t match what Ernst has done for the school.

“My contributions to science are dwarfed by Dan’s contribution,” he says. “I cannot imagine how many scientific studies Dan directly impacted in the past 40 years providing outstanding care for the animals and working with the research staff.”

Everyone who worked with Ernst in all corners of BRMS — from the research staff to human resources — describe his stellar combination of kindness, a willingness to help, and vast wealth of institutional knowledge.

Ernst was responsible for maintaining the health of animal colonies by preventing disease, inspecting animals, and administering treatments under the direction of a veterinary. He also looked after environmental requirements of the animals and proper record keeping. In the last 10 years of his service, Ernst took on ordering supplies — and had a helpful habit of memorizing exact products.

“I moved our core into BRMS in 2018 and Dan was instrumental in helping us get set up,” says Jody Peter, the facility’s associate director of research. “He knew all the ins and outs of the building. He had memorized where we purchased any product you could think of and was great at coming up with labor and cost saving ideas. He always was willing to help.”

Jim Taubel supervised Ernst for many years and also appreciated his sense of humor and love of puns. This made him easy to work with and led to his ability to fill in for more than 20 positions if needed.

“Dan would step in and help in areas when we were shorthanded,” Taubel says. “His years of knowledge provided a go-to source of history on labs and the university.”

Ernst says the variety in his long career and getting to meet people fueled his love for the role. When asked why he stayed for so long, his answer is simple: “I enjoyed what I was doing.”

“I oversaw animal care workers and took pride in keeping the facilities ready for inspections,” he says. “When I was on rotation, I worked at six or seven different buildings, all in SMPH, so I got to know a lot of people across many areas.”