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Joan Lunney, Ph.D., ’68 Recognized with the Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist (DVI) Award

Joan Lunney, Ph.D., ’68 Recognized with the Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist (DVI) Award

Joan Lunney (center) holds her award as she stands with friends and colleagues at the IVIS 2023 event.

Alumna Joan Lunney, Ph.D., '68 followed an unorthodox path to her successful decades-long career in animal science through her combination of persistence, resilience, and commitment to inclusivity.

For over 40 years, Lunney has worked as a distinguished research scientist in the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) where she is known for her work on swine immunology and genetics. Most recently, Lunney accepted the Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist (DVI) Award at the 2023 International Veterinary Immunology Symposium in Kruger National Park, South Africa. The award recognized her achievements in science and creation of immunological toolkits, in-field innovation, and mentorship of the new generations of veterinary immunologists. Upon her nomination for the award, Lunney was praised by the selection committees from the International Union of Immunological Societies and Veterinary Immunology Committee for her “achievements in science and immunological toolkits, in in-field innovation and in mentoring the new generations of veterinary immunologists.”

Growing up in Philadelphia with her four siblings, Lunney’s strong sense of responsibility and inherent sense of duty and desire to care for others was nurtured by her environment, which included her years as a student at Chestnut Hill College..

“Like many women, I am a ‘responsibility sponge’ when it comes to taking care of family affairs," Lunney notes. "Even though I’m the fourth daughter out of five children in my generation, I’m the one who took care of my mother’s estate, my Down’s syndrome sister’s issues, my eldest sister and husband’s estate, and now my 80-year-old sister in assisted living. Where did I learn that? From my family, from Chestnut Hill College, from growing up during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests. They all influenced my life outlook." 

Lunney graduated from Chestnut Hill College with a degree in chemistry and a minor in social work. Although Lunney was a commuter student, she found ways to stay involved in her community, both on campus and locally in Philadelphia. She served as treasurer of her class, tutored in the city, and became involved in the women’s rights movement. In between her junior and senior years, Lunney wanted to get involved in research. Taking the initiative, she wrote to 13 different chemical companies asking for a summer job. She heard back from one, Corning Glass Works in New York, where she researched whether baby food glass containers could safely store liquid.  

After graduating during the height of the civil rights and women’s rights movements, Lunney knew she wanted to pursue a socially relevant career. She worked at Camden Catholic High School as a chemistry teacher. During her time teaching, Lunney realized she was a 'technocrat' and wanted to pursue research. After teaching for three years, she became a Fellow through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Summer Institute for Chemistry and Physics at American University.  

Even though Lunney did not directly pursue graduate studies following her undergraduate degree, when she did advance to that step of her career, Lunney got into Johns Hopkins for her doctoral degree. She notes that a life of learning was a critical factor to the longetvity of her scientific career. “I never had a virology course, a microbiology course, at all when I started my graduate degree," says Lunney. "It was more about learning all along the way.”

While getting her degree, she worked at the National Institute for Health (NIH) where she studied using pigs as transplant models. “I am known as the ‘swine’ lady at the USDA, yet I grew up in Philadelphia and went to a zoo for the first time when I was 21 years old.” says Lunney.

Upon completing her Ph.D., Lunney continued her career as an independent researcher at the USDA, where she still works in the laboratory at 78 years young.  

Her presentation during the acceptance of the DVI award focused on the three values of serendipity, resilience and persistence. “My career was serendipitous; I was at the right place at the right time and the civil rights movement got to shape my career as well as having good mentors. I’ve had to be resilient; things don’t always work out and as a scientist, I had to get used to failure. And most of all, I’ve had the persistence to trust myself that I had good ideas and followed through with them,” says Lunney.  

All these values led her to become a Hall of Fame scientist at the USDA. She has been active in international societies and held leadership positions for animal immunology societies and ensuring diversity among the leadership boards. In addition, in 2022 Lunney received the U.S. Presidential Rank Award as a Meritorious Senior Professional to recognize her exceptional performance and sustained record of exceptional scientific achievement on a national and international level over an extended period of time at the Department of Agriculture. This award is given annually to just a few senior scientists.

“My legacy is the people I’ve trained and the next generation of scientists," notes Lunney. "I know I’m past my peak, but having a job I love keeps me working. It’s been a pleasure to be doing so many things for the advancement of science, women, and those around me.” 

- Jaime Renman

Posted In: Alumni News