In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Educational Resources
September 26, 2016 Volume 46 Issue 3

An Interview with . . . Dennis Kelly

Monday, September 26, 2016

Author: Dennis Kelly

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RON LATANISION (RML): Cameron and I are so pleased to talk with you. We have observed that engineers often do things that go beyond their engineering education—for example, there are engineers who have been president of the United States, members of Congress, poets and authors, astronauts….

DENNIS KELLY: Who, besides Washington, do you count as an engineer that was president?

RML: Jimmy Carter had a background in nuclear engineering, and, Cameron, didn’t Herbert Hoover also have an engineering background?

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Yes, he was a mining engineer.

RML: Those are the two that come immediately to mind.

MR. KELLY: Washington was a surveyor, so I give him an honorary civil degree.

RML: Fair enough, I accept that. In any case, we wanted to illustrate to our members and readers that engineers affect the culture of the country in many ways. It occurred to us that you are a prime example. The $64 question is, How did you, as a mechanical engineer, become director of the National Zoo? Maybe we should begin with your history.

MR. KELLY: Sure. I grew up and went to high school in Atlanta. When I graduated I started as a physics major at Georgia State University. The Vietnam War was winding down but I thought I was going to be drafted so I went ahead and volunteered and served two years in the Army. When I came back I decided to switch to Georgia Tech, and instead of physics I went into mechanical engineering. I loved it.

I have a couple of anecdotes from my experience there. When I graduated—we were still in the quarter system at Georgia Tech—I did a rough count and about half of the people graduating with me that quarter, ending in December ’76, were veterans. The old GI Bill was still in effect.

For the other anecdote, I don’t remember what my GPA was but I think it was 3.2, maybe 3.3—not a sterling GPA by today’s standards. I got notice from my advisor that I was going to graduate with honors. I said, “That is impossible—I have a 3.2 or 3.3.” He said, “No, that is the top 15 percent of the class.” I always thought that was interesting in today’s era of grade inflation.

From there I went to work. I had a number of offers and I went to work for Procter & Gamble in their engineering division on the food side—Pringles, shortening and oils, Duncan Hines.

CHF: What were you doing for the food side of the company?

MR. KELLY: They were starting up a new plant in Jackson, Tennessee, and trying new management techniques. While my family lived in Jackson, I was actually part of the engineering department of Cincinnati. We had a couple of engineers there that were trying to start these plants with brand new technologies. So it was a Pringles plant and then we built a Duncan Hines plant. As I was leaving they were building a shortening and oil plant. They had onsite nitrogen generation and steam generation. They had the capability to generate electricity but didn’t.

It was a lot of fun as a young engineer to work in applied engineering in a food plant startup.

CHF: I would not have associated mechanical engineering with food.

MR. KELLY: Oh my goodness, between packaging and processing, there is a lot of technology in food manufacturing.

RML: How long were you with P&G?

MR. KELLY: Just shy of 4 years. I applied to and was accepted into the Harvard Business School, a little bit to my surprise. The engineering curriculum is so intense that I was quickly drafted into management and I was managing the boiler house, all the utilities operations—nitrogen generation, compressed air, steam—and I was suddenly manager of a four-shift operation. I remember going to my boss and saying, “We need a new compressor and I think we will save money.” He says, “Great, just do the ROI and the IRR and submit it and we’ll take a look at it.” I said, “Can you spell ROI and IRR for me?” I realized I needed some more training! That’s when I decided to apply to business school and was fortunate enough to be accepted to Harvard. That changed the direction of my career into both finance and marketing. It rounded me out.

In hindsight, I would do everything the same. I think the mechanical engineering degree prepared me very well for what I’m doing.

While I was at Harvard I spent much of my second year not at the Business School but at the Kennedy School of Government studying energy and environmental policy.

RML: I notice you have some experience at Green Mountain Energy Company.

MR. KELLY: That’s right. From Harvard we wanted to come back south, so after a brief stint in consulting I went to work for the Coca-Cola Company and got into the general management track. I did finance, general management, and marketing. In my last job at the company, after 16 years, I was deputy chief marketing officer and director for Europe.

From there I got recruited to run a startup called Green Mountain Energy, a spin-off of the utility company in Vermont. It was marketing clean electricity—wind and solar. We were selling electricity into deregulated markets, but it was 15 percent more expensive to buy the energy tax credit for electricity made from wind and solar and combined cycle and natural gas.

When I took over, Green Mountain was hemorrhaging cash, so I quickly needed to raise a lot of money—about $100 million—to get the company cash flow positive. We did and in the process brought in more investors—BP and a Dutch electric company—and moved the company from Vermont to Austin, Texas. It has since been sold, but the brand is alive and well today.

After I moved the company, my family wanted to stay in Atlanta. I had been commuting the whole time, so I was looking for something to do when a headhunter called and said had I ever thought about running a zoo? I said no. But they said the situation was similar—a turnaround with a terrific mission.

The mission of Zoo Atlanta is to save species from extinction. At the time the zoo needed a full general management makeover that included capital investment and fund raising and financial management. While I was there I took it from an operating deficit and an operating debt to being debt free and cash-flow positive. That was very, very satisfying for me, and also because I got to work with scientists and folks who are passionately involved in a mission to save species from extinction.

RML: It’s pretty clear that with your particular skills you were the right guy at the right time for those organizations. That is a great testimonial.

MR. KELLY: I think one of the things that attracts folks with engineering backgrounds is the capital intensity of organizations. Zoos, by their very nature, are capital-intensive organizations, and management of that capital, both physical and human, is a challenge for somebody who has not received the kind of disciplinary training that you get in engineering school.

RML: I have to admit, Dennis, I was expecting you to say, ‘Well, I grew up on a farm and I really liked animals and this was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.’ But that is not the case.


MR. KELLY: I think the emotional draw for me is that, from my very early days in training, I’ve been interested in the intersection of environment and environmental policy. When I was in graduate school I was fortunate enough to intern at the Harvard Energy and Environmental Policy Center.

The other thing I learned early on is that as you begin to make your career choices, you will be happiest if you are working around people that you like working with.

It turns out that I like working with scientists, engineers, and people with deep training on the science side. And my own skills are in optimizing organizations, particularly those in transition.

RML: That’s a very interesting history. On a personal note, I grew up in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania. In my living room in Massachusetts I have a chunk of anthracite coal. I keep it as a reminder of my youth, I guess. I’m very concerned about the environment, about global warming and related issues. It seems like something of an anachronism to have this chunk of anthracite coal in my living room. But I do point out to people that it is bituminous coal that is usually used in electric generation, so I feel a little bit reprieved.

MR. KELLY: I bet if you look microscopically you will see some ferns or early flora buried in there. You have stored solar energy on your desk.

RML: Absolutely. I used to enjoy that when I was a kid—our playgrounds were deserted coal mines. When I was growing up the coal industry was on the decline in Northeast Pennsylvania, and we used to find our way into mine shafts. It was very interesting to look at the morphology of the coal being pulled out.

Tell us a little more about the National Zoo. I know it involves not only a facility for the public but also a Conservation Biology Institute, which is much larger in terms of physical plant—

MR. KELLY: Yes, the Smithsonian Conservation -Biology Institute is 3,200 acres, as opposed to the 163 acres at the zoo in Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. There are a lot of buildings on that campus, although in terms of both the number of people and the size of the collection it’s smaller. It’s a 100-year-old -facility—an old military post originally intended to breed and train horses for cavalry battles—that we took over in 1976, recognizing the need for an offsite research and breeding program. It’s a gorgeous facility at the top of the Shenandoah Mountains in Shenandoah National Park where we study and breed and understand the sustainability of critically endangered species.

We have also built an undergraduate and graduate training facility for training the next generation. It’s a LEED gold–certified facility that we built in conjunction with George Mason University (GMU), part of the Virginia university system.

RML: There are students onsite?

MR. KELLY: Yes, they do classwork in the morning and field work in the afternoon, with animals and the ecosystem. They work toward their degree in biology or zoology or public policy in terms of biodiversity.

CHF: What interaction do you have with those or other students?

MR. KELLY: I’m out there once or twice a month. I’m not teaching but am on the executive committee that jointly runs the facility with GMU. It’s a very exciting program.

In addition to two undergraduate cohorts every semester, we teach about 15 graduate courses in a two-year rotation cycle. They tend to more intensive, 1- and 2-week courses on everything from GIS and tracking of animals and migration, to microbiology to maximize genetic diversity in small populations of animals, things like that.

RML: Is this available to students beyond George Mason?

MR. KELLY: Only about half the students are GMU students; the rest are from around the world.

CHF: About how many students are there?

MR. KELLY: In the fall semester we have almost 40 undergraduates and in the spring 20 to 30. At the graduate level, we have hundreds of students a year taking short courses there and around the world.

CHF: “Around the world”?

MR. KELLY: Sometimes we teach courses in other parts of the world, such as China or Southeast Asia. Details are on the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation website (

RML: I am also reading about Speedwell. What is the Conservation Carousel?

MR. KELLY: A childhood friend of mine, Mike Messner, is a fellow Georgia Tech grad (he got his degree in civil engineering) who became a hedge fund manager in New York. We were talking and he said he had done well and wanted to help the Smithsonian zoo. I invited him to fund the Conservation Carousel. It was attractive to him because it was an opportunity to both better engage people with our conservation mission and generate revenue for it. The carousel has a net positive cash flow of about a half million dollars a year. Think of it as the equivalent of a $10 million endowment that is adding to the fun and conservation mission of the zoo.

The carousel is 58 American-made hand-carved figures made of sustainable basswood. Every animal is unique to our collection.

As the donor, Mike wanted only two things on the carousel. He didn’t want his own family name on it, he wanted his family foundation name on it: Speedwell. But he asked for two characters. His wife is an equestrian, so he asked for a regular horse—it’s carved in the likeness of her favorite horse. The other is another species that is not endangered, the Georgia Tech yellow jacket.

Two other Georgia Tech graduates, engineers, are involved. One is the former president, John Huffman, of Pepco Energy Services, a local utility that provided the solar panels that power the carousel. And at the time the secretary of the Smithsonian was another Georgia Tech alum, Wayne Clough (NAE), who got his bachelor’s and master’s in civil engineering. We were all there for the dedication, so the first song played on the carousel the first time it went around was the Georgia Tech fight song.

RML: I feel loud applause from the crew. That’s cool.

CHF: So, other than the two you mentioned, they are all endangered species represented on the carousel?


CHF: What are some of those species?

MR. KELLY: Giant pandas, gorillas, Asian elephant, coral. And every one of the critters has a sponsor. My wife and sons sponsored the sloth bear, which is native to India.

CHF: I hate to ask this, but is there room to accommodate more species in danger of extinction?

MR. KELLY: I wish. No.

RML: Dennis, I would like to turn to another issue for a moment. You mentioned that your educational pathway included the GI Bill. It was a very important piece of legislation in this country many years ago. I know there was a post-9/11 version of the GI Bill. Do you have any thoughts on how effective the current version is in terms of providing support for our returning veterans?

MR. KELLY: I do not. I wish I did. Everything I’ve read about the GI Bill that I was fortunate enough to use is that it had a massive positive effect on our nation. And by my own estimate, half the people who graduated with me at Georgia Tech were there because of the GI Bill. Many of us would not have been there without it. I was able to complete Georgia Tech in three years and then apply one year of GI Bill funding to Harvard.

RML: I ask because I have been reading in the press some accounts of what appear to be predatory practices on the part of for-profit universities and colleges. It seems that veterans have been targeted by some of those organizations.

CHF: On a different topic, I wonder whether you might be willing to comment on what happened at the Cincinnati Zoo.1

MR. KELLY: Sure. First, in full disclosure, I am going to be the chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which is the premier accrediting organization in the world for zoos and aquariums.

CHF: Congratulations.

MR. KELLY: It is one of those things that, like your own profession, sometimes as you rise up in the profession it is a mixed blessing. This year it is particularly interesting because every ten years or so the association replaces the executive director due to retirement, so we are recruiting a new executive director. It is both exciting and challenging.

The association has a 40-person staff in Silver Spring, Maryland, that accredits zoos and aquariums, mostly in North America but also in other countries, with what is considered the highest standard of accreditation for aquariums and zoos in the world.

Regarding the Cincinnati tragedy, there are two things I would say. First, I absolutely agree, based on everything I know at this point, with the decision that the director there made. I know that director, and I know the staff. You never really know when you are not there, but in similar circumstances I would have done the same thing. Human life and safety are always our first priority.

The second thing I would say—and this goes to engineering—is that the challenge when we are keeping animals in human care is the safety interface between humans and animals. We are always improving. At my own institution, going back almost four years now, we have been taking exhibits that were unchanged for 30 years and adding safety and security measures to them such that, whether accidentally or by intention, it is very difficult for a human or an animal to be injured. We have reengineered five or six major exhibits that never had an incident for decades, but in an abundance of caution we are reengineering them.

But I want to make sure that people know the main reason that I and the 30,000 people who work in the 233 accredited zoos and aquariums come to work every day is because the animals we care for are in the midst of the sixth great extinction crisis.

According to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, we are losing animals at a thousand times the background rate. It is being called the sixth extinction event of our planet. The last one was 65 million years ago. This one is approaching the same order of magnitude.

CHF: What are the causes of that extreme rise in extinction rate?

MR. KELLY: Humans. We have only set aside and formally reserved about 15 percent of the planet—sometimes the least desirable parts of it—to be completely wild. Another 30–35 percent is semi-wild. The 7.5 billion people on the planet are crowding out the rest of the species and terraforming the planet.

Some of my colleagues at the Smithsonian think that, a couple of hundred years ago, we entered a new epoch, called the Anthropocene period. One species has completely changed forever the sustainability, the nature of our planet.

My colleagues and I are doing our best to help humans not kill off species at the rate we have been killing them off. Think about the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet—all kinds of species that we have been killing off. We are trying to reverse that.

RML: What is it that humans are doing that affects their longevity?

MR. KELLY: Usually it is loss of habitat. Sometimes it is direct intervention. For example, in the 1800s the US government, as a matter of public policy, wanted to control the Native Americans. One of the military strategies was to deplete their food source, the bison. At the turn of the 19th century we had already depleted what we think was a 30-million-head herd of bison down to a few thousand. As a strategy to contain native peoples we proceeded to systematically try to wipe out the rest of the bison.

The Smithsonian actually was involved with recognizing and understanding that in 1888 there were probably less than a thousand North American bison left in the world. They shipped a couple of bison to Washington, and they were the first two animals in the National Zoo.

We are now back up to half a million bison, but many of them have been cross-bred with cattle.

RML: Does climate change play a role in affecting the habitat of the animals you are concerned with?

MR. KELLY: Absolutely. We don’t know what all the impacts of climate change are going to be. But I will give you one example. Here at your National Zoo one of the things we do very well is understand animal disease. As you know, 70 percent of human diseases come from animals—measles, mumps, rubella, Ebola, smallpox, avian influenza. All these are diseases that start in one species and jump to another.

We discovered a disease in frogs called the Chytrid fungus that interferes with respiration through the skin of the frogs. It’s being spread by climate warming and has wiped out, for example, a third of all the frog species in Central America—they’re just gone. Once we discovered this disease we took a lot of species into human care because in a zoo we can protect them from the fungus. We can clean them up, keep their environment safe, and they thrive. But we cannot reintroduce them to the wild.

There are species like the national animal of Panama, the Panamanian golden frog, a beautiful creature about the size of your thumb tip, that today exists only in human care.

CHF: How is climate change contributing to the spread of the frog virus?

MR. KELLY: The fungus can only thrive in a certain temperature band. As the temperature band warms and moves into higher-altitude, cooler areas, the fungus moves with it.

CHF: So the Smithsonian is protecting animals through breeding and disease research and protective cultivation.

MR. KELLY: Yes, and we do a lot of work on assisted reproduction and small population management. I’ll give you an example, it’s a wonderful story of the black-footed ferret, a weasel species native to North America.

As recently as the early 1970s we thought the species had been driven extinct by ranchers’ need to reduce or eliminate prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are the food, the prey of the black-footed ferret. Unintentionally, in poisoning prairie dogs, the ranchers were killing off the black-footed ferrets, which eventually were declared extinct. Then a rancher’s dog in North Dakota brought back a strange animal and the rancher thought it was a common ferret. His wife realized it was a black-footed ferret and called the state biologist. The dog took them back to the last remaining group of those ferrets, which numbered about 20 or 30. But a disease was wiping out the ferrets.

So, like the California condor, the decision was made to bring those remaining animals into human care. Half of them were given to a US Fish and Wildlife facility in Colorado, the other half to us at the Smithsonian. From our group of, I think, eleven, we began to breed back. One of the eleven ferrets was dying when it arrived at our Front Royal facility. Our scientists were able to collect its sperm and cryopreserve it, and 20 years after it died it became a dad. They have now been reintroduced into eight states and three countries and reestablished.

RML: That is a fantastic testimonial of the kinds of things you folks are doing.

CHF: It sounds like your work is both heart-rending and heart-warming to the extent that you are able to succeed in such efforts.

MR. KELLY: There is a lot of technology involved. Right now we are involved in reintroducing the scimitar-horned oryx, which are extinct in the wild in the Southern Sahara (the Sahel). They have been extinct for about 50 years, but were living in American zoos and zoos around the world as well as the United Arab Emirates. We have been working for about a decade and just reintroduced the first 25 of 500 that will go back into their habitat. All of them are fitted with satellite tracking collars so that we can understand what is happening. Are they being predated? Are they being killed by humans? Are they dying of thirst? We are struggling with battery technology to track these animals in the Sahara and areas the size of the state of Rhode Island, but that is what we do in conservation to try and keep species from extinction.

CHF: It must also be a challenge to recreate the conditions of the Sahara in Front Royal, Virginia.

MR. KELLY: Yes, it is. Fortunately, we have partners in Texas and the United Arab Emirates.

RML: I’ve been reading about the concern in agriculture about problems affecting the bee population and pollination of agricultural products. Are you involved with that at all?

MR. KELLY: A little bit. It’s not one of our areas of expertise. But you’re right, it is a huge problem.

RML: Do you speak at universities? How do you make what you are doing known to people who would benefit from it, like the college students we were talking about?

MR. KELLY: We have partnerships all around the world, like our partnership with George Mason University. I think there is lots more work to be done in letting students know that they have an opportunity to be part of a conservation solution.

We are also fortunate that the 233 accredited zoos and aquariums have 183 million visitors a year. So we get incredible penetration of visitation and we use it as a platform.

Almost every zoo and aquarium in our association is a favorite place in its town or city for families with children, and it turns out we’re one of the best places for first dates. One of the reasons is because we’re safe, but we’re also places where ethics and morality are discussed, both consciously and unconsciously, in terms of why we are on this planet and what we can do to serve it.

What we need to do more of is make sure our message gets out. The vast majority of AZA-accredited institutions have shifted their mission toward the urgent crisis of extinction. At the National Zoo, with 2½ million visitors a year, our mission is to save species from extinction.

Right now we have an art installation called Washed Ashore. It is sculptures of animals, 10–15 feet tall, made out of debris from the oceans, mostly plastic waste.

CHF: What are some of the criteria for AZA accreditation?

MR. KELLY: Animal welfare and safety are the two primary ones, but there is also a strong education component and increasingly a strong conservation component. It is an intensive process that occurs every 5 years. There is usually a year’s preparation culminating, in our case, in a 5-day onsite inspection.

CHF: Do you do a lot of international travel?

MR. KELLY: Yes. I have been deeply involved in the giant panda program for about 14 years, so I find myself in China usually once a year. And we just signed a relationship with India to help them upgrade their zoos, which are much more tightly controlled by the government. The government has been systematically shutting down small for-profit zoos and building up the nonprofit zoos with a focus on conservation. I have a team that just got back from India, and I was there myself a month ago.

Our scientists are working in about 25 countries around the world on various issues related to conservation. We are part of a network, whether it is the World Wildlife Fund or Wildlife Conservation Society out of New York, or Conservation International, the Zoological Society of London, or the San Diego Zoo Global, or the Singapore zoos or Australian zoos. We are all working feverishly to try and save species from extinction.

RML: Does politics enter into any of the conversations? Politics related to global climate change or any other aspect of the things that are happening?

MR. KELLY: Sure. We will be attending a global capstone congress associated with biodiversity, the International Union of Conservation of Nature, a United Nations organization. Its meeting is this fall in Hawaii. Between 15 and 20 of our scientists will be there working on those global issues. We also are bound by the CITES treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.

A lot of my colleagues get involved on issues like ivory. In 2013, 96 elephants a day were being killed for their ivory. That number has been cut in half, but still about 50 elephants a day are killed for their ivory. This practice has brought the African elephant population down from over a million to fewer than 300,000 African elephants.

RML: Are there equivalent organizations in areas where there has been great unrest, for example in Syria or Iraq, that part of the world? If so, how are they managing all of this?

MR. KELLY: The living collections unfortunately are usually decimated or moved out fairly quickly. My colleagues at the Smithsonian work on preserving the history and culture of countries, whether it is Haiti after the earthquake or Syria.

The Smithsonian cares for 146 million things. We are very good at curating living and dead things forever. It is wonderful to be part of such a sterling organization as the Smithsonian that works on preservation. Part of the difference with the National Zoo is that our things are living and we need to make sure that they stay living and stay robust as species.

RML: I said when we began this conversation that we were interested in engineers who are affecting the culture of the nation. But it is clear that what you do affects the culture not only of the nation but the world—in terms of the young people who visit your zoo, the scientists and engineers who are involved in the conservation effort, and the help to nature that you provide by researching some of the conservation issues.

MR. KELLY: One of our challenges is that we know we are losing biodiversity on our planet, the biodiversity that we evolved with over the last 7 million years. We as a species are very young. But if we are losing the biodiversity of the planet that we coevolved with over the past 7 million years, it is going to impact our air, our water, our food, our fiber. There are consequences to the loss of biodiversity that we don’t even know yet.

Our belief, as people who think in terms of processes and systems, is that the loss of biodiversity is going to have negative unintended consequences on our planet and on the ability of our planet to sustain the species that we coevolved with. That is why we are fighting so hard to preserve biodiversity.

I direct you to the story of Yellowstone when they reintroduced the grey wolf. It’s a terrific story. When they reintroduced the grey wolf back into Yellowstone, the elk, which had been free-ranging all over the park, went back to their normal nature of staying closer in smaller herds to protect themselves from predation. When they did that they were forced to stay away from the streams and not eat the tender willow shoots and other tree species coming up. Those trees came back. And when they did the beaver came back, and when the beavers came back they began to terraform the streams and the trout came back.

So when the wolf came back, through this cascade of impacts came unintended consequences of restoring native trout back to streams where they had been extinct for decades.

RML: One of my favorite topics these days is the unintended consequences of science and engineering. Usually they are considered adverse. What you have just described is a great demonstration of unintended consequences that are for everyone’s benefit.

CHF: As we near the conclusion of our conversation, Dennis, is there any message that you might like to convey to the NAE members or Congress or any of the 7,000 readers of The Bridge?

MR. KELLY: I would say that I do think the loss of biodiversity, and the fact that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction, is going to require innovative solutions. I think engineers and scientists have a unique responsibility to help solve and mitigate these problems of loss of biodiversity. I believe the loss of biodiversity is going to make our planet less habitable, less sustainable, and we all have to work together.

RML: That is a great message.

CHF: Thank you.

MR. KELLY: I have enjoyed talking with you all.


1 On May 28 a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla named Harambe was killed by zoo staff to protect a 4-year-old boy who had slipped through a barrier and fallen into a moat in the gorilla compound.

About the Author:Dennis Kelly is the director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.