Ken Burtis to Receive Distinguished Emeriti Award

Association Cites His Efforts on Behalf of Healthy Davis Together

Ken Burtis, unmasked, outside, in front of sign on building: "Genome and Biomedical Science Facility"
Ken Burtis: Distinguished Emeriti Award recipient for 2021-22, for his “essential contributions” to Healthy Davis Together. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Quick Summary

  • Contributed as a scientist and administrator to fight against COVID-19
  • Helped set up campus’s testing program and expand it into community
  • Healthy Davis Together won national recognition for crisis response

Ken Burtis, professor emeritus of genetics, has been named the recipient of UC Davis’ Distinguished Emeriti Award for 2021-22, recognized by the Emeriti Association for “essential contributions” to Healthy Davis Together before and after his retirement.

Burtis, whose “official” career spanned 32 years, played an integral role in establishing the university’s asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program and subsequently expanding it through Healthy Davis Together to the city and other parts of Yolo County, acknowledging that the campus, to stay healthy, needed to have healthy neighbors, given the movement of people between campus and community.

In announcing the Distinguished Emeriti Award, the Emeriti Association applauded Burtis for his “courageous, humanitarian efforts to monitor and contain this COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Your efforts have had a strikingly significant impact on the lives of our students, staff, faculty and residents of the Davis community,” the association said. “As a result, in retirement, you continue to bring state and national attention to the university.” Indeed, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities last July chose UC Davis as one of two inaugural winners of the APLU Research Response to a Community in Crisis Award.

Chief operating officer

Burtis’ time at UC Davis goes back to 1972 when he enrolled as a freshman. He graduated with a degree in biochemistry in 1976, then worked for three years as a research associate on campus before going off to Stanford for his Ph.D. He joined the faculty of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology in 1988 and would eventually become dean of the newly established College of Biological Sciences, serving for six years. He moved into central campus leadership in 2011, serving as faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost, and, at various times, as interim and acting provost and executive vice chancellor.

As a UC Davis alumnus, who returned to UC Davis as a faculty member in 1988, Ken has consistently shown academic excellence, quiet leadership and service above self. — UC Davis Emeriti Association

With the beginning of the pandemic in early spring of 2020, just a few months before his retirement, Burtis put his scientific and administrative skills to work, collaborating with the Genome Center (where he had served as the associate director) and the Department of Public Health Sciences to develop testing protocols and assemble the extensive infrastructure needed to test an entire campus.

“These efforts placed UC Davis in the enviable position of maintaining campus operations at a very high level, compared to almost all other universities, and became a national model for rapid low-cost testing on college campuses,” the Emeriti Association said in its announcement.

Ken Burtis, in mask, portrait, amid stacks of COVID-19 test specimens in tubes
Burtis sits amid trays of saliva-filled tubes ready for testing at the Genome Center. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

“Coinciding with Ken’s retirement, as soon as it became clear that the on-campus testing program would be successful, plans were made to extend rapid and affordable saliva-based testing into the community of Davis. This expanded testing would become the core component of Health Davis Together.”

And Burtis, though having officially retired by this time, would become the first chief operating officer for the city-campus partnership.

‘Great champion of the campus’

Distinguished Professor Richard Michelmore, director of the Genome Center, who has known Burtis since he joined the faculty, said, “He has always impressed me as a great champion of the campus and always willing to serve its goals. Therefore, it was no surprise when he stepped up to help lead Healthy Davis Together.


“Although he was nominally retired, it was not unusual for us to be at several meetings together during the day and then in a Zoom meeting late in the evening. I can very confidentially say that HDT and the successful partnership between the city of Davis and campus would not have happened without Ken’s tireless efforts.”

The Emeriti Association pointed out that Healthy Davis Together is more than a testing operation, noting the program’s role in adding investigators and contact tracers, supplying free masks and other protective equipment to local businesses, and, for the general public, giving advice and incentives for healthy practices. HDT also provided incentives to students to shop locally.

“These activities required tremendous coordination between campus and local government and county public health officials, where a complex interplay exists between scientific, financial as well as political considerations. As chief operating officer, Ken played a crucial role in this coordination.”

‘Model response’

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Croughan, trained in public health and epidemiology, also had high praise for Burtis.

“The positive impacts of these efforts, and others too numerous to cite, should not be underestimated,” Croughan said. “Healthy Davis Together has played a key role in enabling the healthy resumption of in-person education and work this fall, and it was commonly cited by parents and students alike as the reason they chose UC Davis over other universities.

“Moreover, HDT provided significant economic benefits to the Davis community as we ensured that businesses continued to thrive. Finally, HDT has also provided a model response to COVID-19 that other institutions and communities can now study and learn from.”

The Emeriti Association will present Burtis’ award, including a plaque and $1,000, during the Academic Staff and Retiree Luncheon, April 20.

Media Resources

Dateline Staff: Dave Jones, editor, 530-752-6556,; Cody Kitaura, News and Media Relations specialist, 530-752-1932,

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