Faculty in the Department of Animal Sciences study every stage of the life cycle to optimize animal health, well-being and product quality. The spring 2018 dedication of the department’s new facilities has increased and improved the ease of departmental collaboration and provides new opportunities for hands-on experiences for students, animal industry stakeholders and members of the general public. (Barbecue Boot Camp, anyone?) Read on to learn more about the breadth of animal sciences research happening in the College of Agriculture and how the new complex is supporting that work.
By Stacey Mickelbart | Photos by Charles Jischke
Kara Stewart, assistant professor, works on reproductive technologies that produce healthy animals, helping to populate the pen. She trains students and producers on artificial insemination techniques; studies how the antibodies in early milk, called colostrum, help piglets thrive; and collaborates with the swine team on heat stress research by examining how temperature impacts semen production. “I like the interpretive part of how we make science into something usable for people,” she says.
The animal holding facilities of the Purina Pavilion allow her to host demonstrations for breeders and provide more lab teaching time with students when animals can be brought in from the farm. Her passion is providing students with positive experiences with pigs, but we snagged these photos as she led an insemination lab with dairy cattle.
Jon Schoonmaker, associate professor, is focused on nutrition. He studies how different feed components and additives such as yeast, distillers grains (an ethanol byproduct) and microalgae affect muscle and fat development in cattle. His most recent research aims to decrease antibiotic use with alternatives like probiotics and to improve gut health to decrease the need for antibiotics. He teaches ruminant nutrition and praises his hardworking graduate students, citing how the new shared lab and graduate student office space in the Hobart and Russell Creighton Hall of Animal Sciences has benefited departmental interaction. “There’s just more communication, more sharing, maybe even more awareness of what others are doing and how you can plug into it.”
Candace Croney leads a team that recently received almost $2 million to study the welfare of dogs and puppies in commercial breeding kennels. But her early research on farm animals like sheep, cattle and pigs enhanced her understanding of how welfare approaches in agriculture could be applied to companion animal industries, explains the professor of animal behavior and well-being and director of Purdue’s Center for Animal Welfare Science (CAWS). She has a joint appointment in animal sciences and veterinary medicine.
Croney cites several animal sciences faculty affiliated with CAWS, including assistant professors Marisa Erasmus, who works on poultry well-being, and Brianna Gaskill, who studies how model animal environments can affect scientific results. She is also excited about collaborating with CAWS member Nicole Widmar, professor and associate head of agricultural economics, on how public perceptions of animal welfare relate to corporate social responsibility and ethical consumerism. Croney is likewise interested in how our companion animal relationships influence our understanding of farm animal welfare. “The animal welfare question is all about people: what they value, what they believe, what they think matters and how they interact with animals as result.
Shihuan Kuang, professor, conducts research on how stem cells function in muscle and fat tissue, which can be applied to animal growth and meat quality, but also to human health. His animal research on brown fat cells that burn lipids, versus white fat cells that store energy, is now part of a Purdue-based startup (founded by Meng Deng, assistant professor of agricultural & biological engineering) to help treat human obesity and diabetes. In two current projects funded by the National Institutes of Health, he’s studying how deregulation of a signaling molecule in fat cells can cause them to degenerate into tumor cells, as well as how a tumor suppressor gene plays a key role in muscle stem cell function.
His lab includes a new animal climate chamber, and he thinks that sharing core equipment makes it easier to recruit interdisciplinary life sciences students. “Now we have this facility that people walk into and see that it’s great."
Brad Kim, assistant professor, brings us one step closer to the plate, studying the biochemical mechanisms related to flavor, tenderness, color and juiciness — all keys to postharvest meat quality. He has collaborated on the impact of heat stress on meat quality and currently has USDA funding to explore how natural dry-aging processes can improve the meat quality of older culled cows. (That dry-aging meat is shown here.) He is also studying how the compounds released in the “purge” — the liquid that meat releases in its packaging — can help identify both the cut of meat in the package and the amount of time it has aged. He’s working with engineering faculty to develop a smartphone-based sensor to test the purge for these biomarkers of freshness. “This is the beauty of collaboration,” says Kim, “in the department and an interdisciplinary environment in general.”
THE TEST KITCHEN
The new sensory evaluation lab and test kitchen in the Land O’Lakes, Inc. Center for Experiential Learning allow Brad Kim to recruit and develop sensory and consumer panels for research, which he used to convene in other campus facilities. We had fun photographing the sensory lab with help from graduate student Melissa Davis, who cooked the meat, and Kyle Reichard, a junior in animal sciences who presented the sample.
THE BOILER BUTCHER BLOCK
“Not many universities in the world have an abattoir on campus,” says Brad Kim, assistant professor. “This is giving hands-on experience to our students, which is something that we need to be proud of and thankful for.” Students learn to process animals and prepare cuts of meat for the Boilermaker Butcher Block, a state-inspected meat plant, with supervision from manager Blaine Brown and meat cutter Gary Waters. Students like Mariah Huge, a junior in animal sciences, help members of the public pick the perfect cut Wednesday through Friday afternoons.
Stacy Zuelly, assistant professor, teaches classes in animal growth, development and evaluation; meat science; and animal products. But you might meet her at BBQ Boot Camp, where she shares the best cuts and cooking techniques for a great meat experience. Her dedication to engagement encompasses younger students in and outside of traditional agriculture groups, Indiana producers (big and small) and consumers. “One of the many reasons I love meat science is because we are the bridge between animal agriculture and food,” she explains.
The new meat science facilities provide more dedicated teaching room, she says, where all her students can fit in one processing room. The day we snapped this photo, Zuelly had hosted a National FFA career and development event in the Purina Pavilion with the top meats students from 42 states, but she still threw some beef on the grill for the perfect ending.