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Published on Tue, 11/03/2015 - 12:13pm

Animal Science Study at Tennessee Gives Students Edge

By Maura Keller, photo by Rich Maxey

In a rapidly changing agricultural environment where information can drastically impact the industry in positive and negative ways, it is important for young people interested in animal sciences to participate in robust college and graduate level programs.

Dr. Neal Schrick, department head and professor at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s Department of Animal Science in Knoxville, understands the impact industry requirements, advances in technology, shifting demographics, and consumer interests can have on the agricultural industry. And he’s working hard, along with his colleagues in the Animal Science program at the University, to educate and prepare students to succeed in this ever-changing industry.

A Growing Interest

With more than 600 undergraduates and 25 graduate students, the Department of Animal Science at the University of Tennessee is going strong. In addition to MS and PhD programs, the department offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science with three possible concentrations, namely, Animal Industries, BioScience, and Pre-Veterinary Medicine.

“Our undergraduate student base is primarily from Tennessee, with about 90+ percent of students from in-state,” Schrick says. While the majority of their incoming undergraduate students are focused on pre-veterinary medicine, only a handful are actually accepted into the very competitive veterinary medicine field after completing their Animal Science degree.

So Schrick and his team emphasize, early on, that students be flexible, exploring a myriad of options within the animal sciences arena.

“We work very closely with students to help them learn about and understand the importance of developing their portfolio from day one,” Schrick says. “They need to develop their portfolio in animal science for their career — keeping in mind their path may change along the way.”

The Department of Animal Science emphasizes one-on-one advising, with each student assigned a faculty advisor who helps them focus on the need to develop a robust portfolio that showcases the extensive experience they gain at the University of Tennessee. In addition, the program offers a wealth of internships and activities that will round out a portfolio for their chosen career.

“Even though many of the students are focused on pre-veterinary medicine as their career choice, we want them to look at career options A, B, C, D and so on, as well,” Schrick says. “We have about 95 percent of students who come in as pre-vet and only 20 percent will actually get into veterinary medicine programs, so they need to explore their options.”

Those students who choose the path of animal industries, for example, can explore career options and participate in courses and internships that expose them to agribusiness, production agriculture, and other animal-oriented professions. In addition, students can complement their core focus with minors in food science, food and agricultural business, business administration, communications studies, information studies and technology, and journalism and electronic media.

“Family and consumer science classes are not very popular in high schools anymore. There is an educational gap between the farm and the table. So teaching these kids to be able to communicate to the general public is paramount,” Schrick says. “If they can’t communicate the importance of animal agriculture, especially beef, we are going to be out of business very soon—considering so much information on the Internet argues that these foods are bad for you. We need these young people to communicate to the general public what is real and what is not.”

For those students interested in BioSciences, the University’s animal sciences program provides a wealth of opportunities to explore areas such as allied health, research, quality control, and laboratory technology.

“Many students who begin as pre-veterinary majors are not accepted into vet school for one reason or another. This does not mean they cannot pursue a different career path in agriculture,” Schrick says. “We have many students who come in with an agriculture background who want to go back to the farm, or work elsewhere in the agriculture industry. For those students, the department requires an internship. We want students to look outside their normal comfort zone.”

In addition to a wealth of internship opportunities, the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center directed by Dr. Bobby Simpson offers experiential learning where students live on site and cover their rent by working at plant science, dairy, beef, organic farms, and an intensive animal research facility for a month at a time. “They are certainly well-rounded when they leave our program,” Schrick says. Other students may engage in internships for corporations, associations, laboratories, zoos, or other organizations. These internships help prepare our students for life after college.

“A lot of these kids don’t want to be hundreds of miles away from home, but we stress the importance of experiencing things outside their comfort zone,” Schrick says. “If they want to be in pre-vet, we help them as much as we can but also tell them we can’t take chemistry for you. If you don’t make it as pre-vet, you can stay in animal science. There are a lot of other careers open to our graduates.”

The University’s interest in these students involves the concept of “filling the pipeline”— finding students who will complete Masters or PhD programs and continue to fill the needs of the industry. Finding graduate students who have that farm knowledge outside the textbook and who understand the dynamics of molecular research is difficult. Finding and recruiting that recent graduate who can perform translational research and take what is learned in the lab to the “real world” is rare.

“This is becoming harder and harder as the number of people with agriculture backgrounds is shrinking,” Schrick says. “We need people who are interested in molecular biology, but we also need people who are focused on production agriculture. This is more and more important as the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by the year 2050. We want our students to have a lot of research experience in the lab. This makes them more marketable and/or prepared to pursue graduate studies.”

Evolution

The department is going through a major transition of sorts, with many faculty retiring and new faculty being hired.

“We are striving to bring in young faculty, as they are focused on production but they are also top scientists in the basic sciences. They are pushing the students really hard,” Schrick says. “In today’s animal science and agriculture industry, what you are seeing is that agriculture is becoming more integrated with such concepts as GPS, GMO, genomics, and such. Our faculty are coming in with this knowledge, which is really important for getting these kids ready for their next career.”

The University of Tennessee program has almost doubled in size since Schrick became department head in November 2011. Interestingly, nearly 80 percent of students coming into the Animal Science program are female — clear evidence that the interest in farm management and the animal science industry is shifting.

“In Tennessee we are seeing a lot of interest in animal agriculture by women in 4-H and FFA,” Schrick says. “We also have students who are two or three generations off the farm and show an interest early on.”

In addition to exposing students to the agriculture and animal science industries with first-hand experiences, the department strives to develop its students to become the next generation of leaders in the industry.

“We encourage them to be active in clubs, judging teams, and associations. We continue to push them,” Schrick says. “They need to understand the basics about animal production and where it is going in the future and be able to communicate that to others. They need to lead this industry. They need to be able to explain and share with others, not only where the food comes from, but how it got to the table. I’m always reminding our students that the second word in Animal Science is ‘Science’ so think like a scientist who can communicate animal science and animal production to the general public.”

As the future continues to evolve within the animal sciences industry, UT Animal Science offers leading-edge curriculum that is preparing students for the exciting fields that are open to them within industry.

For more information about the University of Tennessee’s Animal Science program, visit
ag.tennessee.edu/animalscience.