Ryan Nelson - Sick Sheep Study

Ryan Nelson at Utah State Capitol

Sick Sheep Study Herded to State Capitol
Philosophy major Ryan Nelson takes his research from the lab to other pastures.

Ask philosophy major Ryan Nelson why it was a fantastic opportunity to present animal science research on a large stage– Utah’s Capitol Hill – and the answer is simple.

“Until you’ve had the opportunity to produce research, you don’t have a solid grasp and understanding of what you’re getting into,” Nelson said. “It’s so important to have as you’re going into the world – a bridge and transition from the classroom to a professional setting.”

Since fall of 2009, Nelson has been doing research in conjunction with his mentor, College of Agriculture Dean and UAES Director Noelle Cockett, and Tracy Hadfield, a researcher in the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences, regarding resistance to parasite infection in crossbreeds of two types of sheep: Gulf Coast Natives and Suffolks.

Gastrointestinal parasites are very detrimental to sheep production and can be costly to treat. Identifying breeds that are genetically resistant to parasites would be an economic benefit to producers and consumers.

Louisiana State University has created a sheep flock selected for genes that control parasite resistance. Cockett’s lab has a longstanding reputation for work in sheep genetics. Cockett, Hadfield and Nelson have worked with LSU to develop the study’s findings.

Early on, the study involved examining parasite eggs counts in sheep feces. Yes, researchers had to examine stuff inside poop to discover vital information. Fortunately for the USU part of the research team, their work didn’t include doing the egg counts, Nelson said.

For Cockett, there were some unexpected bumps in the road.

The thing that surprises me is how difficult this has been,” she said. “There are many environmental effects that are clouding the genetics and therefore, the number of animals we have may not be sufficient. We’ve had to try many different approaches, yet each one is giving a different answer, suggesting that the genetic effects are very small.”

Hadfield remarked that each part of the team brought different aspects of the research to the table.

“They realized we had some things they couldn’t do without related to the study,” she said. “I’m not going to brag that we made the study possible, but they definitely needed us while we needed help from them too. It has definitely been a positive and needed collaboration.”

Cockett supported Nelson’s efforts to present the research to notable state legislators and others because it is was a fantastic opportunity for him to grow in several ways.

“‘Research on the Hill’ presents an opportunity for students to explain their research to people who know very little about it,” Cockett said. “It’s an early lesson that not everyone is as passionate or knowledgeable about the project as they are. “(Students) have to think in layman’s terms when they describe it and they need to convince people that it has value”

It’s a presentation that demands students step out of their lab coats and into a teaching situation when it comes to defining complex terms. Nelson said the highlight of his visit to the capitol was unexpectedly presenting his research to passersby of the junior high age group.

Nelson said the experience as a whole let him build on one of his passions, even though animal research seems like an odd fit for a philosophy major.

“I love science,” he said. “I think a lot of people wonder how philosophy works with pre-med classes. But I think (majoring in philosophy) is a fantastic way to set a good foundation to approach science by learning how to reason things out.”

Video interview of Ryan Nelson at Research on the Hill

Ryan Nelson, USU Scholar, Idaho Falls, ID
Noelle Cockett, Faculty Mentor, Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences

Writer: Rhett Wilkinson