Cornell University: Students bring animal science to the public

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This summer, visitors to Ithaca’s Sciencenter, a hands-on children’s museum, took part in a special exhibit – an animal agriculture playscape – made possible by a new collaboration between the museum, the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Cortland and Cornell’s Department of Animal Science.

Children fitted parts of a model cow’s stomach together like a puzzle; manipulated trays and jars of cow feed; examined cows’ digestive fluids through a microscope; and even peered into and put their hands inside a live fistulated cow – Cornell’s Sunny.

The July 14 event was part of a research grant from the National Science Foundation, awarded to Joseph McFadden ‘03, associate professor of dairy cattle biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and Amanda Davis, Ph.D. ‘20, assistant professor of biological sciences at SUNY Cortland, that sets an additional goal of educating the public about sustainable animal agriculture and dispelling misconceptions about the role science plays.

“Biotechnologies may be a good way to improve the efficiency of domestic animal food production and help reduce environmental impact,” said Davis. “But there are misconceptions about them in the public sphere. This project gives us a great opportunity to explain what we’re trying to do and show people what sustainable animal agriculture looks like.”

In preparation for the event, two SUNY Cortland biological sciences students, funded through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) supplement to the research grant, as well as 14 Cornell undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, participated in two workshops held by the Sciencenter on how to communicate science to the public. A smaller group, led by the SUNY Cortland students, then planned and implemented interactive exhibits at the Sciencenter as well as at the Ithaca Farmers Market.

Exhibits demonstrated how the efficiency of milk production has increased over time due to improvements in management, genetics, nutrition, and biotechnologies, while reducing the resources required and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Others showed how cows’ feed consists of many industry byproducts that would otherwise be thrown away. At the Sciencenter event, bringing Sunny the cow, who has a cannula, or porthole, fitted in her side, allowed visitors to see and feel inside her rumen, the first of four chambers of the cow’s digestive system, and to learn about the importance of the cannula as a research tool.

“We want to bring awareness to the fact that on the research side, we’re really working hard to improve efficiency and the health of the animals,” said Ananda Fontoura, Ph.D. ‘22, a postdoctoral researcher in McFadden’s lab. “There’s a lot of research and thought that goes into the products that are put to market, and we all want the same thing. We want a better environment and good quality, affordable food, and that’s what we’re all working towards.”

Cornell impacting New York State
As the children played and explored, participants said they had fruitful conversations with the caregivers as well – even vegan parents, who chose not to consume dairy products.

“That was one of the most rewarding moments for me,” Fontoura said. “Being challenged and having a really good conversation about the environmental impacts of these different choices we make – opening that dialogue.”

For rising SUNY Cortland senior Serenity Jean, the events also gave her confidence, and joy. “Learning and communicating what you’ve learned is a good way to see if you really know what you’re talking about,” she said. “It also just made me really happy to see the kids looking under the microscope and saying, ‘wow.’ They were really understanding more, and maybe that changes or influences their energy towards farmers and scientists.”

The outreach events were part of an eight-week summer program, funded with the REU grant, for the two SUNY Cortland students to learn about and communicate animal science. They took part in research under the guidance of Davis and McFadden and participated in journal clubs and workshops led by McFadden, Davis, and CALS’ Xingen Lei, professor of animal science, Kristan Reed, assistant professor of animal science, and Dale Bauman, professor emeritus of animal science. At farm visits, they learned about how a dairy farm operates, sustainability initiatives, and even saw a cow in labor.

“It really opened my eyes,” said Jean, who wants to become a veterinarian. “Some people may think that research on these animals is doing them harm, but it’s helping them, and it’s helping the environment. I also saw how farmers really love and care for their animals, and it makes sense – if their animals are stressed or don’t have good living conditions, they’re not going to produce. If you’re hurting them, you’re hurting yourself.”

“We don’t have an animal science department at Cortland, so to watch the students see how the process works for the first time is very rewarding,” Davis said. “They were milking sheep and seeing how the farms are run, and they had never experienced anything like that before. Then you see them learning all of this information and effectively communicating it to the public – it was really exciting.”

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