I did both my undergrad and my graduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and my actual research was done at an institute called the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) so it’s focused on disease research and vaccine development in humans and animals.
My work was on prion diseases and Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis, and while I was there I developed a tool to study cellular signaling. Basically, the phosphorylation dependent signaling that happens inside cells. The tool already existed for humans and mice, but part of my work was adapting it to cattle and other agricultural species.
From there, I went to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in College Station, Texas. I was part of a food safety unit, but our perspective was modulating the immune system in animals in some way so the animal could fight off disease to make the food products safer for people.
Predominantly, we were looking at Salmonella contamination from infected chickens. We tried to limit that by understanding and modulating the immune responses in the gut.
How did you hear about this position and UD?
My position at USDA was a postdoctoral position so I knew that it was always going to be temporary. I had been on the hunt across North America for positions and for the next thing and this one at UD came up. It was perfect because the description was food animal biologist and it involved both the biology of animals and the food safety aspect, linking the two components of this department, animal science and food science.
I had done the food safety aspect from the animal biology side so it seemed like a perfect fit and luckily I got the job.
How did you get interested in animals and animal disease?
I actually grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan so I have been around animals since the day I was born. It is interesting because even though the University of Saskatchewan is a major agricultural university in Canada, the department where I did both my undergrad and my graduate degree, biochemistry, was actually part of the college of medicine. But the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, where I did my research, had historically been an animal research unit that had transitioned more into human medicine. My transition was sort of gradual in moving from purely a biochemistry perspective in the college of medicine to researching zoonotic animal disease at VIDO and then jumping into USDA where it was strictly animals. So it was a sort of subtle transition but by design I guess.
What are your impressions of UD and CANR?
All positive. The University is great and everyone I’ve met has been great. The campus is very nice and having the farm right here is a big advantage, especially being on the east coast. I really like how the college and department are set up: I find it an advantage that there is no veterinary school at UD because the Department of Animal and Food Sciences gets to do all the animal infectious disease research. In a lot of universities with a veterinary school, it’s very segregated and the animal science departments don’t get to touch disease work because that’s the veterinary realm. But this is great because you have a lot more freedom to do that kind of work. It is also a big advantage for the undergraduates in the department, because they get that research exposure.
What are you most looking forward to about the job?
A lot of things. I’m working on getting the lab set up in Worrilow Hall so I’m excited to get back in the lab and start to bring some graduate students in. To get them in my lab and doing some science, that will be fun. It’s nice to be back in academia. After working for the government for the past few years, I missed the university environment and the interaction with students.
What will you be studying in your lab?
It will be centered around cell signaling but it will include a few different components.
I will continue with the infectious disease work, I want to continue with the host/pathogen research with chickens as well as cattle, initially. A lot of this research is centered on gut health and the microbiome which will continue.
I transitioned at the USDA into looking at a more integrated approach between metabolism and immunity and the connections between the two. Metabolism and immunity are both often regulated by cell signaling and there’s a lot of interactions which a lot of people don’t think about. How certain immune responses are dependent on changes in metabolism or how metabolism can be affected by the mounting of an immune response, or an inflammatory response, it totally changes the metabolism of the cells in the tissue. So I’m looking at integrating those and hopefully that will help develop both novel targets for disease, where you can target metabolic machinery rather than immune machinery, and also help with the balance between growth and immunity in animals. We’ve focused a lot on growing a bigger chicken or growing it faster and sometimes that comes at the expense of how well it’s able to fight off disease. To try and get that balance back in animal agriculture is sort of a broad overview of what I’m looking at.
Do you have any interesting hobbies outside of work?
One thing that I am interested in doing again is getting back into curling. I did that a lot when I was in Canada and then I moved to Texas, where it obviously doesn’t exist, and so I’ve seen there’s a few curling clubs in the region so I’m thinking about getting back into that.
Article by Adam Thomas