equine research opportunities for undergrads

As a land–grant institution, one of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) key missions is to facilitate learning through hands-on experience, expand knowledge through transformational research, and prepare its students of today to be the scientists of tomorrow.

Students who participate in research can breakout of the normal classroom routine and apply their learning in new ways. Students gain hands-on skills by going into laboratories, pastures, and barns with research faculty that ultimately can translate into meaningful work in a future career.

Undergraduate students at UK have an unparalleled opportunity to participate in equine research though the Gluck Equine Research Center; the College of Engineering; the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment; and many other departments. Undergrads can take part in equine research on topics including nutrition, parasitology, facility design, racetrack surfaces, endocrinology, immunology, musculoskeletal science, plant and soil science, and more. Here’s a look at how some students are jumping into equine research during their undergraduate studies.

New Equine Surgical Tools

Kayla Danicki, a senior majoring in biosystems and agricultural engineering and minoring in biomedical engineering, is working with Mick Peterson, PhD, director of UK Ag Equine Programs, as an undergraduate researcher.

Danicki, who has an interest in animal biomechanics, has been working with Peterson on to develop an equine surgical tool, which she recently presented to her peers and renowned equine surgeon Elizabeth Santschi DVM, Dipl. ACVS, professor of Equine Surgery at the Kansas State University Veterinary Health Center.

Santschi initially approached Peterson about the project. “She asked if we could work with her on this, and I said I needed to find the right person,” he said.

Danicki noted, “The biggest thing that I have learned from my time as an undergraduate researcher is what it is like to be a research-based engineer. Within engineering, there are two types of engineers: engineers who work in the field and engineers who conduct research. Through my hands-on experience, I have learned that working as either type of engineer would be a good fit for me because I have completed tasks that would apply to both types.”

Equine Parasitology Advancements

Martin Nielsen, DVM, PhD, Dipl. EVPC, ACVM, associate professor at the Gluck Equine Research Center, who supervises four graduate students and around 10 undergraduates each year, typifies the passion many faculty have about being an integral part of the undergraduate experience.

“Supervising undergraduate students doing research projects is one of my most rewarding tasks,” he said.

Nielsen works with his students to create meaningful research projects that not only seek to find answers to a question but will also help them improve their skills and provide hands-on research experience.

“Typically, I ask the student to think about some project ideas and do some reading before they meet with me,” he said. “Then, during our subsequent discussions, we identify a project that may be more or less related to their initial idea. I then ask the student to work out a study protocol and we again meet to discuss.

“Eventually, they proceed with executing the study, generating the data, analyzing and interpreting the data, and finally writing the report.”

Nielsen said his goal is to expose students to research and show them how good research ideas take time, collaboration, and discussion.

In his lab, Nielsen said he works hard to foster a healthy learning environment where he and his graduate and undergraduate students work together to get a true experience of working as part of a dynamic research laboratory with several on-going activities.

“I never stop being impressed by these young people who show up with a great attitude just wanting to learn as much as possible,” he said.

Jamie Norris, a current parasitology graduate student at the Gluck Center, was once an undergraduate researcher. He found his passion for research while working extensively in Nielsen’s laboratory beginning in 2013. Norris was looking to fulfill his internship requirement for his degree in animal science with an equine specialization at UK. Norris met with Nielsen and, very soon after, began working in his lab.

“This, in a broad sense, exposed me to a new possibility which I hadn’t really considered for what to pursue after graduation,” Norris said. “It allowed me to experience what it was really like being able to put to use some of the information that I had acquired as an undergrad and to be able to apply creativity and abstract thought to questions arising from working in Dr. Nielsen’s lab.”

Undergraduate students involved in research are encouraged to share their work with fellow students, publish their findings, or present at academic conferences. And, while working in the laboratory as an undergrad, Norris had the chance to present his research at the American Association of Veterinary Parasitologists conference.

Norris recalled that it was intimidating to meet such influential people in his field. But, after attending the same conference as a graduate student, he said the connections he made the first time helped him network with more industry professionals the second.

Nielsen requires his undergraduate students to submit written reports upon completion of their research project(s). As a result, a large proportion of his students have subsequently published their work in peer-reviewed scientific journals, which Nielsen said is a tremendous accomplishment for an undergraduate.

As an undergraduate, Norris published his study, “Determination of the specific gravity of eggs of equine strongylids, Parascaris spp.,and Anoplocephala perfoliata,” in Veterinary Parasitology. He will be publishing another report on studies from his undergraduate career in the near future.

Looking back, Norris said he believes beginning to work in Nielsen’s lab was a pivotal time in his life.

“I don’t think I would have considered graduate school as an option had I not worked for Dr. Nielsen,” he said.

Norris is now pursuing his doctorate under the direction of Dan Howe, PhD, professor and molecular parasitologist at the Gluck Center.

All Hands On Deck

Kristine Urschel, PhD, associate professor in the UK Department of Animal and Food Sciences and director of undergraduate studies for the equine science and management undergraduate degree program, believes undergraduate research should be assessable to all students. She herself maintains an open door policy, where any student who wants to learn is welcome.

Urschel’s undergraduates can be found working in the lab or with horses at UK’s Maine Chance Farm. She said undergraduate research allows students to get hand-on experience working in laboratories and with faculty members. Students gain confidence in lab skills, horse-handling, troubleshooting, thinking on their feet, and experimental design, as well as learning the importance of following protocol, all of which students can use in their future careers or graduate studies.

She said she believes that undergraduate research makes students more marketable to graduate school programs and future employers because it shows that the student has a good understanding of research. It also allows students the opportunity to decide if research is a path they’d like to follow.

“I’d at least encourage them to come out and watch, see what’s going on, and talk to a variety of researchers,” Urschel said.

Students who want to get involved with research but might not have a lot of time due to classes are still welcome to join in Urschel’s efforts through helping with animal husbandry, collecting samples, and running lab work, she said. Those who want to be more involved with research can implement it into their coursework through experiential learning, internship experiences, or independent study courses, she said.

These students often work with their professor(s) to create a plan for how they will be involved in the ongoing research happening in the lab, or they might create their own project designed in conjunction with their professor.

“We rarely ever have the problem of too many hands,” Urschel said, adding that she welcomes any student who is interested in finding more about equine research.

Students often find out about research opportunities through academic advisors, faculty, or staff who help plan coursework and connect them with research faculty. If a student is interested in getting involved, they are encouraged to contact their advisor or visit the Office of Undergraduate Research website at uky.edu/chellgren/undergraduate-research, where they can find information on how to get involved in research around campus.

Samantha Geller, a senior double-majoring in equine science and management and environmental and sustainability studies, is a communications intern with UK Ag Equine Programs and the Gluck Equine Research Center.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.