A career of academic achievement and successful research came to a halt in 2017. Patricia Hester, professor and researcher in the department of animal science at Purdue University embarked on a new journey - retirement.
While Hester, better known by her nickname, Scotti, may be engrossed with new day-to-day activities, her vision and hope for the industry remains keenly in focus. “With respect to improving animal welfare in the future, my aspiration is that those individuals responsible for making decisions on animal welfare use science instead of succumbing to animal activists pressure, politics, emotion, or upmanship as the basis for their policies.” But Hester didn’t arrive at this vision without decades of careful research that consideration of what is best for the animals she ended up making the center of her career.
Hester joined Purdue in 1976, just a few weeks after completing her doctorate at North Carolina State University. Not always focused on poultry, Hester started her studies in zoology and quickly realized the lack of job opportunities in the field. “With my love for biology and animals, I switched my major to poultry science where there was a huge and vibrant industry needing future employees,” she remarked.
After switching, Hester began working as a part-time student assistant in a lab under J. Paul Thaxton. Thaxton became her mentor, and later served as her Ph.D. advisor. “His incredible patience and guidance strengthened my confidence - steering me towards the university career path that I have so much enjoyed,” stated Hester. She also reflected back on the additional support she received from Ben Bohren and Bill Stadelman, both faculty at Purdue, who have been great friends and influencers during her academic career.
Hester’s time at Purdue has been nothing short of an adventure. Over her forty-seven years of conducting research, she participated in roughly seventy research projects. A large portion of which involved collaboration on poultry well-being. Hester ended up with a front-row seat to the vast changes, both positive and negative, of the poultry industry. Hester believes one of the biggest advancements in the industry came in 2002, when egg farmers began using welfare guidelines implemented by the United Egg Producers that increased conventional cage space from 45-48 square inches per hen to 67 square inches per hen.
Hester continued by outlining her top concerns which she feels negatively impact the industry and consumer mindset. “The misconception that locally grown food on small farms is sustainable,” was one issue of note. While not against locally grown food, and gardener herself, she explains that small-scale farming cannot serve as the main source of food while feeding the growing population. The world and the environment are not suffering because of large-scale farming. “Studies have shown that large animal farms have less waste output, use less resources and have decreased greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food produced,” she clarified.
The second misconception Hester discussed was the myth that hormones and steroids are given to birds. “Package labeling on meat and egg products indicating ‘no hormones or steroids added’ or ‘hormone-free’ is a marketing tool to convince consumers that their product is better than others and this contributes in part to the myth,” she explained.
Hester’s numerous research endeavors have allowed her to travel across the globe. Her favorite trip involved travelling to Russia. “It was to the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, in 1997, six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The purpose of the trip was to work out details on future collaborative microgravity experiments on avian embryogenesis on the Russian space station MIR.
Reflecting on her most rewarding career accomplishments, Hester struggled picking just one. “I have had several rewarding experiences; serving as president of the Poultry Science Association in 2004-2005 was a great honor,” she said. More recently, her as an editor to Egg Production: Innovations and Strategies for Improvement, which was published this year by Elsevier Academic Press has been a highlight.
But Hester’s career hasn’t solely focused on research. Forty-one of her years at Purdue also were spent teaching. This has allowed for tremendous interaction with both students and the next generation of researchers. Hester explained that her personal challenge when working with students is, “transforming discouragement to encouragement and ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’.”
Her advice for the young researchers is, “Prepare and plan for experiments in advance of executing the study, especially with respect to experimental design and the statistical model that will be used to test the hypothesis.” She then elaborated on the advantages of poultry research that young researchers should consider. First, birds are small compared to other farm animals and this allows for less expense when testing a hypothesis. Second, there is a supportive industry to help researchers find animals and supply funding for research. Finally, there is an endless list of research needs that the industry needs scientists to investigate.
She encourages everyone to remember that it is important to continue to tell the story of agriculture and research. “The public needs to understand that technology, derived from research, is one of the main reasons U.S. consumers spend only 10% of their income on food. This allows for consumers to make purchases on other less essential items.”
Upon retirement, Hester plans on spending her days reading books for pleasure, gardening, skiing, boating, fishing, traveling, and spending more time with her grandchildren.
The Egg Industry Center would like to thank Scotti for being such an advocate for science as a basis for the changes in the food industry, and for the legacy of work she has contributed to the future of the egg industry. Have a wonderful retirement!
By Myla Meyer