WAC2023: Surpassing boundaries with experts

WIAS Magazine - Winter edition 2022
Special Article

The WIAS PhD community had their annual conference on the 16th of February 2023. It showcased the breadth of WIAS research through poster presentations and oral presentations. The keynote of dr. Sylvia Bugman presented many opportunities as well as some challenges of doing research in unusual collaborations. Prof. dr. ir. Dick Heederik showed how a one health approach has helped to understand and act on antimicrobial resistance in animals. This year the conference also featured a new discussion session ‘Meet the experts’. We split up into small groups and discussed a wide range of topics with an expert. Groups discussed different roles animal sciences can play in society and in practice on farm, different opportunities and challenges related to doing research and advice for different careers. To allow everyone to read about the main insights of some of the discussion groups, we have collated these below.


The role of animal science in society and on farm

How should Animal Sciences contribute to a more sustainable world?

Everyone in this group does research that has sustainability implications. We know sustainable society is complex and our contributions are small. We see the trade-offs. We need to develop a narrative to put us in the societal debate and think that a PhD course could help us develop one.

How to incorporate One Health approach in livestock farming?

There is no one solution and approach that fit for all situations (countries / industries). We need to engage and communicate more with all stakeholders in industry. ASG and WUR are involved in initiatives related to One Health which are seen as appropriate for tackling the issue although room for improvement exists.

Can improved feed reduce antibiotic usage by reducing infections?

Everyone in the group agreed that feed can help to reduce antibiotic use. However, there are many questions that are not yet resolved. For example, how do you study the size of effect that you can achieve? Is improved cost for better feed cost efficient, and can farmers be convinced that it is indeed the case? In addition to a decrease in antibiotic use, farmers will also look at ease of use and improved productivity. Finally, other factors like improving housing, weaning and transport are important.

Does breeding make farm animals more dependent on good management?

Yes, breeding can increase dependence on good management, but it is not inevitable. It may be caused by good environments in which parents are selected and average environments in which progeny live. Productivity may reduce adaptability also directly. Whether better management follows breeding or breeding in better conditions increases dependency, varies from case to case. Our conclusion: 1) choose a range of acceptable farming systems and breed the population for suitable adaptations and 2) adjust the breeding goal if new technology is adopted that affects animal behaviour, for example a milking robot.


Opportunities and challenges related to doing research

Does hypothesis testing preclude creativity and 'coincidental' breakthroughs?

We agree that restricting analyses to hypothesis testing alone may be blinding or restricting. Yet, experimental approaches are almost by default driven by hypotheses and are of course powerful. A combination of exploratory studies, for example to inspire experimental design, are perhaps the strongest way forward.

What are the challenges of interdisciplinary work?

Challenges related to interdisciplinary work are at the level of methodologies, paradigm, and in the end always ‘understanding’ each other. The group discussed solutions in (1) accepting that all disciplines are equally scientific, each with their own methods and paradigms. (2) The issue as well as solution is an openness of the mindset, to listen to each other. For this communication is very important. (3) A facilitator or mediator may help to bridge the gaps in an interdisciplinary research team.

What are the opportunities and challenges of fieldwork?

The group discussed how this depends on the field and the different definitions of fieldwork. Fieldwork could maybe be phased out to reduce animal experiments, but for ecological understanding you need fieldwork. Natural behaviour is important. Many developments support fieldwork including eDNA, recorders, GPS/Satellite, tracking technology, drones, and DNA. Ultimately communication about fieldwork is important to get things accepted.

When do you ‘fail’ in academia?

Failure or the feeling of failure mostly comes from the gap between reality and (unrealistic) expectations. We discussed about the difference between failing yourself (because you do things you do not feel comfortable with) or failing in the eyes of others. Do you actually know what others expect from you and do you know that in their eyes you have failed? We realized that we hardly ever ask people to see whether our assumptions are correct. We think others think that we are failures or fail in something. With respect to expectations we discussed that conversations between supervisors and PhD students on expectations is sometimes missed. It would greatly benefit the process and would diminish the feeling of failure when regular meetings on process are held between supervisors and PhD students, where there is room for expression of expectations and feelings of failure can be frankly discussed. Also an idea came up to set up a system where each PhD student would have an independent mentor (maybe WIAS can arrange this) [red. Don’t forget that via WIAS each PhD has access to a Personal Development Coach].


Career advice

What are the benefits and challenges of working with industry?

The key is to find an appropriate balance between curiosity driven explorative research and application oriented research. Benefits include purposeful work as there is an application and perspective and it can lead to insights into future employment. Challenges are data access and publication restrictions and the industry does not (always) support curiosity research.

How do you develop entrepreneurial skills?

University is the heart of innovation, but not prepared for application. The group discussed Intellectual Property regulations and knowledge valorisation. The question is who is going to pay for entrepreneurship related to consumer (problem solving)? What about the ecological side? There are more ways to value creation. Entrepreneurship a bit later in a PhD is relevant and it might be interesting if a PhD dissertation includes a valorisation chapter.

What are the challenges to pursue a scientific career for (future) mothers?

We discussed several challenges when (future) mothers pursue a scientific (academic) career. First, most of the (postdoc) researchers have short-term contracts that cause insecurity for them to start building a family with kids. Second, it is often difficult for researchers to find a job in the same city as their partners, making it challenging in taking care of kids. Third and the most recognized challenge is to keep work-life balance. When the kids are young, mothers, on one hand, usually are in their critical period for building their scientific career which needs a lot of time investment, on the other hand, the small kids are highly demanding of mothers’ time and care. So there is no real work life balance in this period. Mothers need support especially in this period. Be brave and try to find as much help as you can from partners, families, friends or colleagues. Luckily, there is more and more policy support from society for mothers. Hang in there and you never know what is achievable, but you will definitely be more resilient and stronger!