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FAI In Action: A Unique Fellowship

Sheep on display at fair

Catherine Gensler was finishing up her master’s degree when the NC State Food Animal Initiative (FAI) Fellowship opportunity was shared via IAFP. Agritourism was the call-out word that piqued Gensler’s curiosity. 

Gensler had long held an interest in agritourism and food safety, mainly focused on where food comes from and how to safely prepare and consume that food. Intrigued by the fellowship’s study of the intersection of agritourism and food safety, Gensler eagerly applied. 

A Tangible Product of FAI Collaboration

The FAI fellowship is one of the first tangible outcomes of the FAI initiative. Continuing the theme of collaboration of the tri-chairs explored previously, the fellow is co-advised by two professors, thus gaining multiple research perspectives. 

Gensler earned the fellowship and started the program in Fall 2019; she has since completed four semesters, with two more and a dissertation to go. With a bachelor’s in Food Science and a master’s in Animal Science, Gensler was a good fit for the opportunity. 

The FAI Fellowship Facts 

Catherine Gensler Food Animal Initiative Fellowship

The FAI Fellowship project focuses on learning how to communicate and disseminate research that supports the understanding of agriculture and existing food safety risks and then considers how to get farmers and visitors to act accordingly. 

With the rapid growth of agritourism, risks exist with farm visitors contacting the animals. You’ve probably heard of or even participated in goat yoga, recently visited a petting zoo or took the family strawberry picking. This fellowship considers how to effectively manage risk for agritourism visitors in a way that permits high-value experience and the greatest interaction with the animals. 

FAI Fellowship Research’s Main Objective 

“Building a risk-assessment tool, using collected data, to identify risk and ways to mitigate risk in agritourism” is the main objective of this fellowship, said Gensler. The final tool will support the operator’s understanding of risk and how to manage risk, ultimately reducing the possibility of illness from animal contact. 

Gensler currently envisions the tool as an application, in which farmers are quizzed on their current safety tactics, how many animals they have and the type of activity visitors participate in. Using the prevalence of pathogens and visitor count, the tool would then provide prescribed precautions to reduce illness.

The Benefit of Co-Advisors 

Part of what makes this FAI Fellowship unique is Gensler works with co-advisors from two different colleges at NC State, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), both involved in FAI. Dr. Megan Jacob is an Associate Professor in Clinical Microbiology and Director of Diagnostic Laboratories in CVM, and Dr. Benjamin Chapman is professor and food safety extension specialist in CALS. 

When interviewing, Gensler was inspired by the co-advisor structure: “Having two advisors at one time could only be a benefit. With two differing opinions, you get more perspective, which could only help you.” Meeting bi-weekly with both professors allows Gensler to receive constructive feedback on her research as well as guidance for additional university resources. 

The fellowship design has also benefited the professors. “This fellowship has provided a structure to support a more formal research collaboration between me and Dr. Chapman,” said Dr. Jacob. They’ve been able to put ideas into action that they’ve discussed for years.

It Takes Two…Wait, Three

Prestage Dept. of Poutry Science student introduces a child to a baby chicken during Farm Animal Days.

With Dr. Chapman involved in consumer behavior and Dr. Jacob’s focus in microbiology and diagnostics, the partnership works well, especially when setting up research projects. “The way they work together is seamless,” said Gensler. “They have a shared vision for this agritourism project in that they want to combine an understanding of animal-level risk and human-level risk.” 

Dr. Chapman agrees: “The FAI Fellowship allows us to fully embrace a multidisciplinary and innovative approach to real world issues.” Dr. Jacob believes the fellowship has provided Gensler a broader sense of academic life as well as a range of experiences, networks and courses. 

Cross-Cutting Research is Cool 

Gensler thinks it’s “a welcome challenge” that she’s been awarded the latitude to explore this cross-cutting research project and believes bringing more people together is the direction research needs to head.  

“It’s been an amazing experience that I realize not many students get to be a part of. It gets me thinking, when I start a new project, who needs to be at the table?”