In February, University Marketing and Communications senior photographer Lyndsie Schlink followed Julissa Navarrete ’19 through a day in her life as an agriscience graduate student doing research at the University Farm at Lexington.
Navarrete’s passion for animals started in the sixth grade when her family moved to a hobby farm in Wadsworth. From that time on, she worked with horses, chickens, and goats doing feedings, health checks, and farm chores. That passion led her to apply and eventually attend Illinois State to study agriculture.
During her undergraduate career, Navarrete became involved in a sheep reproduction research project with two of her professors, Drs. Jennifer Earing and Drew Lugar. It was the first time she’d ever experienced animal science research. She found that she really liked working with ewes and had an interest in both nutrition and reproduction.
That experience motivated her to look at research internships the following summer. The summer between her junior and senior year, she completed the I-BELIEF internship, a joint undergraduate research program with Illinois State and the University of Illinois. Her research experience at Illinois State and through the I-BELIEF program really piqued her interest in the field of animal science research. She found she was applying concepts and theories she had learned in her animal science classes to answer help answer important production-related questions. All of that information from her courses was finally falling into place.
During her last semester, Navarrete approached Dr. Jennifer Earing, assistant professor of animal science within the Department of Agriculture, about research opportunities as a graduate student.
“Graduate school is not for everyone, and animal science research is especially challenging. It’s time-consuming, often messy, and almost always requires a lot of after-hours work. To be a successful graduate student in our program, a student has to be willing to work hard, make some short-term sacrifices for long-term gain, and put in the extra time to complete a task well. From my experience with Julissa, I knew she would live up to her end of the deal. So, while I hadn’t planned on taking a graduate student on this year, I was willing to reconsider when Julissa approached me,” recounts Earing. Navarrete started her master’s degree in January 2020.
“I’m the first one in my family to get my undergrad and graduate degrees so it definitely was a learning process,” Navarrete said. “The professors at Illinois State have been great to learn from and have been very willing to help me along the way. I didn’t think that I could go to grad school. I just thought it wasn’t for me. So, I kind of took it as a challenge for myself. And, yeah, here we are almost done. I have learned so much in animal science research, but, most importantly, I have learned so much about myself. Now, I know challenges should be viewed as opportunities, not fears!”
Navarrete’s thesis research investigates the use of liquid brewer’s yeast as a valuable additive in ewe diets during late gestation. One of the objectives of her study is to evaluate the potential influence the liquid brewer’s yeast has on milk quality and subsequent immune function in the offspring. Liquid brewer’s yeast is a byproduct of the brewing industry. While it is a valuable source of nutrients, it has also been shown to have beneficial immune-modulating effects.
Earing and Dr. Justin Rickard have completed previous research that has used locally produced liquid brewer’s yeast or wet brewer’s grains in livestock diets, so Julissa’s project is a continuation of that work. Destihl Brewery of Normal has supported the team’s research efforts, supplying the liquid brewer’s yeast or wet brewer’s grains for all of their research endeavors.
It’s 5 a.m. and the temperature is in the teens, Navarrete has just arrived at the lambing barn and does a quick walk-through to make sure all of the animals are healthy. The ewes are clamoring as they’re hungry and know it’s feeding time. Once she’s verified that everyone is doing well, she grabs the grain buckets and hay totes and heads to the larger barn to weigh out the feed. Half of the ewes will receive a traditional grain diet while the remaining receive the traditional diet supplemented with liquid brewer’s yeast; everyone receives hay. After the feeding is complete Navarrete makes sure that each ewe has plenty of clean water.
On this day Navarrete observes a ewe pawing at the floor and creating a little nest with her hay. This is typically a sign that she is going to give birth soon. Navarrete keeps a watch on the ewe as labor progresses. If the ewe’s labor doesn’t progress quickly enough, Navarrete will provide the necessary assistance. Today the first birth isn’t progressing ideally so Navarrete and Alyssa Rook, an assistant agricultural research technician at the University Farm, repositioned the lamb with its front legs forward and its head between its legs. Rook then aided the ewe in delivering the lamb by working with the rhythmic contractions associated with parturition. Once the lamb was delivered, Navarrete used a towel to clean off its nose and mouth, removing any mucus, and to gently rub the lamb to stimulate initial reflexes. “Once the lamb’s up you just make sure the ewe allows it to suckle.” It’s usually up moving around within 30 minutes of birth.
After a few minutes of bonding, Navarrete and Rook process the new lambs, which includes evaluating the umbilical cord for appropriate length, spraying it with iodine, and recording data such as lamb birth weight and gender. The next step is to collect a milk sample. A colostrum sample (the first milk produced following birth) for Navarrete’s study and a small amount to administer to each lamb is obtained by milking out the ewe. The colostrum is administered to each lamb to ensure that they get colostrum from their dam within the first two hours of birth and is an important step in conveying passive immunity from ewes to lambs.
After administering colostrum to the lambs, Navarrete evaluates the colostrum quality using a refractometer. She then freezes the colostrum sample which will be sent to a lab for further characterization and evaluation of quality. Next on the protocol is to collect a final blood sample from the ewe. “As part of my research, blood was collected from the mothers prior to the start of the study, once during the study, once right before they gave birth, and then right after birth. Midway through the feeding trial ewes were vaccinated, eliciting an immune response, which allows us to assess the level of immune response and function. I am looking at how the immune system responds to the vaccine challenge, and if diet influences that response.” In addition to the ewes, Navarrete collects blood samples from each of the lambs at three days of age. The blood sample from the lambs allows her to determine if specific antibodies from the ewe have been passed to the offspring. After collecting blood from the lamb(s), the ewe and lamb(s) are officially off the study.
Around 10 a.m. Navarrete takes the blood samples into to the Ag Research Lab at the Ropp Agriculture Building on campus where she will centrifuge the blood samples and carefully pipette the serum off each sample. Serum samples will eventually be sent for additional laboratory analysis to characterize antibody content.
After the blood processing is complete, Navarrete grabs any materials she might need for the next 24 hours at the farm and then heads to her apartment. At her apartment, she showers, quickly cooks three meals, and grabs a couple snacks to get her through the next 24 hours. Before heading back to the farm, Navarrete makes sure that she has enough layers of clothes on: two pairs of socks, insulated boots, two pairs of pants under insulted overalls, and two long-sleeve T-shirts or sweaters with a hoodie, and a hat or headband to cover her ears. Then, she makes the 20-minute trip back to the University Farm to start the second half of her day.
Once back at the farm, Navarrete learns that another lamb was born while she was gone. She works with Lauren Neuleib, an undergrad student, to process the newborn lamb. Part of Navarrete’s duties as a graduate student is to mentor the undergraduate students through the lambing processes. “I think it’s great for the students to get hands-on experience working with the lambs. It has helped me realize how much I enjoy teaching,” she said, “I enjoy encouraging students to try new things so they can feel comfortable and confident working with the lambs.”
Earing shares similar sentiments, “One of the greatest parts of my job is watching students, both graduate and undergraduate, develop academically and professionally. While a part of our graduate program, Julissa has discovered how much she enjoys teaching; she’s gained experience, built confidence, established credibility among the undergraduate students, and learned how to network with industry professionals. All of these experiences will guide her professional path, help her make career choices, and allow her to contribute successfully to our industry.”
At approximately 7:30 to 8 p.m. each night, pending no ewes are showing signs of giving birth, Navarrete heads to the conference center at the farm to catch up on data entry. On this day she worked to update the blood sample collection schedule for recently born lambs while enjoying a snack of crackers in place of dinner.
With 30 ewes bred this spring, the lambing season at the University Farm is busy, but lasts for only about three weeks. Navarrete’s ewes lambed during a one-week period. So, while it was an intense seven days, it was manageable. Several undergraduate students from Earing’s Small Ruminant Management class and Lugar’s Parturition Management class assist Navarrete with monitoring the ewes and lambs throughout the day and into the evening. The additional help of the undergraduate students is valuable to Navarrete in that it allows her to run to campus to process blood samples. It also provides undergraduates a great opportunity to become involved in research and get hands-on experience in lambing management, record keeping, and data collection. “Having students involved in research at the farm is invaluable. There’s no teaching tool or simulation that can give students the experience they gain while working with live animals on a research project,” said Earing.
Navarrete plans to graduate with her Master of Science in December 2021. “After graduation I want to pursue a career where I can share my passion for animals and teaching and incorporate my Hispanic heritage.”