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Students underpin research program – Audio

Involving students in research (extended play)

Tom Crenshaw, Professor
Department of Animal Science
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 263-4423, (608) 577-3752

6:11 – Total Time

0:17 – Students doing pig feeding studies
0:55 – What a student gets to do
1:24 – Hands on for students
1:51 – Bone abnormality in swine found by students
2:12 – Getting to the cellular level
2:32 – Implications for animal and human health
3:11 – Widespread interest in the research
3:40 – Students use advanced research tools
4:25 – Students meet researchers in other areas
5:01 – New technique developed by students
5:41 – Research not like sitting in lecture
6:03 – Lead out


 Sevie Kenyon: How a group of students can kick open exciting new research discoveries. We’re visiting today with Tom Crenshaw, Department of Animal Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon. Tom, tell us the story of how you got students involved in this research.

Tom Crenshaw: Well, in one of the classes that I teach, the students are required to mix diets for pigs and feed the pigs these diets. The pigs in that experiment developed some bone abnormalities. So we followed up and identified over several experiments and involving actually several different students over a few years to trace down and identify that the vitamin D was creating the bone lesions and we’ve continued to look at ways that we can understand more about the lesion and how vitamin D might be involved.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, describe to us, the process these students go through.

Tom Crenshaw: In the classes, they are required to formulate a diet and actually mix the diets themselves. And then at our swine research and teaching center, they will run an experiment with the pigs. We have very tight control in that center with the health status of the animals. When we saw these abnormalities, we knew that it was not a health related issue and felt that it had to be something within the diets.

Sevie Kenyon: What kind of activities do the students actually do as this research has progressed?

Tom Crenshaw: Well as the research has progressed we’ve gone beyond what might be done in a classroom setting to actually some of the measurements of the bones within the animal that might involve interactions with people mechanical engineering or orthopedic surgery over at the hospital. And so we’ve used some of the techniques that would be used in those programs to help further understand the bone abnormalities.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, I’m going to ask you to go ahead and describe the bone abnormality that was discovered.

Tom Crenshaw: One of the most visible things that we first saw within the pigs is commonly referred to as a humpback pig. So it’s an abnormal, outward curvature in the spinal column. It was definitely something different and unique that we knew that was not common within our swine research center.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, where has all of this activity and research gotten you so far?

Tom Crenshaw: We’ve involved graduate student Laura Amundson that’s worked with me on this in identifying some of the cellular signals that are involved. So we’ve developed techniques to identify which signals that are involved with the bone might be turned on or turned off in response to the deficiency.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe, for us, potential implications of this research?

Tom Crenshaw: Some of the implications would be certainly improvement in how we feed and manage pigs and that’s one of my major roles. But also, the pig being very similar to the human, there are a lot of implications in human health and human medicine, especially with the way that we supplement vitamin D. And our research is actually pointing to an importance of the maternal diet, a mom’s diet, and how that might influence fetal development in the pig, or potentially in the humans. We’re not involved directly in human studies, but the implications are certainly there.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, can you give us a sense of the level of interest that there has been by different communities in this research?

Tom Crenshaw: We’ve got quite a bit of interest certainly in the animal nutrition and the veterinary world because some of these problems do occur in commercial production units with the pigs. But also quite a bit of interest in some of the things that we’ve done by human nutritionists and certainly with some of the orthopedic surgeons that we’ve interacted with to try to understand more about these lesions.

Sevie Kenyon: What are some of the tools that are perhaps distinct to your line of research?

Tom Crenshaw: We, for a long time, have used an instrument called a DXA machine, which measures the whole body bone mineral content so we can pigs. It’s commonly used in medical clinics to screen for osteoporosis in humans. So people may be screen through a DXA for osteoporosis but we use to measure the whole body content of pigs so we can compare pigs that are fed different diets and know if we’re changing the mineral status. We’ve also used clinical CT scans of some of the bones collected from the pigs so that we can measure more detailed lesions that might be in the growth plate of the bones in some of these young pigs.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, do students have a chance to interact with some of this equipment and technology?

Tom Crenshaw: Yes, very much so. We get them directly involved in that so they get exposure to some of the instruments that might be both used in human medicine and we’re certainly instrumentation to try solve problems with animals. They get involved in trying to develop new technique because some of the things that we’re trying to do with the bones have not been used before, even in human medicine. So that would give us procedures that we’re trying to work out new techniques that would be used for even human medicine.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, give us an example of how a student might have developed something new for use in this research.

Tom Crenshaw: In trying to understand some of the lesions that we’ve induced with the diets, I had one of the undergrad students working on a project last spring in which she developed a procedure that we can measure these lesions from the CT scan and measure the volume and the location of those and it’s a much more effective procedure. So it’s another example of where we’ve engaged undergraduate students in our research projects. She was actually funded by a Cargill/Benevenga undergrad research project that we have here in our department and got involved. She’ll present that research at a regional meeting this next spring.

Sevie Kenyon: Tom, how do you suppose this kind of activity benefits the students?

Tom Crenshaw: I think the students really learn from doing research. The research is simply a tool that can be used to train the students to be creative to help understand how to solve problems and to pay attention to some of the details that need to be, but it’s a training opportunity that’s much different than sitting through a classroom listening to a lecture.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Tom Crenshaw, Department of Animal Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon.