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Under the guidance of graduate student Virginia Pszczolkowski, left, and assistant professor of dairy science Sebastian I Arriola Apelo, background, Brianna Brown, a Department of Dairy Science summer intern from Tuskegee University, ultrasounds the side of a dairy cow before assisting with a biopsy at UW–Madison's Dairy Cattle Center in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS.

Tuskegee University student Naomi Waldon spent the summer in an internship in a University of Wisconsin–Madison dairy science lab and decided that research was right up her alley. “It solidified my plans to go to grad school,” she says.

Tuskegee student Brianna Brown spent her summer the same way and decided that grad school wasn’t her cup of tea. “I like research, but I know I do not want to pursue it as a career,” says Brown.

Both of these were great outcomes, says dairy science professor Milo Wiltbank, who helped arrange research internships for three animal science students from Tuskegee University this summer.

“The idea of lab internships is to introduce students to research,” says Wiltbank. “Some find out that they love it, some find out that they don’t. Those are both very important things to learn.”

Wiltbank says the department decided to offer the internships to the Tuskegee students for several reasons, including expanding the department’s ties to the historically black university located in Alabama, which graduates a notable number of students with bachelor’s degrees in agricultural fields.

“We don’t have enough students from underrepresented groups applying to grad school, so this is a recruiting tool. It also introduces our labs to students who have a whole different way of looking at the world,” Wiltbank says. “And our grad students need extra help in the summer, and the interns provided a reliable extra pair of hands.”

In Wiltbank’s lab, those extra hands were provided by Tuskegee senior Shandrell Miller, who assisted on three projects, two related to reproduction, the other to dairy nutrition. She got experience conducting ultrasounds, collecting blood samples, giving shots and taking feed samples. Miller hopes to go to veterinary school, and she thinks the research experience helped her prepare.

“I might not be doing dairy nutrition research, but what I learned will help me understand animal diets,” she points out.

Brianna Brown’s goal is to work in a mixed animal veterinary practice. She had worked with smaller animals in a clinic back home, so one of her goals coming to Madison was to get experience with cows. She got plenty working with assistant professor Sebastian Arriola Apelo on a study that aims to understand the role of essential amino acids on milk protein synthesis. “It was a great experience,” she says. “I love working with cows!”

Naomi Waldon worked in the lab of nutritional physiologist Heather White, helping run a variety of lab analyses and collecting data at the university’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

“For one study I herded the cows to the scales so I could get their weight. The other is about catching the onset of a disease, so I had to find specific cows and take a blood sample,” she says. “I think I got to be pretty good at herding cows.”

The UW–Madison dairy science department has strong ties with Tuskegee University. The head of Tuskegee’s agricultural sciences program, Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller, is a colleague of Wiltbank’s—a fellow reproductive physiologist—and has already steered two students to Wisconsin for grad school. One is Kalyanna Williams, who earned her M.S. and now works in the department as an instructor.

Williams knows from personal experience that research internships can be game-changers for Tuskegee students.

“I had four internships in college, and the first one was in a dairy science lab at Iowa State. I ended up in dairy science, so the experience really stuck with me,” she says.

By the same token, she says that hosting the Tuskegee students can help change the way that people in the dairy science department view their mission.

“These students come from a different background and offer a different viewpoint,” she says. “They ask questions that we may not have heard before and they remind us that we’re serving a diverse audience. We serve non-farmers as well as farmers, and non-farmers are a mixed group. It’s good for people in the department to see that.”

Before her summer in Madison, Naomi Waldon was pretty sure she wanted to go to grad school. Now she’s certain, and she has a much better idea of what to expect.

“I really loved what I was doing, and it showed me that I should continue down this path. But it also showed me that the standards here are high,” she says. “It showed me what I need to prepare for.”