NDSU senior Zachary Carlson is in the enviable position of being able to blend his lifelong fascination with award-winning research.
An animal sciences major from Dalbo, Minn., Carlson grew up on a family farming operation that originally had dairy cows and later switched to Angus beef cattle. “I’ve always had a very strong interest in animals, especially the livestock industry,” Carlson said. “There’s no question about it — I’ve always had that passion. I just always knew I’d do something in the industry.”
Attracted to NDSU because of its Beef Cattle Research Complex, Carlson envisioned himself learning in the $3 million facility. Dedicated in 2011, the complex is state-of-the-art, with a cattle handling system, calving pens, laboratory and special feeding and mixing equipment. “When I looked into coming to NDSU, I knew the beef complex was being built,” he said of one of the top research facilities of its type in the country. “I was thrilled that I could potentially work there.”
At the complex, Carlson has excelled in undergraduate research. For example, one recent project dovetailed with a graduate student’s larger study on animal behavior.
For his part of the effort, Carlson monitored the behavior of 24 steers during three eight-hour periods. The animals were fed four different feed mixtures, and every five minutes, Carlson meticulously recorded the steers’ activities, noting whether they were eating, drinking, resting or ruminating.
“We wanted to find out how much time they spent ruminating their feed to see how efficient they were with that feed,” Carlson said. “I did see some differences between the feeds, and I found that very interesting.”
Working closely with Kendall Swanson, associate professor of animal sciences, and Marc Bauer, associate professor of animal sciences, Carlson’s intricate collection of data became a technical abstract and later a poster presentation.
His work was rewarded when Carlson took first place in the Undergraduate Student Poster Competition at the American Society of Animal Science Midwest sectional meetings in Des Moines, Iowa.
Carlson also credits complex manager Trent Gilbery; Rodrigo Goulart, visiting scientist from Brazil; and Alfonso Islas, complex research specialist, for helping him with his successful project.
“There is a lot to learn in the classroom, but I think you take it to the next level when you conduct hands-on research,” Carlson said of the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate student. “If you’re interested in continuing your education, the research builds an important base of fundamentals going into graduate school.”
Meantime, Swanson said undergraduate researchers such as Carlson bring enthusiasm and fresh ideas to projects. “Zac has been a joy to work with, has tremendous abilities and has great potential to be a future leader in the beef cattle industry,” Swanson said. “Undergraduate research allows students to gain experience outside of the classroom while learning more about how research projects are conducted. It’s beneficial to all involved with the research.”
Carlson is uncertain about his upcoming career, but he knows working with livestock will undoubtedly be a major part of it. Research also may play a role.
His immediate plans are to pursue a master’s degree after graduating from NDSU. Down the road, he may work toward a doctorate. “I’m taking one step at a time because I’m up in the air as to what exactly I’d like to do,” Carlson said. “I’ve been thinking more and more about a career in academia. But, right now I’m not looking at the big picture; I’m focusing on the little steps to get there.”
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