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Joe McFadden

Joe McFadden with students at farm

Rising to the challenge

Joseph McFadden isn’t afraid of a challenge.

When he came to West Virginia University in 2012, the assistant professor of biochemistry was well aware of the challenges he would face if he wanted to implement large-scale, competitive dairy science research projects.

At the time, WVU’s dairy herd consists of 45 cows.

With a keen interest in studying insulin resistance in dairy cows, McFadden wanted to ensure access to a large pool of cows for three key reasons – having the ability to define distinct treatment groups, to ensure observed treatment effects are not biased, and to have genetic variation.

Student preparing insulin shot

McFadden set out to partner with a commercial farm that could provide the necessary animal resources.

He wrote letters. He made telephone calls – many of which went unreturned. The silence was almost deafening.

That’s when DoVan Farms came into the picture.

A third generation family farm in western Pennsylvania, DoVan Farms is comprised of over 1,000 acres of hay, corn, soy beans and oats. It’s also home to 700 dairy cows.

According to him, the farm’s owners Dave and Connie Van Gilder were initially concerned about how the research would interfere with normal farm operations; however, the forward-thinking farmers were open to the idea, especially if it could ultimately benefit their cows and the farm as a whole.

As a researcher whose ultimate goal is to contribute discoveries that improve animal health and performance, that was music to McFadden’s ears.

“I have a lot of respect for the Van Gilder family and I am most appreciative of their involvement,” he said. “Certainly, our intensive involvement could be seen as a potential risk for their herd production; however, I believe they recognize the potential value of acquiring new information that may improve their herd health and performance. Most importantly, I believe our relationship has lasted because it is built on open communication, mutual trust, and creative problem solving.”

Equal parts researcher and teacher, McFadden also saw this as the perfect opportunity to provide his students with intensive, hands-on research experience; however, with DoVan Farms located a little over 70 miles from WVU’s Morgantown campus, he knew he'd have to be strategic when setting up studies.

“Students are essential members of our research team,” he said. “Performing intensive metabolism research off-campus presents unique challenges that can only be managed by a dedicated group of talented and enthusiastic students.”

Student caring for cow

To overcome the logistical challenge, the most efficient solution was to set up the research projects to run from May – August. This would allow student researchers to live at the farm, provide daily care for the dairy cows, interact with dairy producers and manage all aspects of the research.

“For the past three years, the Van Gilders have given us free rein to take over part of the farm each summer,” McFadden said.

This summer's project was the result of a $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to investigate the mechanisms that cause insulin resistance in overweight dairy cows transitioning from gestation to lactation.

In addition to helping dairy farmers improve cow health by reducing incidents of metabolic disease, this research could also lead to a better understanding of type 2 diabetes in humans.

“To be able to study something that has a dual purpose is really special because we can combat problems that develop in humans and cows,” said McFadden. “I have received a lot of positive feedback from the external community in response to what we are doing.”

For this particular project, McFadden provided research opportunities for 11 WVU students, including Amanda Davis, a Salem, West Virginia, native pursuing a doctoral degree in nutritional biochemistry.

As one of the project leaders, Davis said the role has helped her become a more decisive leader and afforded her the opportunity to become a mentor. Those are all key qualities for someone who ultimately wants to become a teacher and competitive researcher.

She believes wholeheartedly in undergraduate research opportunities and knows those students participating in this project are extremely fortunate.

"They get to see everything involved in running a complex research project like this one including grant writing, finding a facility, developing experimental techniques, ordering supplies, finding volunteers or funding for undergraduate workers," she said.

Mary Clapham and Mary Coleman, students participating in, couldn't agree more.

For Mary Coleman, a senior animal and nutritional sciences major, participating in undergraduate research wasn’t initially on her radar; however, after some encouragement from her adviser, she approached McFadden about working in his lab.

“I kind of figured I’d work on one study and be done, which is funny to think about now,” she said. “A couple of the graduate students mentioned the opportunity to spend the summer at DoVan and Dr. McFadden helped me apply for a spot in WVU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. The rest, as they say, is history. I’m so thankful to Dr. McFadden and to SURE for the opportunity to be involved in such an amazing project.”

To say McFadden has had a positive impact on his students would be an understatement. And it’s all because he was willing to think outside of the box and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.