Animal science major Gabel stands out from the herd

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, one animal science major was able to leverage academics, scholarship and internship programs as well as her alumni network to prepare for a career in dairy cattle genetics.

Amber Gabel, a Schreyer Honors student from Newport, Pennsylvania, is simultaneously pursuing undergraduate and master's degrees in animal science with a focus on breeding, genetics and genomics through the Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate program. She is also minoring in agronomy and agribusiness management.

As an exceptional student pursuing a difficult course of study, Gabel knew she needed hands-on experience to complement what she was learning in the classroom. A connection she made through the College of Agricultural Sciences' alumni network presented her with a perfect opportunity.

In 2015, Gabel was introduced to H. Duane Norman, a technical adviser and industry liaison for the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding and retired research leader of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory. Along with his wife, Roslyn, Norman established an undergraduate scholarship for students interested in dairy cattle breeding and genetics. At the college alumni association's scholarship banquet, award recipients were seated with donors, and Gabel and Norman were able to discuss their interests and skills. This interaction led to collaboration between Norman, Gabel and her adviser, Chad Dechow, to set up a summer internship at the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding, in Bowie, Maryland.

Gabel worked as a dairy genetics intern at the facility from May to August of 2016. She completed a research project on fertility traits used in genetic evaluations for cattle breeding strategies in the dairy industry and interfaced with researchers within the council and at the USDA's Animal Genomics and Improvement Laboratory.

The experience she gained working for the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding was critical in learning how to apply her academic knowledge, Gabel believes. In addition to practicing concepts she had already learned, she gained a broader understanding of dairy cattle genetics and careers, and she conducted research that was beneficial to dairy producers.

"The experience that I gained during my internship — conducting research, coding, reviewing scientific literature and communicating with other scientists in my field — is a tremendous help as I am completing my thesis work," said Gabel. "I have definitely gained much more confidence in my research ability."

Gabel's research also gave her an opportunity to collaborate with some of the world’s leading geneticists and computer programmers. "These individuals are truly experts in their field, and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to work with and learn from them," she said.

"We were fortunate to work with Amber in this experience," said Norman. "Her work has helped to position the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding to make improvements in a fertility trait that is in high demand by U.S. dairy producers. I could not have been more pleased with her performance."

Gabel acknowledged that her experience would not have been possible without the support and connections she has gained from Norman and through the college's alumni network. "To me, the network means support for students, whether it’s through scholarships, career connections, helpful advice or fellowship."

The experience also had a positive impact on Gabel's academic abilities. To earn her undergraduate and master's degrees, she is required to take graduate-level courses and write a graduate-level thesis. Gabel's thesis examines DGAT1, a gene with a significant impact on milk production traits in dairy cattle, and whether including interactions between DGAT1 and other parts of the cow's genome in genetic evaluations for milk production traits improves the reliability of those evaluations.

"Dairy producers select for milk-production traits like fat and protein yield because they are economically important to their operations," explained Gabel. "Improving the reliability of these predictions for these traits improves a breeder's ability to make progress selecting for them."

Gabel won an award from the Ag Alumni Society for her internship work and was a speaker at the 2016 scholarship banquet. She has served as vice president of Collegiate FFA and treasurer for the Dairy Science Club and the Collegiate 4-H Club. She is also a member of the Alpha Zeta agricultural fraternity and two agricultural honor societies, Gamma Sigma Delta and the Coaly Society. She plans to graduate in August of 2017 and pursue a career in dairy cattle genetics in North Carolina.

She is engaged to fellow Penn State animal science graduate Stephen Smith; the pair will marry in June of 2017.

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Last Updated May 24, 2017