Dr Oluyinka Opoola on sustainable dairy production
Using DNA insights to help improve livelihoods in developing African countries, and breaking down stereotypes.
Dr Oluyinka Opoola is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH) and is based at the Roslin Institute. Her research focuses on developing genetic tools to help improve the health and productivity of dairy cows in African countries. In this interview, she talked to CTLGH Communications Officer Maggie Bennett about how her work benefits both livestock and people in developing countries and why she thinks it is important to encourage girls to study science.
Could you tell me about your research in a nutshell?
I am a Research Fellow with CTLGH and study the genetic make-up of dairy cows to find the most appropriate dairy breed that suits low-input or resource-limited systems of smallholder farmers in Africa. I am currently working to develop a dairy profit index (DPI) for smallholder dairy farmers in Rwanda. Following focus group discussions with Rwandan dairy farmers last year, I am developing economic values for the traits they highlighted as important to them.
The index will allow farmers to make informed breeding and management decisions to maximise their milk production and profit. We are specifically looking at the genetic merits of the Jersey breed, as this has been selected as the dairy breed of choice for Rwanda. Although DPIs are used extensively in Western countries, this will be the first one developed for African systems.
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
When I was growing up in Nigeria, I always enjoyed science, particularly biology. I come from a family of engineers, so I was keen to do something different but still have a career that allowed me to try to find solutions to problems. I initially thought of becoming a paediatrician but decided to study veterinary medicine instead. Animals, like babies, can’t tell you what is wrong with them when they are ill and I liked the extra challenge that brings.
How did you become interested in this field of research?
I became interested in genetics in my third year of vet school. This interest developed whilst studying for my MSc and PhD, so I decided to follow a career in livestock genetics and genomics research. I want to use my knowledge to make a difference and help improve livestock health and productivity, especially in places where people’s access to milk, meat and eggs is limited.
Millions of people in low- and middle-income countries live in poverty and hunger. I hope that by contributing to the development of dairy improvement strategies in Rwanda and elsewhere, dairy farmers will be able to select the most appropriate breed combinations for their farm system and maximise their milk production. This will provide more milk and better nutrition for their family and more income when they sell their excess milk to others.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I really love crunching data relating to livestock genetics or performance and translating their mathematical values into something practical and meaningful that can be passed onto farmers to implement on their farms. I also really enjoy having direct contact with farmers and asking them what they want and need from the animals they have. I think it’s really important for scientists to have these conversations with farmers and then try to deliver tailored solutions for them.
Do you have a favourite piece of research you have been involved with?
My favourite piece of research is the output of my PhD. I pooled dairy performance data across countries in Africa. This research was the first of its kind for Africa.
What are the challenges you experience as a scientist?
There are many challenges working in research but I believe that finding ways to overcome them will make me a better scientist. I have been very fortunate to be able to follow my chosen career track and work at Roslin and the University of Edinburgh, which have a global reputation for their science.
Something I have noticed is that people, unsure of my name, sometimes just assume that I am male. Some people, including within science, are surprised that there are young female researchers working in genomics. I think we still have a lot of work to do to break down stereotypes of what a scientist looks like and show young girls that a career in science is open to them.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a scientist?
Aside from science, my biggest passion is athletics and fitness. I really enjoy badminton, high intensity training and long-distance walks. I find that these activities help me to switch off from life and work pressures and boost my physical and mental wellbeing. So, if I wasn’t a scientist, I would definitely be doing something related to sport, fitness and wellbeing.