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Professor Ian Dunn on understanding poultry health and welfare

Understanding factors that influence health and development in chickens and eggs, and finding inspiration as a junior scientist.

Professor Ian Dunn
Professor Ian Dunn

Professor Ian Dunn, recently promoted to a Personal Chair in Avian Biology, brings a wealth of experience to his role in which he works with industry partners to improve poultry welfare and productivity. In this interview, he talks about the challenges and rewards of tackling long-term scientific problems.

Please tell us about your work in a nutshell.

I lead a small team working on poultry production traits, to do with chicken eggs and meat. Nearly all of our work is linked in some way with industry.

At the moment, we are doing a lot of research on bone health in laying hens, which are at risk of bone fractures. We are also doing work relating to egg quality and the feeding of broiler breeders – the parents of chickens that are bred to be eaten.

We are trying to understand how food intake is controlled in breeding hens and factors linked to controlling growth in these hens, whose reproductive activity underlies successful meat production.

All of these areas represent welfare or production issues for industry.

I’m also involved in promoting research through organisations such as the World Poultry Science Association. Sector meetings tend to be half academia and half industry, so these are a very good way of interacting with industry.

The poultry industry exists all over the world, in every culture. Eggs are a perfect nutritional food that can make a huge difference to health – for children’s development, they can be transformational. Poultry remains a growing industry providing at least one-third of the world’s animal protein.

What methods do you use for your research?

Our research uses genetics and physiology. For example, in our bone studies we use a lot of classical quantitative genetics – understanding inheritance patterns linked to traits such as size or strength – as well as modern genetic techniques. This work is combined with technology, for example to find ways of measuring egg quality using light or sound, and physiological studies, for example researching how the animals’ hormone systems control behaviour.

For the most part, we work with live chickens here at Roslin or access data from our partners in industry.

How did you come to be in this role?

At school, I was always interested in biology but I had no idea what an academic career was, and so had no particular desire to go to university. I started working at the Government-funded Poultry Research Centre (PRC) at King’s Buildings, home to the University of Edinburgh’s science and engineering campus. It was quite a stimulating place, there were a lot of interesting people.

I had a huge amount of freedom and the opportunity to be creative, even though I’d just left school.

I saw what an academic life could be like and I was motivated quite strongly; I was very lucky to get bursaries from the Agricultural Research Council, one of the forerunners of the BBSRC, to go to university.

I went to the University of St Andrews for my undergraduate degree in physiology and pharmacology, and then was funded through a part-time PhD while working at the Roslin Institute.

I’ve worked here for more than four decades, at three different locations. It’s still a very stimulating place to work.

What do you find interesting about your role?

I enjoy a lot about the work. Solving problems is definitely rewarding. Designing experiments is stimulating, it’s a mental challenge to come up with something neat in order to test a hypothesis. Working with industry to solve problems is very satisfying, when you interact to better understand a problem and can bring a new aspect to it.

In some ways I enjoy presenting my work to others; it’s not really in my character, but I suspect it’s human nature to want to show that you’ve worked on something that has produced a result. If people recognise that, it feels worthwhile. It’s the same when industry is interested – clearly there must be something useful in the work.

What are the main challenges of your role?

Overall, time is a challenge – there isn’t enough time to do all the things I’d like to do and I have to be realistic. In terms of the team’s scientific research, we realise we have more to understand about birds, which have quite a few differences from mammals. For example, we have to understand what controls appetite in farmed chickens, which can appear to be hungry despite their healthy development. We have done quite a bit of work on that, but it is a very difficult problem. There is a lot we don’t know about how birds control their food intake.

On a societal level, we are facing a challenge to convince funders that it’s still worth spending money on science to improve the welfare of animals and reduce the environmental impact of those animals. There is a message throughout society that animals are part of a problem rather than a solution; although people are eating more meat than ever, we are being told we shouldn’t be.

What do you get out of working with commercial partners?

Working with industry has always been part of my role. You have to understand where your industrial partner is coming from, and they have to understand where you’re coming from; you each have different drivers. Often the motivation to solve the problem is the same, but what you each need to get out of it is different. As a scientist you want to talk about the findings and publish them; sometimes for industry, they don’t want that, or they don’t need it and don’t necessarily understand that scientists need it. Industry can have commercial sensitivities, and you have to build trust.

We work closely with breeding companies to bring in new ways of measuring important parameters in eggs or birds, or ways of understanding the relationship between important biological factors. We have created ways of measuring things that previously couldn’t be measured, and these have been put to use in breeding programmes.

My background is not classically academic, so I probably would not enjoy work if it did not have some real world application. Most of the problems we tackle are longstanding and we have been working on these for a long time – in some cases for decades. I do like working on industrial challenges, because if you come up with a solution there is a good chance it will be taken forward.

I’d like to think my work would have some impact on the welfare of animals, improving productivity, or reducing the environmental impact of animals.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist?

When I was starting out, I did consider a career in horticulture – it was something I liked and at the time there was a strong industry in Scotland. It was very difficult to get started without experience, something that was hard to get in a city, so it was ruled out – but I still enjoy gardening at home.

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