Olivia Willoughby

Role: HQP Scholar

Degree: M.Sc.

Project: Understanding the genes and metabolic pathways associated with the resistance of sheep to gastrointestinal nematodes and its climate change effects

Department: Department of Animal Biosciences (OAC)

What inspired you to pursue your current degree? 

I came to Guelph with the dream of becoming a veterinarian but began investigating other animal-related careers in my second year of undergrad after realizing I was not suited to a career in vet med. I was excited to learn about the agricultural research happening at the University of Guelph, and how research findings from U of G were improving life, including animal life! I also have had several internships in various agri-food sectors that allowed me to learn about other aspects of food production, and appreciate the complexity of the food systems we all rely on. By the end of my bachelor’s degree, I realized I still had a lot of unanswered questions and a desire to learn more about improving food systems via animal agriculture. My current M.Sc. position allows me to keep asking and answering questions, and eventually contribute to the improvement of life for sheep, producers, and consumers alike.

What about your research area excites you? 

I am excited about the many different applications that this research will have. Improving the parasite resistance of sheep will have benefits for producers, consumers, and the sheep themselves. Additionally, the relevance of this topic will only increase as weather conditions become more favourable for parasites to thrive due to climate change. So, I am excited that the results of the research will help sheep production remain sustainable and resilient in the face of global warming.

What challenges do you find in your research, and how do you try to overcome them? 

The biggest challenge I have faced in my research so far is data collection – it is quite a process! We collect many different phenotypes from many animals at once, which requires a lot of coordination and planning. Additionally, the timing of data collection is critical – we must time it so that the animals are experiencing a parasite challenge, but not severely, and also collect the data before the animals reach their market age and are sold. Patience and communication are key for overcoming these challenges, and I am very lucky to have a great team of students and producers to work with that make farm days run as smoothly as possible.

How would you describe your research and the implications of your project?

My research exists at an intersection of genomics and immunology. Essentially, I am looking at how gene expression (genomics; specifically transcriptomics) is different between sheep that are resistant or susceptible to gastrointestinal parasites (immunology). The goal of this research is to gain insights into the genetic control of the immune response to parasite infection and to identify genetically superior animals for breeding. In the past, gastrointestinal parasite infections in sheep could be treated with anthelmintic medications, but these treatments have lost their efficacy over time. Identifying the genes and biological pathways that underlie natural resistance to parasites in sheep, as well as how they are regulated is an important part of breeding parasite-resistant sheep. Enhancing disease resistance will reduce the resources used to prevent and treat parasite infestations, reduce consumer concerns of antimicrobial residues in sheep products, and improve sheep welfare by decreasing the prevalence of parasite infections.

What are three of your favourite activities outside the lab? 

Outside of the lab, I love riding horses, playing sports, and visiting cafes to drink iced coffee.

What is one important thing you have learned during the pandemic? 

I have learned a lot during the pandemic, but I think the most important thing I have learned is the value and importance of spending quality time with loved ones. I have a tendency to turn down invitations from friends and family in favour of working or studying. After going through a lockdown and spending time feeling isolated from my community and peers, I have learned to appreciate these moments and not take them for granted, and to say yes more often. This has also helped me to maintain a healthier work-life balance and probably has taught me to enhance my productivity as a result.