A passion to help people through animal agriculture

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Graduate student in Texas A&M’s Department of Poultry Science shares his path to working with avian genetics

Kolton Witherspoon ’23 always knew he wanted to be a part of the agriculture industry.

Witherspoon, who studied with the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Poultry Science for his undergraduate degree, has since returned to pursue graduate studies with the associate department head for undergraduate education, Giri Athrey, Ph.D.

Poultry Science graduate student Kolton Witherspoon, giving a thumbs up, squats down beside Reveille, the official mascot of Texas A&M University.
Kolton Witherspoon ’23 always had a passion to help people and decided the best way to do that was through animal agriculture. (Courtesy photo)

A former Poultry Science Club officer, Witherspoon was named one of the College’s Senior Merit award winners. The senior merit awards are the highest award given to undergraduates in the College.

“I have always felt something pulling me toward animal agriculture,” Witherspoon said. “I also always wanted to help people, even from a young age, and I felt the best way for me to do this was through working with animals.”

Witherspoon’s ambitious attitude towards studying avian genetics developed over time, and this summer it led to an overseas internship with Aviagen Genetics in Scotland.

He recently sat down with us to discuss his experience during the internship, his academic journey and advice for current students.

Why did you choose to study poultry science at Texas A&M?

I chose to attend Texas A&M University due to the prestige of the veterinary program. I decided to pursue poultry science with a technical emphasis as a pre-veterinary route due to the high number of veterinary prerequisites available in the degree plan. However, from the moment I entered the department, I knew I wanted to be a part of the poultry industry in some way.

I felt God brought me to the College to be a part of something bigger. My plan was to be a poultry veterinarian until I found my true passion for genetics. Long story short, I feel like God instilled in me a desire to help people to the best of my abilities. That inspired me to work to get to a place where helping others was possible within the poultry science department.

That path led me to genetics, and I now have the opportunity to find solutions to ensure the world has a sustainable protein source. The fact that I enjoy the challenge and ingenuity of the genetics field makes it that much sweeter.

Tell us about your internship with Aviagen Genetics and how your academic experiences helped prepare you for it.

I learned a lot about my cultural origins and the workings of a company where I felt I could potentially work. Scotland is a beautiful place with a highly welcoming atmosphere.

Kolton Witherspoon standing in front of a window with text on it that reads "Aviagen".
Current graduate student, Kolton Witherspoon ’23 got the opportunity to intern abroad this summer with Aviagen Genetics in Scotland. (Courtesy photo)

I was stunned by how much people wanted Collin, an intern from Auburn, Alabama, and me to experience everything and came up with so many ideas for us while in different parts of Scotland. The networking opportunities were astounding, and I feel like I made some life-long friendships.

Workwise, I was astounded by how well my schooling at the university prepared me for this broad internship. I was able to view most facets of their operations in the UK, and already being knowledgeable of operations and the inner workings of the industry allowed me to ask more questions about the company and its management.

From my perspective this summer, I could see how vital people are to a company’s performance. I never thought I would learn this much about people and how to encourage a team with various backgrounds toward a similar goal. The curriculum within the department that I received allowed me to understand the methods of adequately managing poultry, ensuring the safety of birds from hatch to table.

My biomedical sciences and genetics coursework also allowed me to understand the company’s workings better. One of my favorite highlights was our opportunity to visit Aviagen’s bacteriology, virology and genomics labs.

I truly felt prepared and knowledgeable talking with people in these departments, and I enjoyed picking their brains. Seeing Aviagen’s measures in providing a safe life for their birds and how they provide disease-free chickens for their customers to raise was comforting.

In my opinion, agriculture is truly blessed to have the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and its ability to prepare people for the jobs that impact the security of our world.

What made you want to return to study avian genetics?

As a high school student, I had attended the department’s camp for prospective students. At the Poultry Institute for Youth, I first encountered Dr. Giri Athrey and was intrigued by his presentation.

As my interest in the avian medical field grew, I became more interested in potentially joining his lab group. My freshman year was when I made a slight shift to try to become a poultry veterinarian, though there was still a feeling I was being pushed in a different direction.

Around my junior year, I talked with my now primary investigator in my master’s program, Dr. Athrey, about my wanting to join his lab as an undergrad. We talked about my current interests and future plans. I told him about my growing passion for the genetics side of poultry.

He patiently listened through my spiel about wanting to become a vet, and he said something that I think of often as the moment God used as a wake-up call to what was right in front of me. He said, “You do know you do not have to become a veterinarian to do genetics, right?”

Everything clicked then. My path became clear. The same day, I decided to work toward a doctorate in genetics, and I felt Dr. Athrey was the person who could make this happen.

What are your goals for the future once you have completed your studies here?

I enjoy finding solutions to problems that can impact poultry and have potential implications for other species or even human health.

I feel that Dr. Athrey’s lab group is the right place to explore this. There is potential for the work being done through my Ph.D. project to lead to a career.

Separately, I enjoy the intricacies of lab work and seeing the results of my work. I am not afraid to get my hands dirty, so I can see myself in a genetics or microbiology research and development-type setting in poultry. One day, I hope to return to academia to influence the next generation of poultry scientists and agriculturalists.

What advice would you give current poultry science students interested in a similar career?

People need to find joy in what they do. I feel that is vital for everyone. Being in a job or work environment that you don’t like can be taxing.

Genetics isn’t for everyone, just like welding on a deep-sea oil rig isn’t for everybody. Working and following that feeling will take you to places you’ve never dreamed you could go — and where you are meant to be.

If you find your support system, you can lift yourself to where you are meant to be. I was lucky to find something I enjoy. Yes, it is stressful and I have a busy schedule, but I enjoy working with lab equipment, different biotechnologies and working toward making a difference for the world and the people in it.

The greatest thing I can be thankful for with my upbringing in a non-agricultural background is the character and work ethic my family and Christ instilled in me. Your initiative and character are what people see and can get behind when the time for a payoff does come around. I try to carry joy with me every day.

The Department of Poultry Science is amazing for developing both these ideals of finding joy and pride in your work, along with “building your brand” in the minds of their students.

What do you like to do when you are not busy with graduate studies? 

I enjoy spending quality time with my friends and family doing various activities. I grew up fishing, playing baseball and football, so I enjoy those in my off time. I also enjoy hiking, especially after my internship experience.

Being an Aggie, I enjoy supporting Texas A&M athletics when I can. It is nice to savor the things I enjoy when I have free time.