Dr Oluyinka Opoola is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre of Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH). 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 talks about how her work benefits both livestock and people in developing countries and why she thinks it is so important to encourage more young girls to study science.
Could you tell me about your research in a nutshell?
I am a research fellow with CTLGH and study the genomics 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 now developing economic values for the desirable traits of interest 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 in this project 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?
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 paediatric doctor 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.
What is the importance of this work?
Millions of people living in low- and middle-income countries are living 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 own 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 livestock genetic or performance data and translating their mathematical values into something practical and meaningful that can be passed onto farmers to implement on their own 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 and 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. The PhD pooled dairy performance data across countries in Africa of which this research was the first of its kind for Africa!
Have you faced any challenges working as a scientist and what are they?
There are many challenges working in research but I believe that finding ways to overcome challenges 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 has a global reputation for its science.
Something I have noticed is that people, unsure by my name, sometimes just assume that I am male. Some people (even within science) are surprised that there are young female researchers working in genomic research too. I think we still have a lot of work to do to break down these stereotypes of what a scientists looks like and show people, especially young girls, that a career in science is open to them.
Finally, if you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
Aside science, my biggest passion is athletics and fitness. I really enjoy playing badminton, high intensity training and long distance walks. I find that these activities help me to switch off from life and work pressures and helps boost my physical and mental wellbeing. So, if I wasn’t a scientist, I would definitely be doing something related to sport, fitness and well-being.
Oluyinka’s project is a collaboration with the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) and Send a Cow (SAC). It is part of a larger Jersey Inka Nziza (Beautiful Jersey Cow) project led by the Royal Jersey Agricultural & Horticultural Society and funded by Jersey Overseas Aid. You can read more about the project here.