Morgan Pyles

Photo courtesy Morgan Pyles. 

This month, I had the opportunity to speak with doctoral candidate Morgan Pyles, MS, before she left for her new job. As a graduate research assistant under Laurie Lawrence, PhD, professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, Pyles has researched issues related to mare milk composition and foal digestive health. She received two degrees from UK: a Bachelor of Science in equine science and management and Master of Science in animal sciences, specializing in equine nutrition. She will defend her doctoral work shortly and expects to receive her PhD in animal sciences, specializing in equine nutrition.

First, can you fill us in on your new position so we can congratulate you on this exciting new phase of your career? I know you are teaching this semester. Is that part of the new position?

I have accepted an equine science lecturer position at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. The four-year equine program offers a range of equine science and equitation courses. I am teaching a variety of equine classes, including equine exercise physiology, reproduction, horse production and western equitation.

You are on track to receive three degrees from UK. Did you think about going elsewhere for one of them? Were you worried that three degrees from the same institution would be a limiting factor?

Yes, I will have three degrees from UK. However, before coming to UK, I attended Central Wyoming College, where I obtained an AAS in horse management and two credentials. The equine program in Wyoming was quite different than here at UK and provided diverse experiences for me. Toward the end of my MS, I did consider going elsewhere for my PhD. I was in contact with several other schools and had a wonderful opportunity for a doctoral fellowship at the University of Florida.

However, Dr. Lawrence also offered for me to stay with her for my PhD. Deciding where I wanted to spend the next four to five years working toward a PhD is an important decision, and it wasn’t mine alone. I have a husband and a son, and they were very important in making that decision as well. Many factors went into my decision to stay at UK. First, I don’t think I could find a better mentor to study under than Dr. Lawrence. She has an unending wealth of knowledge and I wanted to learn as much as I could from her. When deciding to start a PhD program, it is very important to be passionate about the research that you are going to be entrenched in for the next several years. I felt I had just barely scratched the surface of my research area with my MS project and was excited about the possibility of continuing my mare and foal research through my PhD program. At about the time I was finishing my MS, our department hired a new assistant professor, Dr. Rachel Schendel, who is an expert in carbohydrates. One of my interests for my PhD research was to investigate carbohydrates in mare milk, and she was just the person. Not only did we have great options and support for doctoral work option at UK, but we also have great support in our personal lives. I went into my PhD with a 3-year-old, so having support was invaluable. My husband’s parents live in Kentucky and have been our go-to babysitters over the years when I had research studies, classes and all the business that comes with graduate school.

So together, being able to do the research that I wanted to do, with the mentor that I had and support system available to me, staying at UK was the best option for me and my family.

There are a lot of different opinions on having several degrees from the same institution. I have been fortunate to be able to work in many different labs across the university, including the USDA ARS Microbiology lab, a food science lab, ruminant nutrition lab and Regulatory Services. Being able to collaborate and make connections is important regardless of where you earn your degrees and I think I have been successful in doing just that. I think that if you are productive, involved, actively seek out opportunities to diversify your experiences, then the location of your degree programs is somewhat irrelevant.

If graduate school hadn’t worked out, did you have a fallback career in mind? What was it?

To be honest, not really. I have wanted to teach and be involved in academia since my first TA experience in Wyoming. That was my goal and I was going to work hard until I got there.

How did you get interested in equine nutrition? How did you get to work in Dr. Lawrence’s lab?

I knew I wanted to get some research experience during my undergrad years and both nutrition and reproduction piqued my interest during my undergraduate program. My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Coleman, connected me with Dr. Ed Squires and the equine reproduction group in the Veterinary Science Department. I was hired as an undergraduate research assistant to primarily help on a stallion study; Dr. Lawrence was a collaborator on the study as it involved a feed supplement. Through that study, I met Dr. Lawrence and when she found out I was looking for a graduate position, she offered me the position. I was very fortunate that I was in the right place at the right time to be able to start my graduate program in Dr. Lawrence’s lab. Dr. Lawrence already had the funding for my MS project, which evaluated the effect of starch source on fecal bacteria in mares and their foals. I also conducted an additional study during my MS program that investigated changes in fecal bacteria with probiotic use during an antibiotic challenge. Through my master’s program, I really fell in love with nutrition and came to realize that nutrition can have an impact on every other area of equine science.

You have 18 publications to your credit. What did you learn about the process of writing research articles for peer-reviewed journals?

Writing in the sciences takes a lot more time than you think it will take. Reading articles and critically evaluating them is a great way to learn how to write. We have weekly lab meetings where we will present and discuss journal articles. I always learn something by doing this, what to do, not to do, areas that needed more description, etc.

What surprised you most about following this academic path? What did you find most rewarding?

I really enjoy being with the horses. Most of my research has been with mares and foals, and let me tell you, I have gained a lot of respect for these broodmares. They are tough, resilient and are fighters, putting in time and effort behind the scenes to produce future generations. I love being able to follow the foals that have been on my studies as they are sold at Fasig-Tipton and move on to have great careers!

I also really enjoy sharing my research at various conferences and events. It is so rewarding to see the end result of all of the hard work that went into conducting the study, feeding, collecting samples, lab work and analyzing samples. Putting it all together to tell a story and share that story with others is exciting to me.

What have you enjoyed most about working in Dr. Lawrence’s lab?

The people that I have worked with through Dr. Lawrence’s lab are some of the best! Words cannot express how much our lab techs, Susan Hayes and Andrea Crum, mean to me. They have been there through all of the highs and lows of grad school, spending hours and hours at the farm and in the lab. I have really enjoyed the support in Dr. Lawrence’s lab. When I started my PhD program, I wanted to analyze milk oligosaccharides in mare milk. No one had done that before at UK and I had the support I needed to help develop and validate the assay.

Can you describe what your actual work as a doctoral candidate was like so readers have an idea of what you did on a daily or weekly basis?

It was quite varied, as expected, depending on where I was in my program. I was taking classes each fall and spring semester during the first two years of my PhD program. The classes I took were decided upon by through discussions with Dr. Lawrence and my PhD advisory committee and included classes in animal science, statistics, teaching and biochemistry, among others.

My research was with mares and foals; therefore, my studies were pretty much scheduled for me. Mares are having foals in the spring whether I was ready or not. During research studies, the graduate student is responsible for the care of those horses, meaning I was there morning and afternoon, every day, for the duration of the study to feed, sample and care for the horses. I would sample foals throughout their first month after birth, so my studies typically ran from about February to June. Some of the samples that I collected involved fecal samples from foals. We found out that foals do not defecate very frequently in their early days, thus I have spent countless hours watching and waiting for foal feces! All the while, I was still taking classes. I knew from the beginning of my graduate career that I wanted to eventually have a teaching component to my career. Because of that, I sought out opportunities to serve as a TA or guest lecture when I could. About two years into my PhD program, I took my qualifying exams, and was done with classes. For the past two years I have continued with research projects, lab work, presenting and writing. I also was hired as an adjunct faculty at Georgetown College to teach an animal nutrition course in 2018.

In summary, my responsibilities as a grad student included taking classes, conducting research (feeding and caring for the horses and sampling), analyzing samples in the lab, teaching/helping with classes and presenting research findings at conferences.

You have done a lot of research on mares and foals. Which do you prefer to work with, and why?

Watching foals grow and develop is very satisfying to me. Through my research, we are trying to figure out what is going on in their little gut and how to keep these foals as healthy as can be. I love that my research focuses on trying to improve the health of the foal by understanding the factors that may predispose them to developing gastrointestinal upsets.

What are some of your plans for the coming year(s), either in the lab/school, with your horse or personally?

Getting settled into Minnesota. I am really excited to get involved in the equine industry in Minnesota. I am hoping to get back to competing on my horses, hopefully get back to rodeoing and some reined cow horse shows.

Now that you are finished with your doctoral work, do you think your life will slow down a little? What are you looking forward to doing most now that you are almost done?

Well, I am still finishing up writing my dissertation and will be doing that remotely while teaching in Minnesota. I am planning to defend within the next six months. So no, I don’t think things will slow down quite yet with starting a job while finishing up my dissertation. But when I was contacted about this position, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a great job, especially during these difficult times.
I do have two horses. One is somewhat retired, the other I have been able to ride through graduate school, but not quite as much as I would like. Before coming to Kentucky, I roped, barrel raced and started in reined cow horse shows.

I understand you are involved in the Equine Alumni Affiliate Network. Can you tell me about that experience?

I have been involved with this alumni group for the past four years. We started out just as a small group of a few alums that Kristen Wilson had organized to help plan a tailgate at Rolex. We had so much fun doing that, and we saw the need to continue organizing events and activities to bring together alumni from UK’s equine undergraduate program. I have been part of the executive committee as the secretary since its inauguration, and we became an official alumni affiliate network in 2019. We have such wonderful alums serving on our board of directors, and we have been able to accomplish such great things in the few years we have been together. I have really enjoyed the experience and will continue to serve as the secretary. I see it as a way to give back to the program that has done so much for me.

| Karin Pekarchik, MS, senior extension associate for distance learning and founder of the UK Female Equestrian Health and Wellness Community of Practice, provided this information.

Morgan and foals

Photo courtesy Morgan Pyles.