NAS featured scientist: Prof Lourens Erasmus - Department of Animal Science
Q: Why did you choose to study Animal Science?
A: During my childhood, I spend most of the school holidays at my grandfather’s farm near Swartruggens. I enjoyed the freedom of farm life and grew fond of farm animals, especially cattle. After military service, I applied for a bursary at the Department of Agriculture and enrolled for BScAgric Animal Science. I had a wonderful fulfilling career as a professional animal scientist thus far and is privileged for the opportunity to introduce young students to the career path of Animal Science.
Q: Why is Science (including Animal Science) important?
A: More than ever science and technology dictate modern life. In order to make well-informed decisions about our health, our environment and even politics, we all need accurate unbiased information. When it comes to science, scientists are the most direct and knowledgeable source of information. They have the knowledge and credibility to counter misinformation and misconceptions on, for example, the so-called factory farming systems, growth promoters, r-BST and perceptions about the nutritional value of foods, which clutter public debate.
Q: What is your view on milk/the role of milk in animal science?
A: The fatty acid profile of milk is the most modifiable of all milk components and can be nutritionally manipulated to procure a healthier end product. Diets high in monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid lower plasma total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and the replacement of saturated fatty acids with cis-unsaturated fatty acids reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. A lower ratio of omega 6: omega 3 fatty acids also reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. It has also been shown that an increase in the CLA concentration of milk has anticarcinogenic effects. The health benefits of milk can be improved through the nutritional manipulation of these fatty acids.
Q: Why is #WorldMilkDay important (celebrated on 1 June)?
A: #WorldMilkDay is an international day established by the FAO of the US to recognise the importance of milk as a global food. It has been observed on June 1 since 2001. The day provides an opportunity to focus attention on milk and raise awareness of dairy’s part in healthy diets, responsible food production and supporting livelihoods and communities. FAO data show that more than one billion people’s livelihoods are supported by the dairy sector and that dairy is consumed by more than six billion people globally. This year the theme for milk day will focus on sustainability in the dairy sector.
Q: Highlights of your career so far?
A: I am privileged to have had, the opportunity to travel abroad to attend conferences, present papers and establish cooperative projects. I have met wonderful interesting people in the global scientific community and some of them became best friends, up to today. Observing how young bright students graduate and develop and grow in the feed industry to become successful and respected colleagues is another highlight of my career.
Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research.
A: My research interest is protein and amino acid nutrition of dairy cows, rumen modulation using feed additives and mitigation of GHG. In a recent study, we demonstrated that the duodenal amino acid profile of dairy cows can be favourably manipulated by feed additives such as direct-fed microbial and yeast products. In another interesting study, we evaluated a seaweed-based product as a buffer in dairy cow diets. A study is planned on the validation of different nutritional prediction models for pasture-based dairy cows.
Q: Describe a day in the life of Prof Erasmus.
A: Every day when I drive from Johannesburg, where I reside, to Pretoria, I use the time productively by getting updated with the news and planning my day. Apart from routine lectures, most days are somewhat unpredictable. There is the daily interaction with students, postgraduate students’ projects must be supervised and amended when necessary, there is constant interaction with industry regarding project funding and writing scientific papers is always a priority. Enquiries from farmers and consultation also add to the daily variety.
Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: Curiosity is a fundamental characteristic of scientists, leading them to study how things in the biological world behave, why and what factors might affect them. A good scientist is a ruthless critical thinker explaining why scepticism is an essential part of a good scientist’s mental makeup. A good scientist must be open-minded but must consider all the facts and hypotheses. Such a scientist will accept whatever outcome his or her work has and not try and force the results of an experiment into a predetermined opinion or theory. Good scientists are not constrained by the lack of funding, but often come up with innovative solutions to solve the problem they are researching.
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: I believe in commitment, whether it be in your personal life, professional life or in a sporting discipline. I also believe in honesty, brutal honesty is far better than creating false hope resulting in more disappointment later on. Learning from your mistakes is important to me; it leaves you wiser and stronger to take full advantage of that second chance/opportunity.
Q: Do you have any advice for prospective animal scientists?
A: A career in animal science makes you part of one of the biggest industries in the world with a myriad of opportunities. You will be part of solving one of humanity’s most critical challenges – the global demand for food and fibre. With the population expected to grow by 2.3 billion by 2050, feeding the world will require raising overall food production by 70%. You will become knowledgeable in animal nutrition, health, behaviour, reproduction, physiology, genetics and animal management. You will contribute to a greater understanding of the complex relationships between domestic animals, companion animals, wildlife, humans and our shared environment.
Q: Who is your role model/mentor?
A: When I joined the ARC, Irene early in my career, Dr Martin Neitz was the head of the Dairy Production Unit. He patiently guided me to bridge the gap between theory and the practical hands-on application of animal science principles. As a researcher, he taught me to love science and scientific exploration, to be patient and detail orientated, to be open-minded but consider all the facts and hypotheses and the importance of good ethics.