Age: 23 //
Occupation: Master’s of Animal Science student, Michigan State University //
Major at GC: Biology, Minor: Economics
Why did you come to Georgia College?
I originally was opposed to Georgia College because I was antsy to get away from home. I toured some campuses in Atlanta, but my mom was really persistent on me touring Georgia College. Once I did, it felt like home. I know it sounds cliché, and probably everyone says the same thing, but it really is true. It just felt like home. I didn’t look at another school after that.
Did you have a favorite class?
I took a class called Biology of Cancer with Dr. Ellen France and that was probably my favorite class, education-wise. It really took everything I learned through biology and chemistry up until that point, brought it all home and made it fit in a way where I could use all that knowledge and think about things in way that I never had before. Dr. France is really good at her job and actually made everyone interview for that class, so that you were really serious about taking it. It was probably the most rewarding class I took at Georgia College.
What do you love most about science?
It pushes you to think outside the normal bounds. You can take science and research in whatever direction you want. It’s really about discovery and answering all the “Why?” questions, instead of just finding out details and never pushing forward. It’s about getting to the root of the problem.
Can you tell me more about your undergraduate research?
I had a class called Ethics and What We Eat, taught by a philosophy professor, Dr. Mark Causey. That class changed my entire life and put me on a different path from then on. The class was focused around the food industry: environmental impacts and animal welfare. It really opened our eyes to what is happening and where food is coming from. I got super interested in it, continued to do my own research after the class and got really interested in some of the food safety issues that were a product of industrial food production, such as E. coli and Salmonella.
On a side note, other things were happening in my biology career: I got a “B” in my first class ever. I was really unhappy, and I really didn’t feel like I deserved it, so I went to Dr. Pillay’s office to talk about this “B.” He asked, “But are you doing research?” I said “No,” because to my knowledge, all the professors in the biology department were doing zoology and mammalogy research, so I didn’t know of anyone doing anything that I was interested in. He just flat out asked: “What kind of research would you want to do? What would it take for you to do research?” I told him about the food industry and the food pathogens that I was really interested in. He offered to take me on as a research student and gave me his lab.
Taylor, one of my good friends in the biology department, was really interested in food too, so I asked her if she’d like to join.
I’ve heard that your research has been published. How did that happen?
That was the plan from the beginning. It was important to me – and really to everyone who eats meat in general. The food safety issue is a big deal, especially in recent years. We’ve had a lot of outbreaks. We decided to do the research, see what kind of results we got and then try to publish it. We really wanted all of that research to have some sort of impact in the end. Our final for the research for Dr. Pillay was getting it written up in manuscript form. It was a laborious process.
We got published early this year in the Georgia Journal of Science.
What are the main things you discovered from that research?
We were comparing different E. coli loads in grass-fed beef that we obtained from different farmer’s markets and grain-fed beef that we obtained from some retail markets. We found that the retail markets have some pathogenic E. coli loads, and we didn’t find any on the grass-fed beef. But the sample size was too small to say that that is the case always or definitively.
What led you to further your education?
I started on this food industry and animal welfare thing, and it really broke my heart in that class that I took with Dr. Causey. Seeing the way that we produce meat animals in the United States, I couldn’t live with myself knowing that that kind of thing was happening without trying to make a difference. It didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t know exactly why things were happening the way they were in industrial meat production.
I started reaching out to some professors and researchers whose articles I read. I found a professor named Jason Rowntree at Michigan State who was leading the industry on grass-fed beef research and seeing what kind of environmental impact happened. I decided that it would be best to get a degree in animal science, that way, when I do try and step into the industry to make a difference, no one is going to question my knowledge on the production industry.
Michigan State is a great school. It’s the second-leading agriculture school in the United States. I definitely made the right choice.
You’re getting your Ph.D., I hear?
Yes. A couple months ago I got accepted into the University of California at Berkeley in their Environmental Science Policy and Management department. It was one of those affirmation moments where you know you’re doing the right thing.
I got started on the research that I’m doing now looking at the environmental impact of the animal industry and realized that there is so much to be done in this arena alone. It’s right at the beginning of a huge movement that’s happening. I wanted to be a part of it and I knew that I had a lot more to learn – as I’m sure I will for the rest of my life.
Berkeley is at the forefront of this kind of research. They have the Berkeley Food Institute and the number one environmental science program in the United States. I gave it a shot, thinking that there was no way I was going to get in, and I did, so I’m going to go.
What would you like to do after your Ph.D.?
Ideally, I would really like to play a role in working with policy, maybe for the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) or some sort of NGO (non-governmental organization). I know in Washington D.C., one of the big NGOs, called NSAC (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition), works with agricultural policy, trying to get out grandfathered-in policies that make it possible for some of the environmental degradation to occur. That’s what I’m going to focus my Ph.D. research on: figuring out what the environmental impacts are and how these can translate to effective policy. The science is already out there to show us what we can do and how we can do better; really what’s lagging is policy and giving people the incentive to do it – both producer and consumer. My dream job would be working at the forefront of that.
What would you consider your greatest success?
Probably my research now. I really was nervous at the beginning of this animal science degree. It was unlike anything else I had ever done. Most people who are furthering their education in animal science already have an undergraduate degree in it. I was stepping into a world where I had no experience.
I really, for lack of a better word, busted my butt trying to learn everything. I built the research that I’m doing now from the ground up. I designed it just like I did with the research I did with Dr. Pillay. Knowing that I did it by myself, the right way, and I’ve done something impactful, has been the most rewarding thing for me.
Any advice for current biology majors?
Absolutely do research. I was one of those people – you hear it in every seminar: “Do research! Reach out to the professors!” – I brushed it off every time. In all honesty, if I had not walked into Dr. Pillay’s office that day complaining about a “B,” I wouldn’t be where I am right now. If I hadn’t done that research, I probably wouldn’t be on the career path that I am. Now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
I really think that’s a game changer, especially for Georgia College students. They’re in a cool place. It’s a small school; it’s a small biology department – that gives a cool leverage to do research. In a lot of really big research institutes, it’s hard to get in labs. It’s cut-throat. I think that students at Georgia College have really good resources at their disposal and should take advantage of them.
Bonus: Check out this 2015 Front Page story about Paige!