October 07, 2004

New dairy expert is a long way from home

by K.C. Jaehnig

Though Southern Illinois University Carbondale's newest dairy expert grew up in a desert land working with sheep and goats, they're not (pardon the pun) udderly different critters from the ones he works with now.

"I look at myself as a ruminant nutritionist; that covers dairy, beef, sheep, goats - - everything!" said Amer A. AbuGhazaleh. (Pronounce that "AH-mare ah-boo-gah-ZAH-lah" - - it'll be easier, he says, if you just ask for AH-mare.)

"I did work with dairy goats back home, so I'm very familiar with their processes - - it's quite similar to cows," he added.

AbuGhazaleh earned his bachelor's degree in animal science in 1995 from Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, a Bronze Age city in northern Jordan not far from the Syrian border.Home is Jordan, an arid country just a bit smaller than Indiana, where farmers coax wheat, barley, melons, tomatoes and citrus fruit from the tiny plots of ground where crops will grow.

He moved to Brookings, S.D., in January 1997 to work on a master's degree in dairy science at South Dakota State University.

"I think that was the coldest winter they had in 15 years," AbuGhazaleh said.

"I didn't have a car that first semester, and I had to walk to my classes. It was 40 degrees below zero - - that was something new to me."

His master's research focused on using diet to boost the percentage of protein in the milk cows give. He found that feeding dairy cows fishmeal would do just that - - and more.

"When we were feeding the fishmeal, we improved the profile of the milk fat - - we increased certain fatty acids in the milk," he said.

"That was very interesting because these fatty acids are known to fight cancer in humans. It led me to the work I did for my dissertation."

As part of his doctoral research at South Dakota, AbuGhazaleh attempted to increase the amount of those particular fatty acids in milk even more with a diet that included fish oils.

"We were successful in coming up with a feeding regimen that did so, and we also found that using the fish oil in combination with other plant oils was the best way to increase the healthy fatty acids in milk," he said.

After finishing his doctorate in 2002, AbuGhazaleh joined the research lab of Thomas Jenkins, a Clemson University scientist who has been working with milk fat manipulation and has succeeded not only in lowering milk's overall fat content but in changing what's left to a healthier form similar to what you might find in olive oil.

"He's one of the leaders in this field," he said. "His work is well received and recognized by many scientists working in this area."

During his 18 months with Jenkins, AbuGhazaleh searched for and found the unique properties in fish oil responsible for the uptick in fatty acids - - work he will continue on the SIUC campus.

AbuGhazaleh's predecessor, Kenneth E. Griswold, who left the University last fall for a position with industry, had a similar research focus. Griswold's fully equipped lab, complete with machines that mimic digestive action, was a big draw in recruiting AbuGhazaleh.

"It has everything I need - - I didn't have to start from zero," he said. "And I like working in small departments. It's easier to work on projects with other faculty."

In addition to his research responsibilities, AbuGhazaleh is also teaching classes related to nutrition and dairy management and running the college's dairy farm. Look for changes in that farm in the near future.

"We are now in the process of fencing 40 to 50 acres to use as pastureland for our cows - - we hope to have that done by the end of the semester," he said.

"The main reason is to cut down the cost of feeding the cows, but grazing can also improve the nutritional value of their milk, which will allow me to use these cows in different research projects."

Remodeling projects at the barns will create additional research and classroom space and, down the road, perhaps more stalls as well.

"Right now we have only about 40 cows," AbuGhazaleh said. "If we increase the numbers, that would give me enough to do better research."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.