Student-Professor Team Dedicates Summer to Goat Research

Dr. Steve Zeng & Magnus Scott
In the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Summer Research Team Program for Minority-Serving Institutions at the Center of Excellence of Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases in Kansas, student Magnus Scott and his professor, Steve Zeng, Ph.D., (not pictured), deployed molecular tests to detect pathogens in goat milk.

For cheese connoisseurs, goat cheese ranks high on the list of favorites because of its distinct flavor and creamy texture. It enhances lasagna, salads, frittatas and many other foods.

While goat cheese has been well-regulated concerning sanitation, composition and quality in the United States for the last decade, a process to detect foodborne pathogens has not been readily available.

Steve Zeng, Ph.D., and Magnus Scott wanted to improve the safety of goaDr. Stevet milk and cheese during their summer spent at the Center of Excellence of Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases (CEEZAD) at Kansas State University.

Zeng, an associate professor in the School of Agriculture & Applied Sciences at Langston University (LU) in Oklahoma, and Scott, a junior in natural resources management at Langston, received this opportunity through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team (SRT) Program for Minority Serving Institutions.

The purpose of the DHS SRT Program is to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS. The program provides faculty and student research teams the opportunity to conduct research at the university-based DHS Centers of Excellence (DHS Centers). The SRT Program and DHS Centers are sponsored by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate Office of University Programs.

Under the mentorship of assistant professor Jianfa Bai, Ph.D., at CEEZAD, Zeng and Scott helped improve the safety of goat milk and cheese for American consumers by developing a test to accurately detect E. coli in goat milk and feces. To do this, they collected milk and goat fecal samples from three dairy goat farms in Kansas and Oklahoma and transported these samples to the laboratory.

The samples were cultured overnight in an E. coli “broth” to see if E. coli would grow to a detectable level. The culturing process allowed the researchers to extract DNA and detect the presence of E. coli strains and their virulence genes.

Zeng and Scott found that individual goat milk samples did not contain E. coli, indicating good milking procedures and healthy udder conditions. However, all fecal samples contained one or more strains of E. coli and associated virulence genes.

“Our research indicated that goat feces and the farm environment were natural reservoirs of E. coli. Therefore, good practices in milking, farm management and animal health must be enforced to eliminate contamination of E. coli from goat milk for human consumption,” said Zeng, a dairy products specialist.

Zeng and Scott’s research will be used to ensure safer dairy practices and to develop new undergraduate student research programs at LU for students interested in goat farming.

In addition to providing an avenue for Zeng and Scott to contribute research to CEEZAD, the DHS SRT MSI Program also connected them to local commercial dairy goat farmers who were long-time clientele of the American Institute for Goat Research at LU.

“It was an excellent interaction for me,” said Zeng, who noted that he and others at LU are always trying to help improve goat milk quality and enhance the values of goat milk products.

Of all the perks of the DHS SRT MSI Program, Zeng appreciated most the opportunity to devote 100 percent of his time to research—time that is hard to come by in the university setting where student lesson plans are given top priority.

Scott also enjoyed spending his summer immersed in hands-on research. This experience has convinced him to pursue an advanced degree upon graduation.

“I could really see how Scott learned basic biotechnologies and applied classroom knowledge to solving real-world problems for the goat farmers. During the summer, he opened up to new career possibilities,” said Zeng about his student. “I believe most students at our institutions need to be exposed to this kind of applied research, rather than existing mostly in the theoretical realm until graduation.”

Above all, the DHS SRT MSI Program allowed both Zeng and Scott to acquire new techniques and skills that have impacted their scientific ways of thinking.

“The experience was excellent. I would recommend it to anyone, especially other faculty and students at LU,” said Zeng.

Scott agreed.

“The positive vibes presented from Dr. Bai’s crew were unbelievable. I can truly say that building a relationship with everyone played a key role in my enjoyment of the DHS SRT MSI program,” he said. “Overall, the program helped me grow as a person, and I would highly recommend more minority students take advantage of this opportunity.”

The DHS SRT MSI Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) through an interagency agreement between DOE and DHS. ORISE is managed by ORAU for DOE.