Perhaps it is because she is often wearing a laboratory coat, but when you talk to 22-year-old Rebeca Salmeron of Silver Spring, Md., a graduating senior double majoring in animal and poultry sciences and dairy science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, she makes you feel like you are sitting across from a doctor.

Sure she is friendly, but she also exudes the quiet confidence you feel when entrusting your life to a medical professional.

“She can smile, yet be serious,” said Paul Siegel, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of animal and poultry sciences, and one of Salmeron’s advisors. “She’s the type of student that makes being a professor fun.”

That cool-and-in-control bedside manner could have translated well to veterinary work with cats and dogs. Indeed, Salmeron came to Virginia Tech intending to go into veterinary medicine to work with companion animals.

But the beakers and test tubes of the lab beckoned. This month, Salmeron finishes up an undergraduate experience that was filled with unexpected and welcome discoveries.

Two years into her major — even though she had never even been exposed to dairy science or a large-scale dairy operation — she embarked on dairy research that has turned out to be one of the capstones of her undergraduate career: analyzing antibiotic resistance in cows.

“I always had a curiosity about the dairy industry, how it works, and what it actually takes to put the milk on the shelves of grocery store,” said Salmeron. “Once I was given the opportunity to do undergraduate research this past summer, I was able to answer some of my own questions about the industry.”

As part of her experiment design, Salmeron measured the amount of antibiotics in bovine milk and fecal samples. She collected samples from the Virginia Tech dairy farm and then measured the amount of remnant antibiotics present in them.

“The lab work was time-consuming but it all balanced out. I enjoyed learning new lab procedures and techniques firsthand with my graduate student as a mentor,” she said.

While the lab work was a beneficial exercise in learning the ins and outs of designing an experiment and conducting research, her advisor, Katharine Knowlton, says the work has wider implications for Salmeron’s future as a scientist.

“The experiences in the lab taught her to look for a globally important problem and carve out her research niche to help solve the question, ‘What’s the big problem that I can help address?’,” said Knowlton, a professor of dairy science.

Salmeron was surprised at how much she learned from her foray into dairy science and animal and poultry sciences — and how that knowledge can be applied elsewhere.

“In my very short three years I learned that the dairy industry is one of the more efficient industries that most Americans rely on,” she said. “The hard work of dairy farming has improved immensely over the years, minimizing the time and labor to raise the ideal dairy cow and collect the most milk in the least time.”

Because Salmeron had such success working in a field that she previously had little or no exposure to, she says she doesn’t want to limit her career options and is waiting to see where animal science will take her.

“Getting my degrees is just one accomplishment in a three-to-four step process,” she said. “I intend to go to graduate school after some time off, where I will be gaining experience at different work sites, finalizing my career path, and determining my graduate school emphasis.”

Because of her education, Salmeron has the option of choosing myriad professional routes.

“I’ve been able to work with dairy cows, poultry, and livestock. There are a lot of job opportunities in the dairy industry, be they on-farm, in labs, or even in the field as an Extension agent. I've come across numerous internships, jobs, and research possibilities through my advisor and other dairy professors,” said Salmeron. “Virginia Tech dairy students come highly recommended and I am proof of that.”

This summer Salmeron will be casting her net even further afield, and working as an intern at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo with their lions, tigers, and other big cats.

Where Salmeron goes with her research experience at Virginia Tech beyond the big cats in Omaha is anybody’s guess. Wherever that is, given her past successes, she’ll be ready to face those challenges with the assuredness of an exacting scientist and the approachability of a wise family doctor.

Written by Amy Loeffler.

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