Class of 2021: Zach Klonicke pursues his passion for animal and poultry sciences
'I had incredible professors who pushed me during my time here. None of my professors coddled me. They helped me apply myself in the best way that I could and set me up for future successes,' Klonicke said.
When Zach Klonicke was 16, he interned at a private veterinary practice, working exclusively at its kennel. He took care of the dogs and cleaned out the cages, but he also experienced the treatment side of the practice — something that set him down his career path.
“I just fell in love with it,” Klonicke said, who is graduating with a bachelor of science in animal and poultry sciences. “A lot of the doctors I worked with went to Virginia Tech, and that’s when I considered this a long-term career option.”
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences had everything that the Coatesville, Pennsylvania, native wanted: the opportunity to work at local farms, opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research, and a veterinary school on campus.
“I had incredible professors who pushed me during my time here,” he said. “None of my professors coddled me. They helped me apply myself in the best way that I could and set me up for future successes.”
Klonicke’s internal motivation and drive for excellence stood out to Dan Eversole, his academic advisor.
“He has been a very inquisitive student who has a strong interest in learning as much as he can about production agriculture,” said Eversole, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. “I am most proud of Zach and what he has accomplished and gained as an undergraduate. He has always taken an active role in class discussions and has persevered when faced with difficulty by asking pertinent questions. He is a highly motivated student who has high expectations for himself. One can look far and wide and not find another undergraduate student with his exemplary commitment to campus life and community service.”
On-campus involvement leads to a postgraduate internship
Klonicke got his first taste of undergraduate research in the bovine reproduction lab run by Michelle Rhoads, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. He assisted Rhoads with two research projects, including one on the effects of glucose and insulin concentrations on follicles under heat stress conditions of lactating Holstein cows.
The research project started at Kentland Farm before it transitioned to Virginia Tech’s main campus. As an undergraduate research assistant, Klonicke helped with feedings, record keeping, and milking, which the dairy cattle need twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
In an expanded role as an undergraduate supervisor, Klonicke helped collect the samples that were sent to Rhoads’ lab for analysis – something that only those trusted by the graduate students and Rhoads were able to do.
It was similar to Klonicke’s first job at the kennel – he got comfortable around the animals, worked with them to learn their temperament, how the animals move, and what their psychology is.
He earned a leadership position in the project and began teaching other undergraduate students the ins and outs of the research project.
“It was a grind, but I learned more than I ever could solely from a classroom,” Klonicke said. “Had I not done that research, I would have missed out on so many relationships that I now cherish. This was one of the best decisions I made in college.”
Working in that lab set Klonicke down the path he is on today. He laid the foundation of his technical skills and learned how a research lab generally functions.
His drive and dedication rewarded him an internship at the Gardiner Angus Ranch in Kansas, which he will begin in spring 2022. During the internship, Klonicke will help with calf processing, palpating heifers, embryo scoring, driving cattle – things that he learned while at Virginia Tech.
He’ll also help with the day-to-day farm work and arranging the bi-annual bull sale at the farm.
“I wouldn’t have known about this opportunity without my professors,” Klonicke said. “When my professors signed off on me – that they trusted me to do good work – it meant a lot and gave me that extra push I need to further my career.”
A life-changing trip
In January 2020, Klonicke, along with nearly 20 other undergraduate students, Dave Gerrard, the head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, and Cindy Wood, an associate professor of animal and poultry sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, embarked on a trip to São Paulo, Brazil, to experience an agricultural powerhouse firsthand for two weeks.
During the eco-study tour, the group visited local producers and local farms to see how agriculture functioned in another country.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Klonicke said. “It was amazing to draw comparisons between Brazilian agriculture and how we operate in America, where each country excels and where there’s room for improvement.”
One of the most influential moments came for Klonicke when the group visited Sapé Agro, which had crop fields, poultry, dairy, and more. When Klonicke saw their dairy facilities, he was impressed.
“The automation stood out to me,” Klonicke said. “The cow walks into the facility and lasers scan where the anatomy is, and someone is at a desk watching the data go into his computer. They see how the cow is eating, what she’s producing in relation to the rest of the herd, and more.”
After the trip, Klonicke returned to Blacksburg, his decision reinforced that this is the field he needs to be in and what he is supposed to do with his career.
Living out Ut Prosim
Upon his first encounter with Virginia Tech, Klonicke saw the importance of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) firsthand.
His exemplary service on campus includes time spent as a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Animal and Poultry Sciences ambassador, resident advisor, and volunteer work at Virginia Tech’s Smithfield and Campbell Equine Centers.
To become an ambassador, Klonicke was nominated by faculty, went through an interview process, and was ultimately voted upon by the other ambassadors and his advisor. In this role, he impacted future Hokies by assisting with freshman orientation and open houses, met directly with the future Hokies and their families, and helped lead animal facility tours.
“It isn’t some mantra that is thrown at you. It’s not some boilerplate. Graduating means that I’m going out into the world to serve others. I’m very excited to take everything I’ve learned here and apply it to help someone’s life to be better,” Klonicke said.
His long-term goal is to improve the quality of life of animals and to improve whatever industry Klonicke joins, helping his community thrive in the process.