‘Chicken guy’ Siegel reflects on decades of work with students
BLACKSBURG, Va. — The poultry industry looks to Virginia Tech’s Dr. Paul Siegel as a leader in aiding broiler production, but he finds satisfaction in something else: his students.
Among the honors Siegel has received is the American Poultry Historical Society awarding him its highest honor. It inducted him into its Hall of Fame at the International Poultry Expo in Atlanta in 2010.
“The students who work with me have had attitude,” the 86-year-old chicken geneticist said in a recent interview in his campus lab. “An attitude that they didn’t come here to learn, but they came here to learn how to learn.”
One of those students, Christa Honaker, now his lab technician, joined the conversation at Siegel’s invitation.
“Working with him, I learn something every day,” she said.
“Looking back, that’s the thing I’m proudest of, the students I’ve worked with,” Siegel said.
He noted that the chicken industry has really changed since he came to what was then Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1957. Both he and his students have been part of the change.
During his time at Virginia Tech, Siegel has worked with 54 graduate students including both Masters and PhD candidates.
His first graduate student, Dr. Henry Marks, became head of the Poultry Department at the University of Georgia. The most recent, Dr. Dez-Ann Sutherland, is a geneticist with Aviagen. He estimated thousands of undergraduates have learned in his classes over the years.
A native of Connecticut, Siegel grew up on a family farm where tobacco and produce were raised. The family also kept cows and chickens, a usual practice in that era. He was active in 4-H and FFA, was named Poultry Boy of the Year in Connecticut, and earned a plaque in 1948 from the Chicken-of-Tomorrow Committee “for outstanding achievement in breeding and development of superior meat-type chickens.”
“I’m a chicken guy who happens to be a geneticist,” he said. “I’ve always liked chickens.”
The proof of this rests under glass on his desk. He happily pointed to himself in a small photo of himself as a three-year-boy surrounded by a flock of chickens.
“I didn’t ever want to do anything else,” he said.
His studies began at the University of Connecticut where he earned a bachelor’s degree in poultry husbandry.
Siegel has had only one job interview and one job since receiving his doctorate in genetics from Kansas State University in 1956. He also received his Master’s there. He was interviewed and hired and has kept working at Virginia Tech.
Siegel and Honaker take a straight-forward approach to their research, starting with the basics, the kinds of chickens. They view chickens as either egg chickens and meat chickens, similar to dividing cattel into either milk cows or beef cows.
The diet for their chickens remains the same throughout their research, Honaker noted.
They look at growth, reproduction and health, and look for relationships between these factors. This includes considering allocation of resources. Siegel said there is so much for the individual and so much for the population. It is a matter of egg production versus body weight.
“All I’ve been trying is to see what you are giving up for gain,” he said. “There’s no free lunch.”
In yet another description of himself, Siegel says he an experimentalist not a theorist. He likes to design experiments and see what happens.
“I like to test theory,” he continued.
He also falls into the category of historian seeing his lifetime being divided by wars and generations. He pointed to his generation, calling it the Lost Generation. It consisted of those two young to fight in World War II and those too old for the Vietnam War. This was the time when the U.S. broiler industry really developed and moved south.
“I came along at the right time,” Siegel said. “They had started the broiler industry.”
He noted that the chicken breeders were all located in the Northeast in the early 1950s. From there they moved into the Delmarva regions, he said.
The industry’s Chicken of Tomorrow Contest played a big part in this activity as well. The contest in 1945 was sponsored by grocery chain A&P in partnership with USDA to develop a chicken breed that would grow bigger and faster. The contest looked for bird that would put on weight in all the right places.
Through the years, Siegel has worked at improving the genetics of the broiler industry. He and students like Honaker have been enabled to do more by new technology, especially the discovery of DNA. They often cooperate with other labs, he said. Recently, they sent 130 DNA samples to a lab in California for more study.
Retired is another description for Siegel, but not entirely accurate. His retirement from VT was official on Dec. 31, 1999 but he has remained active in his work and a fixture on the Virginia Tech campus.
Siegel said he and the university have an understanding that he can stay as long as he remains productive and submits a yearly report. He gets an office and a lab in Litton-Reaves Hall and his lab technician.
Siegel has published more than 400 journal articles, books, chapters, and reviews involving the role of genetics on nutrition, disease, immunology, physiology, and behavior of poultry.
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