Preparing world class graduates always Professor’s aim

Advocacy for science as the essential foundation of agriculture has been a constant theme in the teaching, research and administrative career of Yorkshire-born Professor Andrew Sykes, who  retired in May 2012 as Professor of Animal Science and Head of the Department of Agricultural  Sciences at Lincoln University, after 34 years  on the staff, including  a period as Pro  ViceChancellor. 

“I have always seen my prime role as ensuring that Lincoln University graduates in animal science could go on from New Zealand to any university or research organisation in the world and not be out of their depth intellectually,” …

“Ensuring that Lincoln University is operating at an acceptable international level scientifically, and extending my students to achieve their best, have been central concerns in my job as a teacher and research supervisor.”

— Professor Sykes.

Professor Sykes can list numerous examples of former high achieving students who now occupy top positions in science, industry and other areas both in New Zealand and overseas. “I can actually remember where particular individuals were sitting in the lecture theatres and what  we were discussing at the moment when their  ‘lights went on’  -  students such as Dr Stephen  Bishop, now Professor of Animal Disease Genetics at Edinburgh University, Dr John Penno CEO of Synlait, and Dr Tim Mackle CEO of DairyNZ.”

For the young Andrew Sykes his own “lights” went on at Bangor University, North Wales,  during lectures in hill sheep production by Mr Gwynn Williams. As a result, and after completing a science degree with honours in agriculture, he decided to opt for an academic career rather than pursue his original intention to be a farmer.

An Agricultural Research Council (ARC) doctoral scholarship took him to Edinburgh University where he did a PhD in hill breed variation to climatic stress at the ARC Animal Breeding Research Organisation and he had his first encounter with New Zealand and Lincoln University. “My supervisor in Edinburgh was Professor Hugh Donald, a New Zealander and Lincoln graduate who was Director of the Animal Breeding Research Organisation, located on Edinburgh University’s science campus. 

“Because of his connection with Lincoln, Professor Donald often did job interviewing in the UK for  College positions. In fact, when the time came, I had already had a prolonged interview for the Lincoln position to which I was eventually appointed.”

Andrew obtained his PhD in 1967 and worked for the next 10 years at Moredun Research Institute, Edinburgh. He had concluded that nutrition and nutritional diseases were more important to hill sheep production than cold exposure and went on to produce significant papers on calcium and phosphorus metabolism and requirements, and on the interaction of endoparasites and nutrition in sheep.

At Moredun there was an early lesson in the scientific importance of challenging doctrine. “Work was being done there on tooth loss, broken mouth and bone weakness in sheep. The conventional wisdom was that the answer would lie in identifying and correcting mineral deficiencies. Based on medical work with malnourished children in Africa, suffering from marasmus and kwashiorkor, I was drawn to the idea that a nematode parasite investigation might be more fruitful.  My youthful enthusiasm was indulged with approval for a small experiment, which everyone believed would lead nowhere and conveniently serve to shut me up.  Well, the opposite happened, astounding results emerged and suddenly the dominance of the mineral explanation for animal bone disorders  was under challenge.”      The nematode parasite work won international acclaim and led to speaking engagements and conference invitations abroad. From one engagement, in Sydney, Andrew travelled to New Zealand, visiting Wallaceville Experimental Station and Lincoln College. At Lincoln he met the Professor of Animal Science Ian Coop who was on the eve of retirement. College Principal Professor James Stewart invited Andrew to consider applying for the job, which he did. When Andrew arrived at Lincoln in 1978 he saw the task ahead as one of upgrading the institution from “agricultural college thinking” to “university thinking” and of shifting the emphasis in animal science from technical and extension  work more towards rigorous scientific enquiry. “There was only one masters student in Animal Science the year I arrived, and there had been no Animal Science masters graduates in the previous  two years. I saw it as essential to lift our performance in the postgraduate and research areas if we were to be a credible scientific department. Slowly the numbers started to come through as the department developed its research potential. A high point for Lincoln University was reached around 1990 when we were at the cutting edge of animal transgenics and produced New Zealand’s first transgenic animal and became involved in work on ‘super woolly’ sheep.” 

Andrew’s own research covered mineral metabolism, control of endoparasites, growth and development of animals and parasite resistance. He has always insisted on the highest standards of work and encouraged good ideas. Narrowness of vision is anathema to him and he has been involved in medical research with his osteocalcin studies, he has collaborated with the dental world in his studies of broken mouth in sheep and he encouraged the early use in New Zealand of CT scanning technology to determine meat, muscle and bone conformation and ratios in sheep. Scientists need funding and research space, he  says, and he believes that the politicisation of science funding through adoption of an outcomes driven model for allocating research money, does not provide this space. 

“The importance and relevance of research is  not necessarily determined by particular time horizons. Research done today may not provide a return-on-investment for 15 or 20 years. There are numerous examples of this and I have always exhorted my staff to look at the long-term, the big picture.”

Professor Sykes sees exciting long-term prospects for work undertaken in Lincoln University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences. For example there is continuation of the research undertaken by lecturer Dr Andy Greer, whose doctoral project he supervised. 

It was an extension of his own earlier work on production losses associated with gastrointestinal nematode parasite infection in sheep. Dr Greer, who like Professor Sykes went on to Moredun Research Institute for a period after completing his PhD, found that it was an animals’ immune response to the presence of the parasites, rather than physical damage caused by the parasites, that led to reduced appetite and nutrient utilisation and consequent production losses. “If we can manipulate the immune response we can take a hand in minimising appetite loss and thereby assist the maintenance of productivity. And productivity is what farming is all about,” says Professor Sykes.

This example of contemporary research joins a long list of achievements in the application of science in animal production at Lincoln  University during Professor Sykes’ time.  They include installation of the first CT scanner for sheep; establishment of a feed analysis service and pioneering research work on silage quality; development of the first Lean Growth Index for sheep; refinements in pregnancy diagnosis; development of the New Zealand ovine sire reference scheme; and establishment of the Flock-Linc sheep recording bureau. All of these contributions to animal production have been underpinned by solid science.

An area about which Professor Sykes has serious reservations, in terms of the wisdom of current science funding, is the work investigating methane production in the rumen of livestock. “There is huge redundancy in the microbial population of the rumen, which has ensured the nutritional survival of the species. Some estimates suggest that over 70 different methanogenic bacteria inhabit the rumen and these would need to be controlled to reduce methane emissions. I suggest this is a ‘mission impossible’.

“As the world is short of food, I believe it would make more sense to cost emissions per unit of product. This would readily show that work to improve livestock productivity through improved genetics, nutrition and disease prevention  would far outweigh possibilities from rumen manipulation. Such productivity gains since 1990 have already improved this efficiency by between 15 – 30 percent.”

Outside of Lincoln University, Professor Sykes has played an active role in animal science in New Zealand and internationally. He is a past President of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production, a past president of the Asia Australasian Association of Animal Production Societies, and has been chair of the International Advisory Committee for the International Symposia Series on the Nutrition of Herbivores. He has too been a regular technical consultant to joint programmes in livestock development for the FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency. There have been numerous technical and other professional visits over the years to South America, Asia and elsewhere.

In 1991 he was the recipient of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production’s prestigious McMeekan Memorial Award for his leadership in education, research and administration in animal science and his domestic and international advancement of the society.  The citation said his most lasting contribution would be his “vision of the future of animal production in New Zealand and his challenge to his fellow scientists and farmers to think of the wider issues of animal production.”

In 1992, in recognition of his contribution to animal health in the New Zealand livestock industries, he was invited to deliver the New Zealand Veterinary Association’s prestigious Ira Cunningham Memorial Award address. 

An accomplished musician and patron of the Lincoln University Music Society, Professor Sykes is a Life Member of Chamber Music New Zealand, having served on the national board for 119 years, the last three as President.   Professor Sykes and wife Margaret farm a 110 acres at Brookside, near Leeston.