Curiosity key to passion for sheep research

Niki McCarthy's curiosity key to sheep research passion

Life & Style
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Niki McCarthy has taken an unusual path to end up back where she started - surrounded by sheep, in the Barossa.

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FRESH APPROACH: Sheep researcher and PhD student Niki McCarthy has not had the most conventional career path but she is looking forward to following her passion in animal nutrition.

FRESH APPROACH: Sheep researcher and PhD student Niki McCarthy has not had the most conventional career path but she is looking forward to following her passion in animal nutrition.

IN SOME ways, Niki McCarthy's decision to study ewe and lamb health through the University of Adelaide and Turretfield Research Centre was a natural progression.

For the ex-Nuriootpa High School student and daughter of a SARDI researcher, living in the Barossa and working with sheep was a return to her childhood.

But in other ways, it is a big shift from her previous roles - she studied arts, worked as a police officer and English and a history teacher across SA, before moving to NSW to work in human resources with a government department.

After graduating with her arts degree, Niki worked with SA Police in Adelaide, the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, Whyalla and Mount Gambier.

At the same time, she was teaching part-time.

"My police rostering system meant I got four days off so I would teach," she said.

"It did help connect the police with schools."

After six years with SAPOL, Niki decided to move to NSW, where she got a job with the Department of Defence.

After a few years, she decided her options were to move to Canberra and embrace the life of a public servant, or to return to study.

She was interested in science so enrolled in a Bachelor of Nutrition at Western Sydney University.

"All students in the first year of a science degree do the same subjects and I found I really loved working with the animals," she said.

"So I switched from nutrition to studying sheep."

At the end of her undergraduate degree, where she earned the Deans Medal - awarded to the top 2 per cent of all graduates - her family, including two children, moved back to a property in Eden Valley.

She enrolled in an honours degree with the University of Adelaide - which she graduated from last week - and is in her first year of a PhD, looking at the effect of ewe nutrition on lamb health.

Earlier this year, Niki was named as one of 44 recipients of the Playford Trust scholarship, which is designed to help SA students studying in science, technology, engineering or maths.

Playford Memorial Trust chair Dean Brown said since its inception 35 years ago, the trust has contributed to SA's research and knowledge base by providing scholarships to the "state's brightest future leaders".

Niki said she was encouraged to apply by her university based on her honours results.

"I am delighted and very humbled by it," she said.

"I'm not working at all because I treat my PhD as my full-time job."

The scholarship has helped with costs such as childcare and other expenses of her study.

So far Niki has spent 11 years at university but she believes it is important to follow dreams.

"It's good for my children to see me study," she said.

If you're interested in something, you will make time for it and science is fascinating. - NIKI McCARTHY

"Study is important and the world is a really interesting place."

She said part of her inspiration came from her father.

"My dad always says to get off your backside and see what's out there," she said.

Niki said managing her study and a family could make things busy.

"If you're interested in something, you will make time for it and science is fascinating," she said. "It does mean I haven't watched television in maybe five years because I study at night."

RELATED READING:Playford Trust assists state's research skills

Ewe synchronisation programs put under microscope

Niki said her children have enjoyed heading out to Turretfield to see the sheep when she needs to go out at the weekend.

Her PhD is part of a larger, overall project, funded by Meat & Livestock Australia and SARDI, looking at improving lamb survival.

Niki said mortality rates of lambs could be as high as 10pc for single births and 30pc for twins, which equated to about $540 million in lost production.

"Low weight lambs have really high risk of dying from hypothermia," she said.

"Twins are generally much lower weight than singles so they tend to have much higher birth issues."

Her study is able to incorporate her initial interest in nutrition as well as her passion for sheep.

"I think most studies show if the ewe is in optimum condition, than that is reflected in the progeny," she said.

She is feeding nutritional supplements to pregnant ewes to see if they have any impact on the lamb's health.

Study is important and the world is a really interesting place. - NIKI McCARTHY

"To my knowledge, this is the first time it's ever been done with these particular amino acids," she said.

She said the goal was to find supplements that would be easily added in with the ewe's feed rations and improve birthweights.

"We're looking at what additives are best, what's the best amount and what makes it easy to incorporate in everyday feed?" she said.

"We've had some promising results so far, but we're in year two of a six-year project."

Niki said studies like this were particularly topical with the national flock at such low levels.

"When farmers want to get up good stock numbers, if sheep are having twins, it's a nice, fast way to get the numbers back up," she said.

She is managing two flocks of her own, which are set to start lambing in July.

"I'll have to monitor the sheep 24/7, so I will be sleeping in the shearing shed to see what happens," she said.

"They'll be in consistent temperature, with no predators - we're trying to eliminate confounding factors so all we're looking at is did the supplement work or not work. It's a very all-encompassing, physical program, but I will know every individual lamb born out of my experiment.

"Then I follow the lambs right through to weaning."

Her PhD will take three years to complete, but Niki is hopeful she can continue on with this project.

"To be able to continue working here, would be the ultimate (dream)," she said.

"Just to be engaged with livestock and producers is great."

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