Kobi Rassnick, a Cornell University Laidlaw Scholar, on tackling food insecurity through animal welfare and connecting with inspiring peers.
Research title: Genetic Evaluation to Improve Dairy Cattle Health and Production
My research focuses on genetic analyses of dairy cattle, including the Cornell University Veterinary School Teaching Dairy cattle herd. This summer, I examined the herd’s net merit scores in an effort to determine whether individuals’ expected net merits matched their true, observed scores using data analysis software. In the United States, net merit is a simplified genetic evaluation index of a large group of traits scaled down to a numerical score awarded to every dairy cow by the United States Department of Agriculture; farmers, breeders, and herd managers use net merit scores and the genetic evaluations from which they come to evaluate the economic importance of their animals and to breed cattle for specific traits with great accuracy.
Analyses of cattle net merit scores have broad implications not only for dairy production and economic gain, but also for the betterment of animal health and welfare. By determining whether breeding and management decisions have resulted in desired net merit averages, dairy producers can be sure to continue practices that optimize certain traits, including those related to productive longevity, fertility, and disease resistance. Using genetic analyses, certain adverse health-related traits can be bred out of cattle as well, contributing to both individual animal health and the well-being of entire herds.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
Even before discovering Dr. Heather Huson and the Odyssey DNA Laboratory at Cornell, I knew I wanted to pursue a project relating to animal welfare through the Laidlaw program. Growing up in a household surrounded by veterinarians, I have always been influenced by and interested in small animal medicine, but Dr. Huson steered me toward a different group of animals completely: cattle. In discussing research topics, I realized that I was quite passionate about issues of food security tied to animal health; while I have always been an advocate for proper animal care and management, I also was drawn to the opportunity to use scientific knowledge and analysis to address food production with these same focuses.
World hunger statistics are sobering. 1 in 4 people do not have access to safe, sufficient food. 1 in 11 people go to bed hungry every night. Healthy production animals, however, have the capacity to produce enough; with the proper animal management, breeding practices, and renewed food distribution system, these numbers can begin to be knocked down. I see this area of research as one of the most important in our world today, and it is so fulfilling to feel like my work can have a significant impact internationally.
What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw experience?
The most memorable moment from my Laidlaw experience thus far has been the leadership training sessions with my fellow cohort of Cornell scholars. In Cornell STEM classes, I tend to meet fairly like-minded students working toward similar careers; in my weekly dialogue sessions with a subset of other scholars, I have made incredible connections with students with whom I may have never interacted on campus otherwise. I feel grateful to have established such great relationships, and I also will carry wonderful memories of ways in which the diverse group of mindsets encouraged my own critical thinking and allowed me to more confidently develop as a leader.
What is the biggest challenge you came across, and what did you learn from it?
So far, my greatest challenge has been learning to take breaks. In my leadership journey especially, if I didn’t take time for myself, if I just jumped from one activity to another without pause, I never felt that I comfortably grasped the important material; for me, learning to lead requires a completely new form of thinking, an abstract thought process I find to be quite challenging at times. By making time in my day to take breaks, I learned to reflect on what I was learning and make more significant, meaningful connections to the ways in which I currently serve as a leader in my everyday life.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
I feel incredibly grateful to be a Laidlaw Scholar. I was initially drawn to the program by the opportunity to undertake an individualized research project with a strong community-engagement focus, and thus far in my journey the scholarship has offered me nothing but fun, engaging, fulfilling experiences. I have connected with an amazing group of Cornell students from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, and I am thankful for the extensive Laidlaw Network that has allowed me to form relationships with students and alumni from around the world. As a Laidlaw Scholar, I am gaining confidence in my leadership abilities everyday; I find myself making connections to my daily life in classes, interactions with friends, and extracurricular activities on campus and off. I am beyond excited to translate what I have learned about research and leadership into a new project and support the next generation of Laidlaw leaders.
Which leaders inspire you and why?
I am inspired by many types of leaders from around the world, but most notably young activists both in and out of the public eye including Amanda Gorman, Jerome Foster II, Jamie Margolin, Greta Thunberg, Zuriel Oduwole, Maisie Brown, Marley Dias, Haaziq Kazi, and many, many more. All of these leaders oppose institutions and consequently ensure ridicule from adults who strongly oppose societal and system change. With unwavering bravery and determination, these activists push forward, ignoring derision and remarkably mobilizing thousands in support of meaningful movements. On the small scale, I admire my friends too; I see their dedication to classes, projects, clubs, volunteering, and research everyday, and I feel quite lucky to be surrounded by people who have diverse and dynamic passions.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
My perfect world is one in which no headlines bring bad news. I see a future full of plentiful food, stable climate, and ample joy all around, a society where no one worries about their next meal, paycheck, or the safety of their family. A world of this description may seem a long way away, but I am confident that through the actions of hard-working young leaders, an ideal world is attainable.
📺 Currently binging: Manifest
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Apple Pie by Lizzy McAlpine
📚 My top book recommendation: Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo
🎧 Go-to recipe: Pumpkin Bread
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I saw my dog, Pippa, for the first time after being away from home for the fall semester!
Kobi is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Cornell University. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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