People of Poultry: A conversation with Up-and-Coming Poultry Professional Jo Ann Chew

An intensely curious mind, love of learning and a desire to give back. These are a few of the things that have fueled Jo Ann Chew’s path from teen in Malaysia to PhD student and Aviagen Scholarship winner. Radiating confidence and calm, the future of this Up-and-Coming Poultry Professional shines bright. Read on to learn about her academic journey, her life priorities and how she values those around her every step of the way.

You have had an interesting life with an eclectic journey to the world of poultry science. Let’s go back in time – where did you grow up? 

“I did not grow up with an agricultural background. I was born and raised in Malaysia, and I moved to Canada when I was 16 years old.”

Was it a shock to come to Edmonton? 

“It was a big culture shock. At 16 years old, you’re at a point where you are finally comfortable with your peers and you have figured out how to fit in. And then, all of a sudden, the move meant culture shock, food shock, people shock.”

How did you cope with the language?

“Malaysia is a multicultural country and I spoke three main languages growing up. We speak English at home, also Mandarin, as we are Chinese, and then Malay, which is the national language of Malaysia.” 

Despite numerous challenges, in two years you graduated high school and started to think seriously about your future. How did you find your way to the U of A and Animal Science?

“When I finished high school, I wanted to take a year off to figure out what I wanted to do. But my mom said no, because she knew that if I started working instead, I might find that making money is a lot easier than studying for exams and doing homework!”

Knowing her love for animals, Chew’s mom suggested veterinary medicine and her father suggested agricultural farming. 

“I combined the two, and I went into farm animals. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Animal Health, with a major in food animals at the U of A.”

Highs and lows along the way? Mentors? 

“The poultry professors, Dr. Frank Robinson, Dr. Martin Zuidhof and Dr. Doug Korver are really great people to work with. And I think my story goes like so many other students, where you take ANSCI 200 or 101, and it changes your life.” 

“For me, it was that class as well. Taking this and other classes from these three professors who are so passionate about teaching and research, I got hooked and kept taking more classes, because learning from them was such a pleasure.”

Chew also graduated with a Certificate of Sustainability and a Certificate in Interdisciplinary Leadership. You clearly have a love of learning and interests beyond your degree disciplines. What student clubs and associations did you join?

“I really got into student governance and leadership in my third and fourth years. I was a member of the Poultry Research Center Student Club (treasurer in my final year) and I was also involved as a student counselor representing the faculty of ALES for the Student Union and served on the executive team for the Faculty of ALES Undergraduate Students Association.”

“I learned a lot with regards to student governance and leadership type positions. I found that I really enjoy being part of a decision-making team that makes influential decisions and helps advocate for students. I think it’s really exciting.”

Chew was also involved with the Poultry Science Association (PSA) and became a University Student Ambassador for the University of Alberta. 

After graduation, you moved on to the University of Saskatchewan for a master’s degree with Dr. Karen Schwean-Lardner. How did that come about?

“The decision came from Frank Robinson, actually. Towards the end of my degree, I went into his office and said, I have enough credits to graduate, but I don’t know what I’m going to do. He said, ‘Go do a masters and definitely go do it with Dr. Karen Schwean-Lardner at the University of Saskatchewan,’ and so I did!” 

Chew got in touch with Dr. Schwean-Lardner and, once funding was secured, she accepted Chew as her master’s student. 

What was it like studying with Dr. Schwean-Lardner? What was your master’s thesis subject? 

“I really liked her supervisory style. She teaches you how to do research, how to collect data and why it’s important. Dr. Schwean-Lardner had ten other grad students, and everyone was working on a different project. We had broilers, layers, pullets, and turkeys, and we all got to help out a little bit here and there. I walked away with so much experience, and, combined with breeder experience during my undergrad, I am good to go with all four feather boards, and that’s amazing.”

Chew’s experiment involved looking at the effect of different light intensities (brightness levels) on pullets raised in alternative poultry housing systems. 

“We did floor pens, and this is because in Canada the layer industry is transitioning away from conventional cages. Navigation becomes important because the housing environment becomes more complex. If the hens are not properly trained or equipped to navigate a complex environment while they’re pullets, we’re going to end up with a lot more bone injuries and things that are detrimental to the health and welfare of the bird.” 

“We explored whether increasing the brightness for them during  the pullet phase would help them to be able to see better when navigating the environment. The current industry standard is 10 lux and so we tested 10 lux, 30 lux, and 50 lux to see if navigation would increase with the increase in light intensity.”

 What did you find?

“We saw that pullets in 50 lux utilized their environmental resources more and performed slightly more jumps than pullets in 10 lux, especially during early pullet life at four weeks of age. In terms of crashes or failed landings, there was actually no difference. Pullets can see a whole lot better than humans, so perhaps 10 lux was sufficient for them to navigate their environment. Another thing we noticed was, with the 50 lux rooms, there was an increase in comfort behaviors, such as preening.” 

I’m sure you were very busy during your masters. Did you find time for extracurricular involvements while at U of S?

“I was part of the Graduate Students Association’s Sustainability Committee where we made decisions about how we can better improve or promote sustainability on campus. I was also a member at large with the department of Animal and Poultry Science.” 

Meanwhile, Jo Ann was still part of the PSA as Ambassador for the University of Saskatchewan for one year, and then stepped up to be Regional Director for all of Canada. Finally, she has moved to the Executive Board in the position of Student Director during her PhD. 

Your Master of Science – Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, happened during the pandemic. How did COVID-19 affect your studies?

“In 2020, when everything shut down, I was actually supposed to go to Africa. I was part of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship to travel to Uganda and do sustainability related research there.” 

“I was so excited to go, I had all my shots and everything. And then, all of a sudden, we couldn’t go. I was so sad. But, I had all my data so I moved back home to finish writing my thesis and I defended in December of 2020.”

Published papers here and here from Jo Ann Chew Masters studies for further reading. 

Once you graduated, what life events led to your current PhD studies?

“I had such a great time in my masters. I love the research, the networking, the student benefits and I enjoyed every minute of it. I wanted to keep going and keep learning, and so towards the end of my degree I decided to pursue a PhD.”

“I had my eyes on Scotland or somewhere in Europe. But then a job opportunity came up to be a Poultry Unit Manager for the University of Saskatchewan, a one-year position. So, I moved back to Saskatoon for the year.”

The position gave Jo Ann tremendous experience including budgeting, overseeing the unit, running her own flock, and managing research on the side. 

“You’re in communication with the different professors on campus, on how they want to organize their research, you also manage the staff, and attend board meetings, so that you’re well informed. It was a great learning experience.”

As her year position came to a close, Dr. Schwean-Lardner invited Chew to do a PhD with her. It was a tough decision, but she felt it was time to move on from that institution and try something new. 

“A week later I got a phone call from Dr. Martin Zuidhof, who asked if I was still interested in doing a PhD because he had an opportunity for me.” Chew had worked with Dr. Zuidhof previously as his summer student in the third year of her undergrad degree.

“It was a great experience, and I also got to go to PSA as an undergrad, to present data from that study.”

The pandemic was still lurking and, although her dream was to go to Europe, Chew realized that she still wanted to be close to home and family. She accepted the offer and started her PhD with Dr. Zuidhof in January 2022.  

Can you talk about your PhD thesis? 

“My thesis is about optimizing pullet, rearing strategies for a lifetime of egg production. It’s twofold. The first part is looking at different dietary, metabolizable energy and feed restriction during the pullet phase, and how that affects onset of lay and egg production. The second part is determining the amino acid requirements of pullets and how that affects their onset of sexual maturation.”

The first experiment on energy started in April of 2021, and Chew joined in January 2022 when the birds were 40 weeks of age. This study wrapped up in December of 2022 and she is now preparing for the second study. They will use Dr. Zuidhof’s Precision Feeding System, with multi feeder stations containing four separate feeders to assign specific treatment diets to the birds. Both studies focus on the pullet phase, so they can prepare the pullets in the best body condition for when they enter sexual maturation. 

Congratulations on winning the Aviagen Scholarship! What impact will this have on your present and future studies? 

The Aviagen Scholarship will definitely help me focus more on my research with less of a financial burden. I have also received some congratulatory messages from people that I have networked with, which is so nice of them.” 

I can’t think of a more deserving winner. Any thoughts about what the future might hold?

“I’m actually really enjoying the now and what I currently do, just like my masters. I’m taking in every minute of it because time goes by so fast!

The decisions you’ve made have worked out really well and you have had great guidance along the way. 

“Yes. I highly respect the people around me and I value their input a lot. When it comes to life changing decisions, I tend to be the person to seek out advice from other people.”

Advice to up-and-coming students in the poultry industry? Final thoughts?

“For people who are figuring out their way in life, I would say, try everything! Even if you don’t like it, at least you get to say you tried it. As Ms. Frizzle says, ‘take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.’”

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