People of Poultry: Natalie Diether and RDAR -Innovation and Collaboration

With a BSc, MSc and recently conferred PhD in Animal Science, a passion for applied agriculture research and a background in knowledge translation and genomics, Dr. Natalie Diether is uniquely qualified for her role as Research Program Officer with Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR). 

RDAR is a funding organization that looks to Alberta producers to determine priorities and lead agriculture research. The RDAR model integrates “a new culture of research, collaboration and talent, connecting producers to scientists, educational institutions, and private industry.” 

Natalie Diether explains how RDAR prioritizes research proposals, how projects find success through real-life outcomes and her perspective on current and future innovations in Alberta agriculture. 

Diether grew up loving animals, and initially thought that veterinary medicine would be a logical career path. However, as she began her post secondary education, she developed a growing interest in livestock, particularly after taking a class with renowned and beloved poultry professor, Dr. Frank Robinson. Through Robinson’s experiential learning programs and lab work with Dr. Michael Dyck, her academic focus began to sharpen. 

“I realized that I really loved getting into the difficult, mechanistic, nitty gritty of how things worked and solving problems,” explained Diether. 

She continued her education and work experiences with summer internships, research management positions and a master’s degree. After working in the field for a few years, Diether realized that she wanted to be able to do more and enrolled in a PhD program which she completed in April of 2023. Her PhD was focused on using multi-omics tools to explore dietary strategies for weaned pigs. 

Over the years, she has explored how to use her skill set while still working in the space she loves, which is animal health and production. 

“For those of us that stay in production focused animal science, you can’t work on answering a question without having to consider the production implications,” said Diether. “In my masters it was reproduction, and, in my PhD, it was gut health, and you have to consider all of the complexities that come with those elements and work with the entire system.”

“It’s a very networked ecosystem which is both beautiful and sometimes very challenging.”

Employment during and in-between degrees included running a vaccine response trial and writing knowledge translation pieces, mostly focused on the beef industry. She gave talks and conversed with producers all over Alberta and as far as Northern BC. These experiences were critical in informing her understanding of an industry perspective both on the ground and in real time. 

This diverse educational and in the field background set the stage for Diether’s role as Research Program Officer at RDAR. A large part of her job is focused on evaluating proposals that come in, considering a combination of peer review and industry priorities, comparing them to RDAR’s strategic priorities and making recommendations.  She is focussed on the pork and poultry portfolios, as well as genomics and draws on her multitude of skills and experiences to answer any questions that arise during the evaluation process. 

“I also spend time working with our industry partners and with researchers to help identify new projects or important research questions that are developing and take those emerging ideas and issues and help foster an ecosystem where they can have funding success,” said Diether.

“Recently, we have worked quite closely with our industry partners on the poultry side about how to best address questions around Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). When issues like that arise, we can bridge gaps where there are more time-sensitive needs for research.”

“We need to be both nimble and forward-looking because it’s not only about dealing with this snapshot of time, but also looking to what we’re going to need in 5 or 10 years to keep agriculture thriving in Alberta. It’s about understanding what questions we need to answer now to allow us to continue to do that.”

How do you define Innovation?

“From an RDAR perspective, it’s a really clear, well-defined question that’s going to help fill in a gap or make a process better.” 

‘What seems to be pretty universal in science now, is looking for those projects that are collaborative, have a really clear ideation, and a plan for implementation and value creation. Trying to get at not just a clearly defined question, but also making sure that there’s that alignment with what’s needed, and the right partners are there to make sure that these projects see their way through to implementation.”

There is space to both build on existing ideas and innovations and to try something that has never been done before. 

“Sometimes we need someone operating at the very basics of early-stage research and sometimes we need someone to take a problem and say, there’s this new technology we can use now that wasn’t available before.” 

What is the measure of success for a finished project? 

“I think success is, in some way or another, answering the question you set out to ask. Sometimes the right answer can be – this didn’t work, and this is not the solution. Negative results help fill in the puzzle of whatever question or phenomenon we’re trying to understand.”

Success can be reaching an appropriate endpoint based on original goals and hitting those final milestones for early projects. Collecting what was needed to collect, assessing results, and forming a plan for next steps. For a later stage process, it’s about hitting that final delivery to producers, getting things ready for adoption or implementation, and getting them ready to go on farm. 

“Success needs to be defined appropriately for the project. But it’s more about how much you’re able to do what you set out to do, and when you do that, making sure that you finish a project off in a way that can be picked up and carried on or picked up and used by producers.”

Successful elements of innovation design within RDAR projects

An important evaluation criterion for a project is the fit of the methods to the questions. First and foremost, a clearly defined question is needed. The clear question is aligned with industry priority, and is a needed research project, and once that fit is established, scientific rigour and soundness need to be demonstrated.

“Then there needs to be an appropriate plan for adoption and commercialization, or at least transfer of knowledge and forward direction of the project,” continued Diether. “That comes down to that important piece of RDAR’s mandate about being outcome driven, even if the outcome is to get one step closer to our desired end-state.”

“We really value transdisciplinary partnerships. We like to see that, for these questions, there’s a good mix of private, public, and producer partnership so that all the right parties are there helping the research evolve.” 

RDAR Model of Collaboration and Funding

“To go back to the RDAR mandate, we are really looking to target strategic investment in research that is producer-led and results-driven within the agriculture space,” said Diether. 

Four key areas include enhanced productivity, profitability, and competitiveness, sustainable agriculture, market demand and extension, and tech transfer. A successful project will fit into one or more of those spaces with good engagement with the commodity group or producers while the project is being developed. 

“There’s typically a more holistic design when those parties are consulted early to address any critical questions that might occur, with the caveat being that it is very much project specific.”

In addition to partnerships, RDAR values a really strong knowledge mobilization or extension plan. 

“Getting projects to that desired outcome or endpoint is critical,” said Diether. “Looking for researchers to demonstrate a good mix of a long-term vision and appropriate scope and clarity about what this particular project will deliver.”

“As we know more about how adults learn and practices change, we can do better,” she continued. “What I’m seeing across multiple scientific communities is that language around knowledge mobilization is changing. The term “extension” has almost lost all meaning and I think we are finally understanding what it really means to take knowledge to the public.” 

Examples of RDAR supported success in the field.

“We have just had a final report in the vaccine space, and they’ve gotten to a point where they have a couple of different prototype vaccines that they’re able to further test,” reported Diether. “But the part of it that’s really important and makes it feel like it was such a success is the amount of work that the principal investigator has done to raise the project and disease’s profile.”

The PI for this project used podcasts, social media, magazines and more to ensure that information about this disease, and the work they’re doing is available to multiple different audiences.

“What I would flag about this success is a lot of work being done to think about different ways of reaching people, and different ways of making sure that information is shared,” said Diether.

Sustainability with focus on the Alberta poultry industry

“From an RDAR perspective, sustainability is something we really like to work closely with our partners on, and we value listening more than speaking,” said Diether. “Let’s work together to help identify what’s most important in terms of sustainability.”

“We are very interested in research in soil health, as well as water efficiency and quality, thinking about things like drought, but also irrigation,” she continued.

“Greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints are very important. And of course, good utilization of inputs, as well as anything that allows Alberta agriculture to be more adaptable and robust in the face of a more variable and changing climate. Mitigation of antimicrobial resistance and research in animal welfare is also part of sustainable and responsible agriculture production.”

In addition to research project funding, RDAR also disseminates funds to be used directly on-farm through the On Farm Climate Action Fund (OFCAF) program for Alberta. As explained on their website, OFCAF provides financial support to producers to accelerate their adoption and implementation of on-farm Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) to lower Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, support production efficiency, sustainability, and resiliency on their farm operations.

A team within RDAR is dedicated to OFCAF program administration, utilizing the RDAR grant management system. 

“The two programming areas fill different needs, with one looking at results three to four years from now and the other asking ‘what can we change now,” explained Diether. “And both are important.”

Connecting to RDAR

RDAR is an accessible organization and the team encourages applicants to reach out and work with them to help develop successful projects and applications. 

“We are always available to help point potential applicants in the direction of potential partners or important connections if they are looking to develop a research question and proposal,” said Diether.

“My job isn’t to say yes or no, my job is to help applicants make incoming proposals the best they can be and go from there.” For more information about RDAR, and applications for project funding, visit their website

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