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From parrots to poultry: Dr. Bruce Rathgeber

For Bruce Rathgeber, it all started with the parrots.

“I had two cockatiels, a Barraband’s parakeet–it’s an Australian parakeet,” recalls Rathgeber, an associate professor in the department of plant and animal sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “I had Quaker parrots. And I had a Blue-fronted Amazon. I think that was it!”

Unlike many people who study poultry for a living, Rathgeber didn’t grow up on a farm. Instead, he was raised in the small town of Castor, Alberta, where his father–a local biology teacher–instilled an early love and respect for the natural world.

“I had a cayman for a while, I had piranhas. I would go in the creek in the back and catch minnows. I had all sorts of different frogs, mice and hamsters–whatever comes from a biology lab.”

Today, Rathgeber has his own lab at Dalhousie, where he’s also one of the directors of the Atlantic Poultry Research Institute, a collaboration between scientists and the Atlantic Canada poultry industry. Its mission: to further regional interests when it comes to poultry production.

Reducing salmonella levels in the intestines of chickens has been the focus of Rathgeber’s recent work: specifically, whether certain strains of red seaweed could alter bacteria in the gut flora and lower salmonella levels.

Rathgeber’s path from small-town Alberta to Dalhousie, where he’s been a faculty member since only last year, was a circuitous one. He graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with an undergraduate degree in 1987, but decided he wanted real-world experience before going on to graduate studies.

For a while he worked with Shaver Poultry. Then he went on to landscaping work in Oakville, Ontario. Afterwards, he managed a pet store in the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto, where he met his wife.

After a year backpacking around Europe, Rathgeber latched on to an unexpected spot: the University of Arkansas, which was in need of a research technician. That “stroke of luck,” as Rathgeber puts it, led to a master’s degree at that university, and later–with a young child in tow–a PhD back at the University of Saskatchewan.

After graduating in 2000, Rathgeber headed east, first taking a research position with the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and later with Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada.

Both jobs, he explains, were run out of Dalhousie, where he was officially hired in late 2014.

Early returns on the salmonella research seem promising, with Rathgeber saying his team has noticed a shift towards “bacteria that we recognize as good bacteria” in the gut flora of birds given the seaweed extract. But much of the data still needs to be analyzed, he adds.

An “inquisitive person who just loves the opportunity to explore and tinker,” Rathgeber says he gets some of his best ideas just by going into the poultry unit and observing the birds “doing their thing.”

And that, he says, makes his research chickens amusingly similar to the parrots he grew up with.

“Certainly,” says Rathgeber, “you can learn a lot from watching either one.”