UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Terry Etherton joined the Penn State faculty in 1979, the use of biotechnology for the improvement of animal species was in its infancy. More than four decades later, the still-evolving field has advanced greatly, thanks in part to Etherton’s groundbreaking work.
As he retires from Penn State at the end of June, Etherton, distinguished professor of animal nutrition, is known in animal science circles around the world as a pioneer for his research on the effects of recombinant porcine somatotropin, or pST, on growing pigs, and as a leading authority on the need for agricultural biotechnology in sustaining the global food system.
(photo by Penn State Ag Sciences, creative commons/flickr.com)
“I learned of Professor Etherton’s research accomplishments while in Australia from 2007 to 2014, and I was delighted to come to Penn State and work with him,” recounts Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Terry has had an enormous visionary influence on his department and our college. He recruited and mentored the great majority of the faculty in the Department of Animal Science, the benefits of which will accrue for many years to come.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees — in agricultural science and animal science, respectively — from the University of Illinois and a doctorate in animal science from the University of Minnesota, Etherton spent a year as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Medicine at Stanford University before coming to Penn State.
In the time since he was named assistant professor in what was then the Department of Dairy and Animal Science in 1979, much has changed.
“The college and University have expanded remarkably since then, both in terms of operating budget and research support,” Etherton said. “There has been an increase in the number of undergraduate students in the college. My observation is that the stature of both the college and University have increased markedly.”
Internationally recognized for his research in the area of endocrine regulation of animal growth and nutrient metabolism, Etherton said that unprecedented scientific advances in his field in the early 1980s made it possible for recombinant proteins to be synthesized in quantity.
“We used these advances to study the effects of administering recombinant porcine growth hormone to growing pigs,” he said. “My research group was the first to establish that administering pST led to remarkable improvements in growth rate, muscle mass and feed efficiency. At the same time, we found that pST dramatically reduced the growth of body fat. We also conducted basic research to further our understanding of the biological mechanisms that mediated the effects of pST.”
Etherton was named head of the department in 1998, stepping down in November 2020. Over that 22-year span, he oversaw much growth and change.
“The department became one of the elite departments among peers in the U.S.,” he said. “We witnessed a doubling in size of the undergraduate program, and our research and extension portfolios increased significantly.”
Etherton guided what he called the “seamless” 2012 merger of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science and the Department of Poultry Science to create the current Department of Animal Science, crediting the faculty and staff of both former units for making the merger “a big success.”
He pointed out that under his leadership, the department was able to maintain all of the animal research farms that are important for Pennsylvania animal agriculture and that the department’s research productivity increased.
“The dairy nutrition, reproductive biology and poultry science research programs are among the best in the world,” Etherton said. “Creating the Reproductive Biology Initiative, with seven faculty positions, was a major advance. This is now the Center for Reproductive Biology and Health, which is housed in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.”
He also cited as accomplishments the expansion of youth 4-H and adult extension programs, the enhancement of dairy extension programming and dramatic improvement in the quality of the quarter horse program, thanks in part to $1.7 million in donations of horses and breedings.
“In addition, we launched the student-run quarter horse sale that is held each year,” he said. “This has become a huge success, with this year’s sale being the 19th annual.”
The recipient of the University Faculty Scholar Medal in Life and Health Sciences — Penn State’s highest honor for excellence in research — and numerous other awards for research and service, Etherton said he has “enjoyed immensely” watching and helping colleagues and students, both undergraduate and graduate, pursue and achieve success.
“It was tremendously rewarding to recruit faculty and staff to the department,” he said. “I gained great satisfaction helping new faculty and staff get their careers started and helping them understand what attributes are important for making research, teaching and extension contributions that benefit society — and to do this in a manner in which they pursue the ‘greater good’ ahead of self-interests.”
The “capstone” of Etherton’s tenure as department head, he said, has been the investment of approximately $120 million over the past four years in construction projects that benefit the department. These include the new Animal, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Building, the anaerobic digester/free-stall barn project at the Penn State Dairy Barns, and construction and renovation projects at the Meats Lab and Horse Farm.
“This speaks volumes about how the commonwealth, University, college and our stakeholders value the department,” he said.
–Chuck Gill, Penn State University