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Professor George Oikonomou
Professor of Cattle Health and Welfare, University of Liverpool
Connection to the Academy: Starter Grant awardee (2016) and grant reviewer
The preliminary data from the Starter Grant allowed us to go on to win a big BBSRC grant, which has allowed us to complete the most comprehensive cattle lameness study in the world.
I was in the last month of the third year of my lectureship when I applied for a Starter Grant, so right at the edge of what made me eligible to apply. Before I didn’t really realise it was an option: I thought it was for medical doctors. And when I applied, I thought… I am a cattle vet, I’m not going to get this!
During my lectureship, I did a lot of teaching and my research started to struggle – it was hard for me to keep up. But then, right at the end, I got an internal Wellcome Fellowship from my university to support clinicians who wanted to do research. And then I got the Academy’s Starter Grant.
How did the Academy's Starter Grant help you?
The most important thing my Starter Grant did is that it allowed me to generate some really good-quality data. I used the money to genotype more than 500 cattle, who we’d already been following as part of our research into the genetics of foot lesions and lameness. It was enough to apply for a big grant from the BBSRC – and we won over £1million.
And I do believe that this Starter Grant was important, even though it’s only £30,000. You cannot do a huge amount of work with this money, but it can really help you generate some good data for a bigger application. I think the Starter Grant is how things got a lot better for me.
My Starter Grant was also instrumental in helping me negotiate more time for research and recognition from my institution. Most veterinary clinicians, even in universities, struggle to get the time and funding to do high-quality research. It's not uncommon to end up just focusing on the clinical side. But in my case, I got the Academy Starter Grant, I got the bigger grants, and that gave me the opportunity to spend a lot more time on my research.
Since my grant, I’ve been very actively advertising the Academy’s support to colleagues doing veterinary research. I’ve also been helping the Academy review current Starter Grants applications. I see it as a way of me paying back – I benefitted from the grant, so I want to help the Academy in return.
I started at a lecturer position when I got my Starter Grant, and five years later I’m a Professor, so I think it worked out pretty well!
It makes sense for the Academy to fund more veterinary clinicians, because a lot of what we do can be very useful for medical researchers and vice versa. There are the obvious benefits of animal models, and the ‘one health’ approach for diseases that affect both animals and humans, like COVID. But then beyond that, our cattle genetics research could still generate findings that could be applied in the human world. It’s not always easy to bring these worlds together and we are missing out on opportunities. We can do a lot better.
In our case, the preliminary data from the Starter Grant allowed us to go on to win the big BBSRC grant, which has allowed us to complete the most comprehensive cattle lameness study in the world. Farmers want to use Holstein Friesians because they’re high-producing for milk, but selective breeding has made this breed more susceptible to lameness problems. 3 out of 10 cows may be lame at any point. That’s not acceptable. When we work closely with a farm, we can get this down to less than 1 in 10.
Anywhere in the world we milk these black and white cows, we will see lameness problems, so anything that we learn in our research will be useful everywhere. Ultimately, our research on cattle lameness could improve food security, sustainability, and animal welfare all over the world.