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Keller Award Winner Looks to Improve Pig Welfare

NC State graduate Débora Holanda is the 2021 Kenneth R. Keller Research Award recipient.

Keller Award Recipient Debora Holanda

For North Carolina State University alumna Débora Holanda, her interest in pig health and welfare began when she was a young girl while visiting her grandfather’s pig farm in Brazil. 

“I used to go there every weekend and spend time with my grandfather and learn about pig health and welfare,” says Holanda. After earning a veterinary degree from a university in Brazil, she began working on her grandfather’s farm.

“I noticed that nutrition was a very important piece of pig production. It accounts for the majority of the cost. If you don’t have nutrition, you don’t have growth and then don’t have reproduction. Or pigs get sick,” says Holanda. Nutrition, per Holanda, is a key component to have a successful pig production operation. 

But after spending time on the farm, Holanda started to miss the university environment and being connected with the research community. She went on to earn a master’s degree in pig nutrition and decided to go abroad for her doctoral studies. Her advisor at the time had previously been a visiting scholar at NC State and had connections with faculty at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“I contacted Dr. Sung Woo Kim and inquired about the possibility of doing my Ph.D. at NC State and gladly, it worked out,” says Holanda. It also helped that she did her research and knew that Kim’s research in pig nutrition was renowned.

While working toward her Ph.D at NC State, Holanda’s dissertation focused on mycotoxin — naturally occurring toxins produced by fungi — contamination of grains and how they negatively impact the welfare, health and growth of pigs, especially weaned pigs that are transitioning from milk to a grain based diet.

“We were trying to find suitable alternatives, especially more natural alternatives, to mitigate those detrimental effects of mycotoxins,” says Holanda. Her research focused on mitigating the impacts of mycotoxins using yeast-based additives. 

“Overall her research demonstrated that yeast-based mycotoxin mitigators partially overcame the detrimental effects caused by mycotoxins on the health and growth of newly-weaned pigs,” says Todd See, professor and head of the Department of Animal Science at NC State. While only partially mitigating adverse effects these results are extremely relevant and impactful as no other mitigators have been previously demonstrated to effectively reduce the impact of deoxynivalenol.”

This is just one of the reasons Holanda and her work were nominated for the Kenneth R. Keller Research Award. The Keller Award is given out each year to recognize outstanding doctoral dissertations in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). It is considered the most prestigious and primary recognition for a CALS graduate student Ph.D. thesis.

“In addition, she demonstrated that light weight pigs have a less developed microbiome and are more susceptible to weaning stress impacts on gut health and growth,” says See.

Holanda was named the 2021 Keller Award winner in March 2022. 

“It was truly a very good surprise. When we do research, we are confined to the lab and the farm. We don’t always get to see the impact of our work until later. It takes time,” says Holanda. Since receiving the 2021 Keller Award, Holanda says she started receiving other nominations and recognitions for other publications and work she has done.

“It really validates the work you are doing and that it’s going to help somebody else,” says Holanda.

More About the Keller Award

After Kenneth Keller’s retirement from CALS in 1979, faculty, friends and industry established the Kenneth R. Keller Research Award Endowment in the Agricultural Foundation of North Carolina State University to honor his work for the university and North Carolina’s agricultural development. The income from this endowment is used to recognize excellence in doctoral dissertation research in CALS.

Each department and interdepartmental graduate program offering the Ph.D. degree in CALS is eligible to nominate one individual from among their Ph.D. graduates or candidates who completed his or her thesis defense examination between January 1 and December 31 of that current year. Evaluations will be based on the quality of the work as presented in the thesis without prejudice to discipline within the college. The award winner also receives a $2,500 cash prize from the endowment.