Sibling Excellence

CALS graduate students Nirada and Phanin Leksrisompong take top honors at international research competition.

This past January in Atlanta, when the two-day International Poultry Scientific Forum held its Student Award of Excellence competition, two graduate students from N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences were among the competitors making oral and poster presentations of their research.

In fact, while one of the students was making her poultry science research presentation, in a nearby session the other student simultaneously was presenting her food science research to a team of judges.

As fate would have it, when time came for the winners to be revealed, both N.C. State students’ names were announced — and the last names were the same. In what has to be a kind of first, two sisters, Nirada and Phanin Leksrisompong, had taken the top prizes in the competition.

Nirada, or “Ni,” a doctoral student and research assistant in the CALS Department of Poultry Science, won for her entry, a study of the effect of feeder space during growing and laying periods on the uniformity and livability of broiler breeder females. Food science doctoral student Phanin, or “Nin,” won in her session for her research presentation on the effect of heating rate on gelatin properties and water holding capacities of egg white and whey protein isolate gels.

“Our graduate students in poultry science have won a number of awards over recent years, but we have not had many food science students join us at our poultry science meetings,” said Ni’s Ph.D. mentor Dr. John Brake, William Neal Reynolds Professor of poultry science. “I think that everyone at the meeting, not just the N.C. State people, was pleased to see two sisters win.”

Ni and Nin actually are two of four sisters from Bangkok, Thailand, who have studied at N.C. State. The oldest, Chanatip, completed her Ph.D. in textiles this spring, while the youngest, Pattarin, is, like Nin, a doctoral student in the CALS Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences.

Recently Ni and Nin talked about their award-winning research and how they will use it as they pursue their post-graduate careers.

Nirada Leksrisompong:
‘Already astounding the poultry industry worldwide’
By Terri Leith

Though born in Bangkok, Nirada Leksrisompong has actually spent half of her life in the United States. She arrived at the age of 15 to attend high school in Kentucky (both of her parents were educated in Kentucky and California) and eventually received her bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Kentucky. Then she came east to pursue her master’s degree in poultry science at N.C. State, a choice she made, she says, because “N.C. State is one of the foremost schools in agriculture and poultry science. I saw that the most active professors work there. My master’s professor and Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Brake, is a much published researcher who is active internationally as a consultant.”
Moreover, she says, “I wanted to do something to help my family business. My mom works with poultry and swine.”

That “family business” is the agribusiness Charoen Pokphand (CP), one of the leading agriculture companies in the world and the biggest agriculture company in Asia. “My mom’s dad started the company with his elder brother as a business selling seed,” says Ni.

In 1921, the two brothers started the seeds company named “Chia Tai.” After the success of the seeds business, the next generation started the agribusiness in 1953 named Charoen Pokphand (CP). Now CP is a vertical integrated agribusiness, positioned to meet the world’s need for affordable and nutritional high-quality food products and consisting of many divisions, such as seeds, animal feed, livestock production, processing, modern trade and telecommunications. It is one of the largest animal feed producers in the world, with local and international feed mills producing food for livestock and aquaculture.

“A lot of people here call us ‘Perdue Thailand,’” Ni says.

When it came time for her to choose an undergraduate major and potential career, Ni, who had considered aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering (“People my age were choosing business; I wanted to be different”), consulted her father and her mother.

“My mom, CP executive vice president of the Feed Technology Office, is in charge of eight countries in Asia. Our headquarters is in Thailand, but we have branches and feed mills in many countries,” Ni says. “And since we have a family business in the ag area, my mom suggested animal agriculture.”

Then, in graduate school, Ni says, “I wanted to specialize, because poultry is a facet of growing animals for meat consumption. I can go home and help the business, and food is always important: People have to eat regardless of the economy. The world population will increase. If I can improve the business and production of chicken, I can help my country and the people of the world.”

Ni’s graduate research is already contributing to the improvement of the business and production of chicken.

Ni, here working in the N.C. State field poultry research facility, conducts problem-solving research that has contributed to the improvement of chicken production.

Says Brake, “Her master’s work caused significant changes in the brooding management of broilers. She developed a strategy to improve livability and performance by better matching the brooding conditions immediately after hatching to the needs of the chicks.”

In her doctoral work, he says, “she has continued her practical problem-solving research,” referring to her recent award-winning project on feeder space and how it affects the female bird and her progeny.

As Ni explains it, “In the pen you have round feeders or a trough for the birds to be able to get into the feeder and not have to compete for food. In our pen we have four to six feeders, depending on the number of birds.”

“Feeder space” means number of access spaces. Fewer birds equals more space; more birds equals less space.
But Ni has found that a little competition can be good for the birds, as she has studied the effects of changing feeder space from rearing to laying periods.

“What we found is if you keep the space the same, then it benefits performance, livability and progeny. We were surprised because it’s a paradox to what people think (that increasing the food access would be better for the birds),” says Ni.

With too much access to food, it’s still the big birds that will be able to eat more, Ni found. As a result, the increased feeding “builds breasts too much, which can hurt fertility and egg production and make the birds more frail in hot weather,” she says. “Small birds, if they are allowed to eat too much, will catch up, but it will have adverse reproductive-system effects.

“So now [we know you] need to keep feeder space the same or watch how you feed.”

And now, she adds, “Dr. Brake is going out in the world to try to explain it to growers.”

Says Brake, “It has long been known that strict control of body weight in broiler breeders was required to maintain the health, welfare and productivity of these birds, of which there are more than 11 million in North Carolina. Maintaining uniform body weight has always been viewed as being of utmost importance. Nirada learned that maintaining a reasonable level of competition during feeding greatly improved the uniformity of feed intake as well as improve livability and productivity. The most critical moment for this control is around the time of photostimulation, when the bird must decide whether to route nutrition to breast meat and body weight gain or to reproductive tract development.

“These data are already astounding the poultry industry worldwide and ushering in a new paradigm in broiler breeder management.”

In January the findings won her a plaque, $250 and a place on the winner’s podium next to her sister. Since January her attention has been primarily on completing her dissertation and her ongoing work at the N.C. State field poultry research facility. “We have to work at the farm a lot, and I like the team work, that it’s not just my work,” she says. “It’s fun, and I get to see and learn a lot.”

Any spare time is spent “hanging out with my sisters. I like to cook Thai food for us,” she says. She also has three dogs, a Yorkie and two mini-pinschers, and she enjoys traveling. Favorite past destinations include Burma and Bangladesh (on business trips with her mom), Sweden (as an exchange student at the age of 12), trips to Chile, Japan… .

But the trip she looks forward to most is a short one: the walk across the stage to receive her Ph.D. in poultry science.

Phanin Leksrisompong
‘Turning academic science into practical solutions’
By Suzanne Stanard

When Nin Leksrisompong enters the workforce next year, she’ll be something of a double-threat.
She is a highly accomplished doctoral student studying food science. But Nin also happens to have a mind for business and is especially interested in management and marketing.

“The biggest reason I came into science was my parents,” Nin says. “They believe that if you’re business-minded, the skills will come naturally. But the knowledge of science requires training.

Nin hopes to bridge the gap between food science and food marketing.

“I’ve always really been interested in business and management; however, I’ve been in the field of science for so many years, I have grown into liking and appreciating it more and more. It’s neat. … I can do the research and explain it.”

Nin has spent much of her doctoral career investigating the effect of heating rates on egg white and whey protein isolate gels. Her studies are supported by a prestigious fellowship from the American Egg Board that is given to only one student each year.

Nin says she hopes her work will benefit a sector of the food industry — breakfast products — that she believes is quickly becoming more relevant.

“Eighty-five percent of Americans say that eating breakfast is important,” Nin says. “However, most people don’t have time to sit down to breakfast every morning. Often they find themselves eating on the run. Thus, sales of hand-held, on-the-go products have skyrocketed.”

Nin’s research on how proteins respond to rapid heating will help optimize the processing of the breakfast egg white.

“Breakfast meal products have become a billion dollar industry in the United States,” she says. “Eggs are a traditional component of breakfast, and the functional and nutritional value of the egg makes it one of the key ingredients in this category.

“In any industry, time equals money,” she says.

The 26-year-old earned master’s and bachelor’s degrees in food science from N.C. State in 2006 and 2008, respectively. She also added a minor in business management with a marketing concentration. Nin transferred to the university after two years of study at the University of Kentucky, from which both her sister Ni and mother earned degrees.

“My parents inspired me to pursue advanced degrees,” she says. “They put a high value on education. I’m really grateful for my parents for everything that they have done for me …, and I’m also grateful for my lovely sisters.”

Dr. E. Allen Foegeding, William Neal Reynolds Professor of food science, is Nin’s adviser. He describes her work ethic as “ideal.”

“Nin is always open to new ideas and willing to do what it takes to get the job done correctly,” says Foegeding. “Also, she critically assesses her data. I am constantly amazed at the amount and quality of data she shows me during our meetings.”

Nin says her experience at N.C. State is preparing her well for her future.

“I’m in one of the best labs and one of the best food science departments in the nation,” she says. “My lab mates and all the faculty and technicians are fabulous. And I’m very fortunate to have Dr. [Tyre C.] Lanier as my former adviser and Dr. Foegeding as my current adviser; they have been wonderful mentors.”

While Nin commits the majority of her time to her studies, she also is actively involved in the university’s Food Science Club. She has organized major social and academic events, and, in the spring, she chaired the department’s team for the College Bowl, an Institute of Food Technologists-sponsored trivia competition in which schools from across the country participate.

“Nin enjoys life and shows it in her daily actions,” Foegeding says. “She is the type of person that you enjoy being associated with because of her positive attitude and sense of humor.”

Both Nin (above) and her sister Ni credit their parents’ inspiration in their pursuit of advanced degrees. Their family business, Charoen Pokphand, is one of the leading agriculture companies in the world and the largest in Asia.

This summer Nin will intern at Danisco, a multi-national company that describes itself at a world leader in food ingredients, enzymes and bio-based solutions. She’ll live in China and conduct research on the physical and chemical causes of freeze-thaw stability of the meat protein system.

She plans to continue that research in her final year of doctoral study at N.C. State.

“I see that the food-purchasing trend is moving toward frozen categories both in developed and developing countries, and freeze-thaw stability is an important factor in determining the quality of these products,” Nin says. “I have a strong desire to turn academic science into practical solutions, and I’m excited to do research that can benefit the industry.”

Nin also will focus next year on landing a job.

“I find consumer behavior fascinating,” she says. “Why do people buy what they buy?  Why do the retailers set up the stores the way they do? I enjoy spending time in the grocery store observing people’s purchasing behavior.

“I feel like scientists sometimes don’t understand what consumers want, and marketing people don’t really understand science, so I can see myself bridging the gap,” she says.

Foegeding supports Nin’s decision, saying, “It will prepare her well for various leadership roles. I strongly believe that Nin can do anything she wants, once she decides that is her goal.”

Ultimately, Nin is committed to her family’s business.

“I’m very passionate about our business,” she says. “The company aims to produce quality food products to meet the demand of the world and improve people’s quality of life.

“Not too many people would have such a great opportunity,” Nin says. “At the end, I want to help people, and I can see this being done through our business. I want to be successful, but there’s really no point in getting without giving to people less fortunate than you are.”

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