A career at the forefront of innovation in poultry genetics – An interview with Dr. Janet Fulton

Interview conducted and written by Modesta Abugu.

Dr Janet Fulton is a Molecular Geneticist for Hy-Line International. She received her BS from the Department of Poultry Science at the University of British Columbia, Canada, her MS from the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada and her PhD in Immunobiology with a minor in genetics from Iowa State University, USA. Dr. Fulton joined Hy-Line International in 1996 and established the first in-house molecular genetics laboratory in a primary poultry breeding company, with the goal of bringing the tools and technologies of molecular genetics into the Hy-Line breeding program. Due to her outstanding contributions to poultry science, she was awarded the Distinguished Poultry Industry Career Award at the Poultry Science Association annual meeting in 2016, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

In this interview, she shares her career experience with us and highlights the need for women to trust themselves while making scientific decisions in a male dominated field.

“Something I’ve learned over the course of my career is the need for collaboration.”

Dr Janet Fulton

How did you get into the field of animal science and genomics?

When I went to school there was no such thing as genomics. I liked animals and wanted to go to a vet school, but there was no vet school in the Canadian province I lived in. So, I signed up for agriculture instead. In the school there were separate Poultry Science and Animal Science departments. I really enjoyed the genetics class and in particular the poultry genetics lectures. I fell in love with genetics and have never looked back.

I did my undergraduate degree in Poultry Science at the University of British Columbia. Afterwards, I worked for 6 years as a technician in the Japanese quail unit and decided I wanted to learn more. I went to graduate school and obtained a master’s degree from the department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. There, I learned more about Mendelian genetics. I remember my master’s advisor asking me if I wanted to go to graduate school or if I going to go “broody” (meaning when a hen stops laying eggs and decides to incubate the eggs and raise chicks). I was married at that time, but I decided to further my graduate program with a minor in genetics from Iowa State University.

I did two post-docs after my PhD, the first one at the University of Minnesota St Paul, where I worked with fish. The second one was at the USDA Avian Disease and Oncology Lab in Michigan. Understanding what is inside an animal was, and still is, very important and practical, and all these experiences helped to put things into perspective.

Janet Fulton and famous purse “Blanche”

That’s a great career story. Could you tell us more about your current research?

I do a lot of different things. I was hired in Hy-Line International in 1996. At that time, they were doing collaborative work with universities and exploring applications of molecular genetics to poultry breeding. Hy-Line International decided they needed to bring knowledge of molecular genetics in-house to ensure that the research was relevant to commercial chickens and to have the expertise to inform their breeding efforts. My USDA post-doc work was on MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) variation and its relationship with disease resistance. Hy-Line had worked with MHC variation 30 years previously, so there was much interest and relevance. Since I was a molecular geneticist who had strong poultry experience, it was a good fit for Hy-Line International to bring in the concepts of molecular genetics into their breeding program.

Back in 1996, genetic engineering tools were out there but weren’t viewed as positive methods for improving animal agriculture. So, Hy-Line didn’t go the route of cloning or genetically modifying animals, rather I started looking at the genetic variations inherent in the multiple Hy-Line poultry lines. We set up a lab, hired a technician, purchased equipment and used microsatellites markers to identify genetic variation present in the multiple commercially utilized poultry lines. I initiated a DNA bank consisting of selected males and females of each generation for multiple lines. This DNA bank has DNA from fully pedigreed individuals with phenotypes, and now encompasses over 22 generations. The chicken genome was sequenced in 2004, and SNP variants were identified. This allowed us to develop rapid methods to genotype large numbers of individuals from multiple lines and generations from the DNA bank. Focus could be placed on identifying variation within specific genetic regions and genes of relevance to various production related traits. We can now genotype large numbers of individuals within multiple lines at a faster and cheaper rate. We continue to study variation in MHC because it is so influential for disease resistance in the chicken. The MHC is actually a cluster of genes involved in immune response and disease response in animals. In humans, MHC must be matched before you can do tissue graft.

We can’t really say we did everything by ourselves. Something I’ve learned over the course of my career is the need for collaboration. We collaborated with a wide range of groups and that is what made our research so relevant. We take advantage of the skills that other people are bringing to the research, each party contributing different strengths and experiences.

Janet Fulton teaching during tech school 2019

That’s Awesome. As a woman who started her career as far back as the 90s, what challenges have you faced and how did you tackle them?

Most of the challenges I had to overcome were personal, and this has been since I was in high school. I had family friends who thought it was great that I was going to college, because that’s where I would find a husband with a good career. Thirty years later, my daughter heard that same thing from the father of a classmate. My daughter was furious at the attitude. I raised her right! She had confidence to know that she was a person with value and college was for more than to just find a husband. I do believe that this perception of women is changing.

Professionally, there was not always a lot of encouragement. I have three children; I had two of them when I was working on my PhD and the third one when I was working on my postdoc. I was not really encouraged because then in academia, I was told that if you have children, you can’t work as hard as a man. I believe that I have proved them wrong. I work hard, and I am just more efficient!

There is an annual Poultry Breeders conference where, for several years, I was the only female from a commercial poultry breeding company. Also, as the first high level woman hired at Hy-Line, I had to set clear boundaries (I don’t make coffee!) Thankfully, this has changed now.

One thing that helped me to work well was to separate my life at work from my life at home. My work is about 20 mins drive from home and it was always a nice time to set my thoughts away from home into work on my drive, and then reverse from work to family when I drive home. Initially, I was not sure how well I could work from home during these difficult COVID times. But it has actually worked out well for me. I think because my kids are no longer at home, I can now focus on the work from my home computer.

Have you mentored other women in your career? Have you also had mentors?

Well, yes, I have four women that work in my lab and I’ve tried to mentor them and inspire their career growth. One of them started working for me part time fresh out of high school and then got married and had two children. I always tried to be supportive of her career choices. There is another woman in the lab who I initially hired as a maternity replacement and she is married now with three children. Everyone in the lab has commented on how family supportive I am. My idea has always been that humans, as mammals, always need support and care and there is no need to make life any harder than it is. So, show care and support to one another when it is needed. Family is important and it’s important to find the balance between the family and work, so you can be happy with yourself.

What value have you found in being a member of Women in Genomics?

It’s really nice to be able to talk about common challenges that women face during their career. I remember having a conversation at one of the WIG dinners with a woman who mentioned how men say inappropriate things and imply that women can’t work as well as men. I could relate to her story and I understood her frustration. It feels good to know that you are not the only one going through that kind of challenge and that’s one strength I derive from being a member of WIG

Great to know. What advice do you have for early career female scientists?

Agriculture is a male dominated field. It has been for a long time, although it is getting better now. Don’t be ashamed of being a woman and don’t try to be a “non-female” just because you work with mostly men. We all have our strengths and weakness and be okay with showing that strength at every chance you get.