From the Ground Up: John Francis O’Grady

Image Credit: John Francis O'Grady

Simon Lanigan speaks to PhD student John Francis O’Grady about the impact genomics is having on the agriculture industry.

Growing up and living on a beef farm in Killorglin, Kerry, 23 year old John Francis O’Grady has always had an interest in Agriculture. From a young age, this interest was nourished through him helping out on the family farm with his father, and from there it grew right into his teenage years. This was further enhanced in secondary school through the Agricultural Science programme for Leaving Certificate.  

However, John's agricultural mind stretched far beyond counting the cattle every evening. His belief in the scientific core and nature of agriculture led him to choose Agricultural Science in University College Dublin where here he could learn how agriculture could be undertaken, enhanced and pursued in a “scientific, sustainable and environmentally friendly way”. This was done with the ambition of taking this belief far beyond just general farming of the land. John believes that “the perception that anyone can farm or milk cows can be frustrating at times'' and that conducting agriculture in an efficient way involves a great level of skill and scientific knowledge required.

John's excellence in the area of science led him to choose the specialty of Animal Science for second year onwards in UCD.  It was from here where John excelled across the board but especially in the animal evolution, biology and chemistry aspects of the course.  He didn’t have any career aspirations at that point, but knew that the area of biology was for him.  

John continued to work through the course diligently.  “It was upon studying the genetics and biotechnology module that I began to excel and found it fascinating”.  

In third year this passion continued through animal genomics in which he absolutely loved. “It was at this moment that I fell in love with genetics.  I thought it was fascinating and the amount of research in the area, and in particular funding is quite outstanding and I felt then that through this fascination and funding that it would be quite a lucrative career path to commence”.  It was from here that John began to set his eyes on the area of Genetics, and got in touch with David McHugh who had been lecturing John in all of his Genetics modules. David pointed John in the right direction and introduced him to the science foundation of Ireland centre for research and training in genetics and data science. “They are funded by the Science Foundation of Ireland and had funding for 100 students spread out over 4 years taking in 25 new PhD students every year to conduct a research project in genetics, genomics or genomics and data science” 

genomics and genetic data requires a great level of skill to analyse, visualise and interpret and understand your genetic information

John felt that this was the career path for him but that he needed to complete a Masters first to gain a more well-rounded knowledge in the area of genetics. “ I then came across an ad on Facebook for a Masters in Trinity College called Genomic Medicine and I felt that by completing this that it would be a good opportunity to meet my objective of improving my knowledge in genetics and also picking up my coding information”. The area of Genetics and Genomics requires a huge knowledge in computer coding and data science.  “This is because genomics and genetic data requires a great level of skill to analyse, visualise and interpret and understand your genetic information”. 

John got the green light to pursue this master’s degree. “ The Masters in Genomic Medicine was a bit of a career swerve given its medical aspect. However, the application of genomics across multiple disciplines including microbial genomics, human genetics, animal genetics, pathogen genetics, and genomics in rare and common diseases both in animal and humans are fundamentals of genetics, and they all relate to one another making the skills you learn in one sector easily transferable to the other sector. This provides even more opportunities for work in the future so I think this puts me at a significant advantage in regards to my appreciation for the skills and topics that are associated with genomics in both animal science and medical science.”  On completion of this, John applied for a PhD position through the Science Foundation of Ireland Centre for Research and Training in Genomics and Data Science . “I got shortlisted and then I got accepted and started that in September. There is such [a] wide range of students from different backgrounds and countries and it is a fantastic way of getting to know people and different views associated with genetics” John compared this “transferring of knowledge in genetics” to osmosis that’s transferring knowledge across the brain barrier.

The future of the agricultural industry and especially the role that genetics and genome editing has to play is certainly going to be interesting to see.  John comments that “genome edited livestock are coming down the tracks very fast and that the work of genomics will be, and has been, central to the development of agriculture.  This can be seen in the example of milk production and genomic selection of bulls. The productivity of Dairy cows has skyrocketed thanks to genetics and genomically tested bulls. You can see this through the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) that has been revolutionary on Irish Dairy farms”. 

the area of genome editing is not dangerous and to [actively] combat the misinformation associated with genetics and genome editing

Looking to the future, John posited “I do feel genetics and genome editing will play a more of an integral role moving forward, particularly in relation to the rumen microbiome and the genomic aspect of the animal in relation to the environment, particularly the metagenomic analysis of the rumen environment and all the microbes and species within that and the role these will play in the likes of methane emissions associated with farm animal production. Furthermore, I think genome edited livestock are coming down the line fast because I think the shift in response to climate change needs to be bold, radical and fast. And this needs to be a global process because of the issues associated with carbon leakage and environmental concerns.”

John feels that it’s important to add that “genomics and the area of genetics in general might scare a lot of people but it’s up to the people who have been trained to communicate this level of research and science effectively to transfer the knowledge of genetics to not only on [a] farm level but the public and consumer, to show them that the area of genome editing is not dangerous and to [actively] combat the misinformation associated with genetics and genome editing.”