In celebration of National Dairy Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting NIFA-funded researcher Dr. Li Ma.
Dr. Ma is an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. His long-term research interest is to understand the genetics basis of complex traits and diseases, and to apply the knowledge to accelerate genomic improvement of livestock. Recently, Dr. Ma has been working on the big-data genetic dissection of complex traits using the U.S. dairy genomics database with incorporation of all sorts of functional genomics data of cattle.
Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed.
I was raised in a rural area of China with many farms and crops, which inspired my instinct interest in agriculture. I later got a bachelor's degree in mathematics and brought mathematics and statistics into my graduate studies in animal breeding and genetics. In the past many years, my research interest has been focused on improving dairy cattle performance and sustainability through genetic and genomic techniques.
Describe your involvement with NIFA and your role.
I am so fortunate to have USDA NIFA continuously supporting my research for many years. In 2014, as a new investigator, my first proposal was awarded by the NIFA Animal Reproduction program. Since then, I have been awarded two additional USDA NIFA grants as a principal investigator and several grants as a co-PD. USDA NIFA is the main sponsor of my research program.
Could you catch us up on one of your NIFA-funded projects? What is the goal of your project and what impact do you hope it has on your institution and trainees?
One of my current NIFA-funded projects was from the Animal Health and Disease program, titled, “Big-Data Genomic Investigation to Improve Dairy Cattle Health.” The goal is to find genes and mutations related to dairy health and to apply these discoveries to improve disease resistance in cattle and, therefore, the profitability of the dairy industry. This project builds on the big genomic resource generated from the US dairy industry and integrates with cutting-edge big-data analytics to boost the power of the research.
How has NIFA funding shaped your professional development as a scientist?
My research has been funded by several NIFA programs, including Animal Reproduction, Animal Health and Disease Research Capacity Program, and Animal Breeding and Functional Annotation of Genomes. The financial support and involvement with these diverse NIFA programs have provided a unique opportunity for me to conduct multidisciplinary research integrating statistics, computer programming and genomics.
What advice to you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Keep learning and be prepared. Work more on the courses related to mathematics and genetics. We are currently short of people with such interdisciplinary expertise in mathematics and biology. There are going to be many related job openings in the near future.
Photo: Dr. Li Ma working with computers and big data generated from the dairy industry. Image provided by Dr. Ma.