Dr. Paul Siegel (image courtesy Virginia Tech)

Longtime Poultry Geneticist Paul Siegel Receives National Lifetime Research Award

October 2, 2023 — Paul Siegel’s coworkers definitely have left their marks on him.

“They’re not all kind to me,” said Siegel. “They may depend on me for their food and water, and you know some of them are nice, but every so often they can take a chunk out. I got the scars to prove it.”

During his 60-plus years of poultry research, the University Distinguished Professor and active professor emeritus in the School of Animal Sciences has also left his mark on the field of poultry genetics.

Since he began at Virginia Tech in 1957, Siegel has developed pedigree lines of chickens and explored genetics in ways that have shaped the poultry industry’s understanding of the biological effects of breeding for desirable traits. He’s worked with scientists from around the world and has published hundreds of studies on the subject, such as like the evolution of chickens and the role of genetic adaptations in domestication. In 2010, he was inducted into the American Poultry Industry Hall of Fame.

This fall, Siegel’s lifelong passion and career have earned him another mark – The Golden Goose Award.

“It’s an award that I’m receiving for all the colleagues, technicians, and students that worked the [pedigree] lines,” Siegel said. “Those are the people we could have never had the lines without. And they’ve gone on and into the world with this knowledge too. So basically, my product has been the people that have passed through my lab.”

Since 2012, the Golden Goose Award has recognized researchers whose federally funded work has resulted in breakthroughs with tremendous human and economic benefits. Those include the development of life-saving medicines and treatments, game-changing social and behavioral insights, and major technological advances related to national security, energy, the environment, communications, and public health. The award has been under the stewardship of American Association for the Advancement of Science since 2017.

Siegel’s poultry interests started when he began to ask “why” as a child on his family’s 35-acre farm in Connecticut.

“If I put a white rooster with a red hen, sometimes they all come out white, sometimes they come out as a hodgepodge,” said Siegel of his thinking at the time. “I was learning sex linkage … developing this inquiring mind at a very early age.”

After a storied career in 4-H and graduating high school at 16 years old, Siegel earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Kansas State University before joining Virginia Tech in the late ’50s.

“Dr. [Walter] Newman was the president and he said, ‘What we’d like you to do is set up a program in poultry genetics. … Do you have any other interviews lined up?’” Siegel said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I have two others.’ And he said, ‘You will have the offer in hand if you’ll cancel those other two interviews.’”

Needless to say, Siegel was done interviewing and has been at Virginia Tech since. During that time, his well-known pedigree lines have produced 66 generations of chickens. He has used long family lines to study how applying genetics to the breeding of high-quality chickens — aiming for traits such as high or low body weight — may affect the animal’s complex biology, a balance of skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, and other yet undiscovered resources.

Standing next to each other, today’s chickens would likely look more than 15 times larger than their ancestors who first worked with Siegel. They would also have different genes. The illustration of genetic influence was so impressive, Siegel’s chickens were cast as centerfolds in the March 2011 edition of National Geographic magazine.

Siegel said minimizing inbreeding was not only critical to the research process, but also to the ideas and thought processes within the researcher’s environment.

“You don’t work in isolation. You want to look at what was done before you, what mistakes they made, what successes they had, and then you have got to work with bright people,” Siegel said. “You always want to work with someone smarter than you, and that’s the big advantage of having graduate students and visiting faculty. They come in with fresh ideas.”

Siegel said he never had a large number of graduate students at one time, but rather a steady flow from all corners of both the country and the globe.

“I had wonderful students. They came from all over. New England, the Midwest, the West Coast. Some came from Europe, Africa, China,” he said. “Everyone came in with different ideas, they brought different things to the table.”

One lesson Siegel always has hoped to impart to his students from his own experience is to remain open to new information. When he began the University of Connecticut in 1950, the term “DNA” wasn’t even in the textbooks yet.

“There’s always new procedures, new techniques, you have to keep up with it,” he said. “The best thing you can do is learn how to learn.”

Siegel’s students have definitely learned over the years, and many have gone on to have their own achievements in both the public sector and private industry. Former student Dan Zelenka, former vice president of laboratory services for Tyson Foods, credited that in part to trusting relationships Siegel builds with students.

“He believed in letting his students do their own work,” Zelenka said in the Roanoke Times in 2018. “He would give us enough rope to make our own mistakes.”

Siegel’s influence has also been felt by the researchers he’s worked alongside, such as Elizabeth Gilbert, professor of animal sciences and researcher in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Gilbert said collaborating with Siegel is always rewarding due to his diligence when taking care of the chickens and his ability to discuss any facet of animal sciences or biology, despite specializing in genetics.

“He’s the most meticulous researcher I’ve ever worked with,” Gilbert said.

Though he officially retired in 2000, Siegel continues to work with chickens about 50 hours a week in the poultry houses that have borne his name since a 2010 Virginia Tech Board of Visitors resolution. And he plans to do so for the foreseeable future, right beside his favorite feathered coworkers, despite the occasional scar.