The Perfect Cow

By Danniel Arriaga

“I can moo better than you can.”

“I have more spots than you.”

What if cows really did argue and compete over their features and abilities? Well things just might be changing.

I spoke to researcher Diane Spurlock and her interns Morgan Garvey and Micah Rollie who are part of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Internship at Iowa State. They are conducting research on cattle to understand how cows can be more efficient in converting feed into milk.

Morgan Garvey, left, and Micah Rollie

The GWC Internship invites students 16 years or older to experience life on campus, and conduct research for eight weeks. Students are assigned a project to research that their mentors are working on or given a new project.

“On one hand we’re interested in understanding the mechanisms that regulate how cows will mobilize the energy stored in their bodies, a process called lipolysis,” said Spurlock.

Everything starts by looking at a gene, specifically in the cow’s fat tissue. Morgan Garvey, an undergraduate student from Tuskegee University, majoring in animal science, takes this challenge head on.

“I’m measuring AMPK (adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase), which plays a role in cellular energy homeostasis, to see if more efficient cows produce more of it. First the graduate students did a biopsy, which is basically taking a portion of tissue from the back end of a dairy cow,” Garvey said.

Morgan Garvey

Specific fat cells, or adipocytes, are isolated from the tissue. Proteins present in the cell are then evaluated. Using a genetic test, the proteins are separated by length of the polypeptide and then detected. However when Morgan’s results came in, she learned that things do not always work on the first try, and is optimizing her methods.

Micah Rollie, an undergraduate student from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, got an opportunity to see the other side of the research.

“Basically what I’m doing is data analysis, and I’m looking to see whether or not a cow is active has an impact on how efficient they are,” Rollie said.

Rollie’s data was already taken from months before, now her primary job is to organize data into tables and graphs to look at the correlation between a cow’s activity and efficiency. This allows her to get familiar with the research at hand.

Micah Rollie

The main question they all want to answer is what makes a more efficient milking cow. This can also affect you. Everyone needs some calcium in their lives, and if there is a way to have a more efficient milking cow at a cheaper cost, then the cost of milk goes down. Cheaper milk means cheaper costs for the processors, cheaper costs for the market and cheaper costs for the everyday citizen.

Garvey and Rollie had similar expectations of the GWC program, expecting everyday to be all work and no play. Their minds changed after a couple weeks of taking part in the activities planned by the coordinators and spending time in the labs they’re working in. They both enjoy animals and enjoy the work that they are doing for their mentor and both are proud to be a part of the GWC. All of the data found within the research will be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The GWC has been bringing in students like Garvey and Rollie from all over the country for the past decade, introducing them to new sciences and experiences. For more information, visit

Danniel Arriaga, a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines He is spending the summer as part of the George Washington Carver Internship and is also part of the program, Science Bound. Danniel is an intern in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Communications Office, writing news stories about the other GWC interns.