BLACKSBURG — Paul Siegel began a scientific experiment in 1957 on Chicken Hill.
In 2018 it’s still going strong.
In the beginning, the brash 24-year-old Virginia Tech poultry science professor — fresh ly conferred with master’s and doctoral degrees from Kansas State University — took a population of chickens and thought he’d see what genetics could do. It was very basic.
He’d breed chickens selected for their eight-week body weigh, then pair the bigger chickens with other bigger chickens and pair the smaller chickens with the smaller chickens.
Divergent lines began forming.
Today the chickens, though they’re now distant cousins, are very different birds of a feather.
Standing next to each other, they look like different breeds. The larger chicken is 15 times bigger than its smaller relative. Some of their genes are even different, as the larger line has changed over time.
Over the experiment’s course, the unique population has been a cutting-edge example of basic genetics‘ power in poultry.
It has built the groundwork for the modern poultry industry through foundational scientific study, and created an army of Siegel proteges, some of whom have become poultry science and industry pioneers of their own.
He’s been officially retired since 2000, but Siegel continues to devote a self-estimated 50 hours a week to his work. His lab technician Christa Honaker said Siegel shows up every day. When it snowed last year to the point that he couldn’t drive to work safely, the octogenarian walked to the campus chicken houses from his home more than a mile away.
There’s good reason to put in that much effort.
He’s collaborating with folks across campus and all over the globe. People are depending on him and the chickens. And though 85 and without graduate students, Siegel is keeping the 61-year test trial going for the same reason he started it during the Eisenhower administration.
“I’m an experimentalist,” Siegel said. “I want to see what you can do through genetics.”
Making his mark on poultry
Siegel has a few go-to jokes. One of his favorites is a quick zinger.
“I’m one of the only people who can say they have a centerfold in National Geographic,” he says.
In the magazine’s March 2011 edition, a picture of Siegel’s chickens showed the influence of genetics. A large chicken is depicted towering over its scrawny cousin.
But illustrating genetic variation to the public is just the most visible of his contributions. After all, he’s an academic — and a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of poultry science.
About 700 chickens currently live in the chicken houses that now bear Siegel’s name, following a 2010 Virginia Tech Board of Visitors resolution.
These are the same buildings the chickens’ ancestors have called home since he started the experiment in 1957. They’ve received the same diet since the beginning of the experiment, they are hatched at the same time of year and they don’t receive antibiotics. Siegel doesn’t want anything other than straight genetics to influence growth.
Over the years, hundreds of scientific journal papers have been published about Siegel’s flock .
The population has been used for studies such as the speed of evolution, genetic architecture and the effect of genetics on appetite.
Yet Siegel has steadfastly never sought to enhance chickens for grocery stores.
“I’m not trying to breed a better chicken,” Siegel said. “My role is to try to get an understanding of the inheritance.”
Researchers Elizabeth Gilbert and Mark Cline have used Siegel’s work and chickens in their own work. Recently, the Tech animal and poultry science professors studied anorexia nervosa in chickens.
They’ve found evidence in the smaller lines that appetite can be traced to genes in chickens. That work is somewhat translatable to humans.
Gilbert said collaborating with Siegel is rewarding, because he’s diligent about taking care of the chickens and can discuss any facet of animal sciences or biology, despite specializing in genetics.
“He’s the most meticulous researcher I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
There are no populations of chickens — or really an animal this size — like Siegel’s in the world. Without them, Cline and Gilbert said, their work wouldn’t be possible.
“We’d be studying something else,” Cline said.
Making a better student
Siegel has left a substantial professional marks as both a scientist and an educational mentor. Some of his students are leaders in their fields.
Dan Zelenka, vice president of laboratory services for Tyson Foods, is among them.
“He believed in letting his students do their own work,” Zelenka said. “He would give us enough rope to make our own mistakes.”
That independence led to improvement, Zelenka said.
And when it came time to select a career, Zelenka said Siegel helped him get his first job at Tyson 32 years ago by calling a scientist he knew at the Arkansas-based company.
Zelenka has guided improvements in the company’s statistical process control in operations, food safety and quality management programs. Today he oversees 17 laboratories that perform more than 280,000 tests monthly, according to the company.
Alison Martin, another former Siegel student, is the executive director of the Livestock Conservancy — a non-profit based in North Carolina that works to preserve livestock and poultry breeds to maintain genetic diversity of domesticated animals.
Siegel was her “first and best” mentor. She said she was always amazed at how Siegel would push students to be better.
But he wasn’t the type of professor who would dictate underlings to get something done while he sat in the office. He was always working hard alongside his students in the chicken houses, she recalled.
“Nobody is too important to get in there and dig in,” Martin said.
A fate determined long ago
Siegel was destined to be a poultry scientist.
The Connecticut native grew up on a farm since consumed by sprawling suburbs. But he was always fascinated by chickens.
As a 12-year-old, Siegel was part of 4-H. That organization introduced him to a poultry science professor named Walter Collins from the University of Connecticut. Collins explained his job to the youthful Siegel, who was entranced.
He already lived on a farm and loved being around chickens and practicing animal husbandry.
“Holy crow, he can do experiments with chickens and they pay him?” Siegel said he asked himself. “I decided at that point I was gonna go get a Ph.D. in genetics and get a job like Walter Collins.”
Soon after that epiphany, Siegel participated in a national chicken husbandry contest sponsored by the A&P grocery chain. He bred the best chicken in the youth division of the National Chicken-of-Tomorrow contest.
He also earned the Poultry Boy of the year citation for Connecticut in 1949.
The poultry savant graduated from high school at 16 and attending college at the University of Connecticut that same year.
Siegel earned a UConn degree in 1953 and moved on to graduate school at Kansas State University, where he met his wife.
At the age of 23, Siegel interviewed for a job at what was then known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute with prominent men whose names now adorn campus buildings: agriculture college dean Leander Dietrick and Tech president Walter Newman.
Told he could use some poultry houses under construction on what was jocularly called Chicken Hill — because fowl were often seen running around — he cancelled other interviews and accepted the Virginia Tech job .
He hasn’t been in a job interview since.
Siegel’s genetics textbook from his college freshman year still sits on his campus office shelf in Litton-Reaves Hall. He’s retained it, despite profound changes in the study of genetics since it was published.
“Let’s go to the index and see if you can find DNA in the index,” Siegel said as he opened the book. “You’re not going to find it.”
Much has also changed during Siegel’s academic career in Blacksburg. He was teaching undergraduate poultry science classes when the university only admitted white students. In the late 1950s, there were about 3,000 students, mostly men, except for a handful of women.
Things have evolved since the former military school grew dynamically in mid-century and diversified into present-day Virginia Tech. However, Siegel’s dedication to the job has been constant.
Richard Crowder, former chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative during the George Bush administration, was a student in Siegel’s first 1957 poultry science class.
Crowder remembers how Siegel would write something on the classroom chalkboard with one hand and then, suddenly, jot another idea with his other one so that both hands posted valuable information.
“He’s in the top tier of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Crowder said. “But even with all that brilliance, his explanations never go over your head.”
Crowder, now an adjunct professor of agricultural economics at Tech, said he uses lessons from Siegel in his classroom daily.
But Siegel wasn’t just benevolent to star pupils who had prospects of becom ing ambassadors or poultry science rock stars.
“He would give students a chance that nobody else would ever give them,” said Susie Jackson, a longtime administrative assistant who worked closely with Siegel.
Always humble, Siegel never put a student in a situation where they wouldn’t be able to succeed, she said.
He was also kind to everyone he worked with. He and Jackson still lunch together regularly, she said.
What the future holds
What will happen to the chickens when Siegel is gone?
“Oh boy,” he says quietly. It’s a question he’s heard many times but can’t answer.
A faculty member designated to take over responsibility left Tech instead for another job.
Because of Siegel’s status as a university distinguished professor emeritus, Tech is obligated to back his experiment as long as he can demonstrate he’s productive. But when he can no longer take care of the chickens, their fate is unclear.
Honaker, his lab technician, hopes she’ll be able to keep working with the populations because they’re “so valuable scientifically.”
Siegel said he supports her goal.
In the meantime, Siegel will be dedicated to keeping the lines going. He and Honaker are planning the hatch of generation No. 62 for the first Tuesday of March 2019.
Siegel works the overtime hour weeks despite not having collected a paycheck from the university during the new millennium,. He’s supported entirely by social security checks and his retirement plan.
It might seem like a tenuous way to spend retirement. But it’s what Siegel wants to keep doing.
“This is a good life,” he said.