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Dairy dreams turn to world accolades for Heathcote researcher

People of Collingwood: Hannah Woodhouse, PhD candidate, cross-country runner and dairy farming advocate
Hannah Woodhouse grew up on a dairy farm in Heathcote, Ont., and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph.

Moo-ve over, because a woman from Heathcote is working toward revolutionizing the world dairy industry.

For this week’s edition of People of Collingwood we spoke with Hannah Woodhouse, 26, PhD candidate, cross-country runner and dairy farming advocate.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in Heathcote, on my family’s dairy farm. I’m the oldest, with three younger sisters. My mom is a veterinarian, and my dad is a farmer. They’re a great pair.

Dairy is our main operation, but we have a lot of animals. I also do beekeeping on the side.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: I went to Beaver Valley Community School and high school at Georgian Bay Secondary School.

Q: When high school ended, what happened next for you?

A: When I was in high school, I was a competitive runner. I always had a very active lifestyle growing up on a farm. I joined the Meaford Coyotes cross-country club when I was going into Grade 9.

I ended up getting really involved. I made a few national teams. That landed me some scholarship offers across the U.S. and Canada.

(The University of) Guelph was my top choice in Canada. They were the best school for running at that time.

I loved the farm growing up, but I initially thought I wanted to go into human medicine. I looked at some schools in the States and I didn’t feel it was meant to be.

I applied for a President’s Scholarship at the University of Guelph where they pay your tuition for a four-year degree and a summer research position where you get paid work with a professor. I applied for that, and I got it. I knew I was going to the best Canadian school for running, and I would also have my academics looked after. I went for biomedical sciences, intending to go to medical school and become a doctor.

That changed a couple of months in.

I realized how much I missed my farm and my agricultural roots.

When I did the summer research position, I looked for a professor who was doing research in dairy.

Q: What was the research project?

A: He said, ‘We have this issue with coffee shops having concerns that their milk won’t froth. It’s a quality concern; do you want to work on that?’

I said it sounded neat.

I chose to declare a minor in nutrition, because then I could take some animal nutrition courses as well so I could get more involved in agriculture without changing my degree entirely.

It was a good fit.

That project was in the summer of my second year. It was a kind of new, niche project. I did a small pilot project. The next summer he employed me again to continue that research.

It was related to free fatty acids in the milk. I looked at what the factors are associated with elevated free fatty acids which can contribute to quality issues.

I wanted to continue on it.

I graduated during COVID in the spring of 2020. I went into my master's. After a year, my project became bigger, looking at provincial data and other provinces, so it became national. It led to me taking on a PhD.

Q: The International Dairy Federation held their World Dairy Summit in October in Chicago, and you won an award there for a poster you created outlining your research. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?

I was invited to the conference because they were looking for students to present their research. The conference gathers people from the dairy industry from all across the world.

There were 89 posters, seven categories and more than 20 countries that participated. I was the first person to win that was from the University of Guelph, and it had been quite some time since a Canadian has won.

I had been notified a week before that I was a finalist, so I prepared a talk to give to go with the poster. I was very honoured and surprised that I won. It ended up being a bigger deal than I thought.

After I came out, it seemed like everybody knew my name. I met so many people and made so many connections. I was given job offers on the spot. In the days following, I was flooded with meeting new people and getting to hear about other dairy industries around the world.

It was a little bit overwhelming, but it was really great. It was really rewarding.

Q: How did you feel when you found out you had won?

A: It was a really special moment. My parents went because my mom is on the board of directors for GayLea Foods. They came to watch my talk and brought their connections and coworkers. At this talk I had quite a lot of support there.

I was really beaming. It was really special to have them there to watch it happen.

Q: Do you have hobbies outside of your work that you’d like to mention?

A: Distance running is my major hobby.

I ran for the University of Guelph track team for five years. I’m no longer on the team because I’ve been in school for too long. (laughs)

I still run recreationally. I really do love it. I’d like to make more national teams. I went to the PanAms in China in 2014 and then in B.C. for the PanAms in 2019. Obviously school’s been pretty busy but I’m hoping that once I finish up my degree, I can get back into it a bit more.

It really compliments my studies as well. You can’t write and do research all the time. It gets me outside. It clears my head, and I find I’m more productive.

I travel for two different reasons: I’m either going to run or I’m going to present my research. It’s nice to have that balance.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

A: I hope to graduate in April. I’ll defend my thesis and get my PhD.

When I’m done, I want to work in the dairy industry. It’s something I’m very passionate about, after growing up on a dairy farm.

I really love my farm, but I have three younger sisters and one in particular is interested in farming as well.

I would like to use my degree and make a difference on a broader scale for the dairy industry. At this point, I can’t say exactly what, but I would like to work abroad for a little bit and experience some of the industry overseas. I think that would be a great opportunity. While I’m young, I’d really like to travel and see what I can do.

I could see myself, one day, returning to academia and being a professor.

I’d like to continue with my running as well and see where I can take that.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people in Collingwood to know about you?

A: I’m a very passionate individual. People think of me as a busy person. I find it really rewarding to contribute to society on a broader scale.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of false information out there about the dairy industry.

For me, studying milk quality and being from a dairy farm... if you have questions about the dairy industry, please ask someone who is in it. The Canadian dairy industry is supply-controlled, so we produce as much dairy as consumers demand. It’s high-quality and regulated. Most of the dairy products you see in the grocery store are Canadian-made and local.

When you buy dairy, you’re not only supporting your health, but you’re also supporting local dairy farmers. Look for the blue cow when you’re buying dairy.

For our feature People of Collingwood, we speak with interesting people who are either from or are contributing to the Collingwood community in some way, letting them tell their own stories in their own words. This feature runs on CollingwoodToday every weekend. If you’d like to nominate or suggest someone to be featured in People of Collingwood, email [email protected].

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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