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A Passion for Poultry Health

Rocio Crespo with baby chicks
, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s new professor of poultry health management. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

She begins, as she usually does, with a smile and a laugh.

“I need to show you something,” Rocio Crespo, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s new professor of poultry health management, says from behind her desk. In one swift movement she turns her chair around, switches her computer off sleep mode and pulls up a browser.

It’s her Facebook page. She’s scrolling through her photos and stops at a few that have something in common: Crespo, with that smile of hers, posing with students. They have another thing in common: Crespo, in costumes for Halloween, gleefully posing in her laboratory with students. In one, she’s hamming it up as a certain infamous reality TV star.

“I loved that,” she adds with a chuckle. “That was funny. Just me as a Kardashian.”

There’s no particular reason she’s showing you this and it’s kind of amazing she does; when’s the last time you’ve heard of a poultry medicine professor sharing such unabashed goofiness on their social media feed? But this accessible approach to teaching is as much a part of Crespo’s life as her scientific devotion for her field.

The reputation of the CVM’s poultry health management program, long regarded as one of the best in the country, is well known to Crespo. The researchers whose work she has long admired are now her co-workers, and she gets to work in a state where maintaining poultry health is unmistakably vital.

For more than two decades, Crespo has been dedicated to practical yet forward-thinking poultry health research and clinical work. She has researched devastating poultry diseases related to Salmonella, influenza and hepatitis and developed management tools for poultry farms with large and small flocks. Her work leading food safety labs has protected people from getting sick. She is determined to discover new methods to diagnose diseases, even out in the field.

“I am very ambitious and I feel like I haven’t achieved enough,” she says. “I’m always looking to do more.”

The CVM is the perfect place for Crespo to do just that. Since arriving in August, she has helped manage poultry flocks at the school’s Teaching Animal Unit, organized and hosted a North Carolina poultry health meeting for industry leaders, researchers and clinicians, and is in the early stages of developing a mobile poultry health service.  

Poultry production is North Carolina’s top agriculture industry, adding about $37 billion to the economy, according to recent estimates. Nationally, the state ranks second in turkey production and third in chicken production.  

The CVM’s poultry health management program, part of the school’s Department of Population Health and Pathobiology, is an active partner with the North Carolina poultry industry, from large commercial endeavours to small-farm flocks. Clinicians prevent diseases and researchers focus on emerging problems that specifically impact the state. The CVM offers a clinical residency program In poultry health and welfare, students have the opportunity to work at the school’s Teaching Animal Unit or with poultry companies to get hands-on experience with flocks.

CVM students who graduate with a poultry health focus often stay in the state for work, launching careers ranging from staff veterinarians for large production companies to researchers for public health government agencies.

“There are more opportunities to work with the poultry industry and do more research here to share with students,” says Crespo. “Many of the professors I have had, they learned about most things from books and didn’t see it. Those professors who had seen it in the field made it such a different and better experience for me. We should give that our students.”

Crespo herself has been a student of poultry for her entire life. Her father, who had a degree in economics, worked for the poultry industry in Spain as an expert on importing eggs. She often accompanied him on visits to farms and hatcheries (in an only-happens-in-movies moment, Crespo was named the Scientist of the Year by the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association in 2017).

Though she lived with her family in Madrid, Crespo felt more alive during these trips to the countryside with her dad. Those experiences, paired with her parents stressing the importance of work that served to improve society, led to an early commitment to a career with food animals.  

Poultry remained a strong interest, but after finishing veterinary school at the Complutense University of Madrid, Crespo worked with cattle until she met pushback from farmers.

“You know, I got the ‘Oh, you’re a woman. You are too small,’” she says. “’You’re not strong enough for these large animals.’”

Long blessed with disarming positivity — often sickly as a child, doctors would tell her mother that her daughter couldn’t be as a sick as she was saying because she was always smiling — Crespo moved on. After graduating in Madrid with honors in animal production, she earned a master’s and doctorate from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

While there, she was board certified, becoming a diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians. It was also where she met her husband, Lyndon, a now-retired veterinary medicine researcher with a similar passion for farm animals (they now live in Cary with their two children, David, 17, and Lara, 14).

From there, she served as the chief of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System at the University of California, Davis and then lead the Avian Health and Food Safety Laboratory at Washington State University.

“For me, I’ve always been guided by the passion for the animals and by the passion of the students,” says Crespo. “It’s about loving the industry and wanting to improve it. It’s something poultry veterinarians can be really proud of.”

She also takes pride in her new mission at the CVM.

“When I talked with Paula Cray she said, ‘When students want to study poultry, I want NC State to be the university they think of,’” says Crespo. “So my goal is to make North Carolina the place for poultry medicine.”

And even with this proclamation, she manages to add a confident smile.

For more information on the CVM’s poultry health management program, go here.

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine