When Penny Riggs was six years old, she had to stand in the corner of her first grade classroom for the afternoon for coloring outside the lines. Though the assignment was to color the picture inside the lines, Penny did not see the reason, or benefit, for doing so. To this day, she’s still convinced she did nothing wrong.
Now as an associate professor of functional genomics in the Department of Animal Science, it’s her curiosity to learn and ask ‘why not’ rather than ‘why’ that keeps Penny “coloring outside the lines.” Because of this desire to learn new things and build upon her skills, Penny’s work in animal science has led to new adventures and new opportunities.
In this Q/A with Penny, learn how her interest in people and learning more have helped shape her life personally and professionally – as a teacher, researcher, exhibit planner and gun enthusiast.
Where are you from?
I was born in Laredo, Texas, but grew up in central Indiana. I got back to Texas in 1991.
What is your education background?
I graduated with a BS in Biology, and then earned my MS degree in Cytogenetics while I was working as a lab manager in the Department of Animal Science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. I completed my PhD in the Interdisciplinary Program in Genetics at Texas A&M.
Tell us about your previous jobs.
Well, I’ve had a lot of jobs! My first formal job for a company was a paper route. I also worked at a gas station and then moved up to a job at the dorm kitchen. I worked as a copy editor at the campus newspaper, the largest collegiate daily in Indiana, and quickly moved up to positions as copy chief and training coordinator for new reporters. After that I got a job at Purdue’s Dairy research farm, and was responsible for looking after the newborn calves and the “cow infirmary.” Next, I did undergraduate research in a cancer research lab in the department of medicinal chemistry and got a job as a tissue culture lab technician as result.
That combination of experience helped me land a position as the laboratory manager for the Cytogenetics Laboratories in the Animal Science Department at Purdue. This was a fun job, because I was able to learn and do so many different types of work: I conducted clinical chromosome analyses for veterinarians, supervised mouse and fish research labs, ventured into “biotechnology” by making transgenic mice and fish, and assisting with the polyploid catfish project. I worked with a great team of colleagues and was also able to pursue my MS degree part-time – investigating chromosome errors that reduced fertility in pigs and horses.
Eventually, I ended up at Texas A&M for a PhD in the Genetics program. I left A&M for a job as a postdoctoral fellow in the Radiation Biophysics Lab at NASA’s L.B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. From there I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center and did more postdoc work in the department of carcinogenesis in Smithville until I became manager of a Functional Genomics core facility to develop gene expression research capabilities for the campus, and also formed a bioinformatics team. The facility was successful, but when my current job became available in Animal Science in 2006, I applied for it, and the rest is history.
Why/how did you choose a career in functional genomics?
I chose to go into research, but the area of direction has evolved over time. As I was growing up, my career aspirations were all over the map. When I started college, I wanted to do “cancer research” someday so I enrolled in biochemistry. I tried out some student teaching for junior high school and decided to pursue graduate school instead of teaching at the junior high or high school level. I did an undergraduate research project in a cancer center lab.
Later, I was introduced to cytogenetics (the study of chromosomes) by a guest lecturer in my genetics class. I really enjoyed working in clinical animal cytogenetics and molecular biology, and also developed a real interest in food animal research during that time. During my PhD, I got involved in making gene maps, but found that I was really interested in understanding more about how genes function. Cytogenetics seemed to be a limited field, so I thought I should add to it, learn about gene expression and take some opportunities to add to my research “tool box.” That approach led me to MD Anderson and then ultimately evolved into what we now call “functional genomics.”
What is your job at Texas A&M? Tell us what you do in ANSC?
I teach ANSC 624, a graduate class in mammalian developmental genetics. I also teach ANSC 481 Senior Seminar and GENE 681 graduate genetics seminar course. I team teach a course, PHIL 489/689 called “Genomics & Society” that introduces undergraduates and graduate students to ethics and social implications of advances in technology. I’m also one of the advisors for the Saddle & Sirloin Club, and for a new student group (A-STEP) concerned with science and technology policy.
In the lab, our overall focus is on basic genomics research related to animal agriculture. We want to know how certain genes work, how their function is regulated, or how certain gene products affect the overall phenotype of an animal. Right now our projects involve cattle, goats, and other species. We’re especially interested in regulation of growth and development of skeletal muscle in beef cattle at a basic level. As we understand more about “how things work,” we can apply this knowledge in ways to contribute to the livestock industries – for example, to contribute to improvements in beef product consistency and quality.
Outside of the lab and classroom, I represent the research faculty on the executive committee of our Council of Principal Investigators. Earlier this year, I was appointed to, and elected chair of the Research Development Fund Advisory Committee. This committee is a new type of effort at Texas A&M (rdf.tamu.edu) to use strategic investments to enhance and expand the local research enterprise. It derives funds from a percentage of the facilities and administration costs derived from investigators’ extramural research grants. Our committee worked quickly to develop a process for proposal submission and review, then evaluated proposals, and made recommendations for initial infrastructure enhancements. Although still early, I think this committee has so far been a good example of an effective merger of ideas that enabled successful and positive interaction between research faculty and administration to make investments to enhance research efforts. Ultimately our overall goal is to continue to enhance and improve the research environment at Texas A&M, so that our researchers have the tools they need to solve today’s problems, and our students gain experience that helps them become the next generation of leaders in their fields.
Tell us about the upcoming exhibit at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
By March 2017, a new exhibit entitled “The Legacy of Ranching: Preserving the Past, Embracing the Future” will open at the George Bush Presidential Library & Museum and run through January 2018. The exhibit connects President Bush through the late Ambassador Anne Armstrong and her family. We will celebrate the ranching history of Texas – the people, their leadership, and the value of farming and ranching to the State. We will have nearly a year to tell our story to the general public – a story that includes pivotal advances in research that have contributed, and continue to support the livestock industries, as well as the future of agriculture, food safety, and rural livelihoods.
This is a very exciting opportunity and is a wonderful chance for our department to interact with its stakeholders and a tremendous audience of Bush Library visitors. We are working with many of the staff at the Bush Library, including Curator Susie Cox and Director Warren Finch. We have begun filming oral histories and are developing the exhibit content in conjunction with the Bush Library. We’re also actively recruiting funding partners for this project.
How did you become involved with the exhibit?
I had the good fortune to be involved with a previous exhibit, Genome: The science of how life works. It was a great opportunity to introduce visitors to Texas A&M genomics research. Through the success of this exhibit and the great relationships we developed with the outstanding staff at the Bush Library, the Department of Animal Science was given the opportunity to develop this new exhibit. It provides wonderful exposure across the state for us and our partners, and will help us educate a diverse audience about the importance and value of animal agriculture.
Tell us about your gun hobby and shooting range, The A-Zone Range.
Competition shooting is a hobby I picked up in graduate school. I competed at some local clubs, and then around 1995, I took some classes to become certified as an instructor. That’s also how I met my husband, Karl Rehn (the KR in KR Training). We have had a lot of fun traveling and competing at national-level shooting matches around the country. We started teaching classes as a way to help pay for the hobby, but more importantly, we wanted to help people who got Texas carry licenses get additional training beyond the minimal state requirements. We developed several scenario-based courses to help people think through the actions they might take in emergency situations, and to help them develop the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary as safe and responsible firearms owners.
Eventually, with the encouragement of our friends and colleagues in the industry, we built the A-Zone range near Giddings and run all of our classes out there. Most of the teaching is done by Karl and a team of instructors, but I help out when I can.
One of the fun things we’ve been able to do was help the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets Marksmanship Unit get off to a good start when they were founded in 2011, and we work as range officials when they host the Scholastic Pistol Program match and other events. We’re also running a research study right now to test different sight configurations with funding by the Huffines Institute.
For more information regarding news from the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, please contact Courtney Coufal at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 845-1542.