Perspectives Online

College Profile - Award winning Teacher and animal scientist Billy Flowers succeeds with a simple philosophy: Learn By doing. By Suzanne Stanard

"I believe that the legacy you leave is the impression you make on the people you teach."
Photo by Daniel Kim

Dr. Billy Flowers is as much at home with a 500-pound sow as he is around any person.

"The secret to communicating with a pig is scratching it behind the shoulder," he says. "You can do pretty much anything you want."

Case in point: The sow on which Flowers is demonstrating this theory seems to grin in pleasure. The more Flowers digs in beneath the pig's shoulder blade, the higher its neck arches and the faster its curly tail bobs back and forth. Appreciative grunts seal the deal.

Flowers, a professor of animal science, is a swine reproductive physiologist who just entered his 20th year with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where his appointment is split evenly between teaching and research.

He was recently recognized by the National Association of Universities and Land-Grant Colleges with one of 10 "Excellence in University Teaching Awards."

"I love what I do," Flowers says. "I love working with students. I love doing research. And working with industry is terrific because you can see things that you helped develop being applied in the real world."

And, of course, he loves pigs.

"Of all the animals I dealt with growing up, pigs seem to be the most interesting," he says. "They're kind of the underdog, because people have such negative connotations of them. They're actually very fascinating animals.

"When I started to learn about pigs' reproductive physiology in college, I realized that they're very similar to humans in a lot of different physiological systems, and that piqued my interest even more."

To create similar enthusiasm in his classes, Flowers believes in giving his students real experiences - hands-on, knee deep. Before his freshmen complete their first swine lab, they will participate in a birth. They'll spend lots of time at the College's swine unit handling sows, boars and baby pigs. Flowers' philosophy is simple: Give students plenty of opportunities to learn by doing.

To accomplish this goal, Flowers creates situations in all of his classes in which students have to teach and learn from each other. He also has developed several courses, including "Introduction to Animal Science," now a freshman requirement.

"One of the big reasons for creating this class is that we realized the majority of these students had virtually no experience with large farm animals," he says. "Students really have to build up confidence to be around large animals. I think this class is a great fit for the major because it exposes them to the animals and gives them necessary experience."

Flowers also teaches swine production courses, and he created a graduate level distance-education course that trains students in the data management systems they'll need to work in the swine industry.

His students land jobs in industry and with universities in the Research Triangle area. Many also become veterinarians, Cooperative Extension agents, teachers and pharmaceutical sales reps.

Along with Dr. John Cornwell, who retired recently as director of the College's Agricultural Institute, and Dr. Carm Parkhurst, now-retired professor of poultry science, Flowers helped create the Swine and Poultry Scholars program. Known today as the Food Animal Scholars program, it guarantees entry for select freshmen into the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine. According to Flowers, this program creates opportunities not only for students, but also for the industry.

"There's a strong need for swine and poultry vets across the state, and most students in vet school are interested in small animals or equine," he says. "So, this program is our way to create a pool of qualified candidates for the industry and also to give deserving students a unique opportunity."

In addition to teaching and advising undergraduate and graduate students, Flowers pursues an ambitious program of research. It began, he says, with a bit of serendipity.

"I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing."

Flowers was born in New Bern but calls Virginia home because his family moved near Blacksburg when he was very young. His father was an administrator in the Cooperative Extension Service in Virginia whose work focused on international agriculture. Both of his parents were the first in their families to graduate from college.

He earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from Virginia Tech and master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Missouri. In 1986, Flowers finished his Ph.D. work, and in early 1987, he joined the N.C. State faculty as an assistant professor.

He met his wife, Lynn, shortly after beginning work in the College, and they now have a son, A.J., who is 3 years old. He and Lynn work to rehabilitate injured wildlife on 15 acres of land just outside New Hill. Their menagerie includes, at present, two dogs, three cats, five rabbits, two squirrels, three horses, and one mule ("which is mine," Flowers says with a little laugh).

When Flowers came to North Carolina in the late 80s, the swine industry was growing aggressively, and he saw opportunities to make an impact. The industry was looking for new ways to get sows mated and bred, moving away from traditional methods that were beginning to prove inefficient and unsafe.

"Some of the early work we did here led to the industry adapting artificial insemination of swine in North Carolina and in the United States," he says. "There are advantages in genetic improvement, and it's also very good from the disease and health standpoint.

At the College's swine education unit at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, Flowers checks on the 'fascinating animals' his students work with in his swine production courses.
Photo by Daniel Kim
"It was a great environment in North Carolina at the time," he says. "I feel indebted to the swine industry because there were some innovative thinkers who really took a chance on trying something new, and they really made it work."

His current research focuses on the neonatal environment of male and female pigs and how it affects their adult reproductive performance. And, of course, students are at the center of his research.

He employs four graduate students: two doctoral and two master's candidates. His doctoral students are allowed to hire one undergraduate student each. According to Flowers, this gives his graduate students valuable management experience and provides the undergrads with hands-on work.

"To be successful at the next level, these students need to learn how to manage other people and also how to manage a budget," Flowers says. "I intentionally give them less money than they'll need to complete the project, which encourages them to prioritize and make tough decisions."

Flowers also is a big believer in supporting students with their own research. On this particular day, he is working with Lisa Thompson, a junior animal science major enrolled in the Food Animal Scholars Program, on a project with baby pigs. She and Flowers built a small plywood maze into which they'll place piglets - one at a time - to study their movements over timed intervals.

The goal, Thompson says, is to examine how spatial memory in baby pigs is linked to their ability to adapt when their environment changes. She submitted the project and won a top award at the university's annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in April.

"My philosophy of undergraduate research is to let the students create their own programs," Flowers says. "I could have had Lisa work on a project that we already had going on in the lab, but this is her idea, her research, and she gets a lot more out of it this way."

Flowers has racked up a number of impressive awards over the last two decades, but he'd rather not talk much about them.

In addition to the afore-mentioned teaching award from the National Association of Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, he is a member of the Academy of Outstanding Teachers and an Alumni Distinguished Professor at N.C. State.

Flowers also was selected as the Outstanding Young Scientist for Education by the Southern Section of the American Society of Animal Science, and he received a Teaching Award of Merit from the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture.

However, the walls of his office tell a different story. Not a single award hangs there - not even his diplomas.

Instead, on display across the expanse of six pressed-together file cabinets is an enormous collection of pigs: ceramic pigs with shiny pink cheeks, fuzzy plush pigs and plastic pigs of all shapes and sizes. Some are hand-carved from wood, others crafted from materials like straw and metal. All are gifts from former students - an eclectic testament to Flowers' impact on their lives.

"I believe that the legacy you leave is the impression you make on the people you teach," he says. "You have to hope that you've had some influence on students, that you've helped them grow and evolve. And if you do a good job, no matter what happens, they'll remember what you taught and what you let them do."