Rob Knox is a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, where he serves as a state Extension specialist and does research of global impact.
The native of Delaware earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Nebraska in reproductive physiology. His research focuses on replacement gilt management, A.I. and fertility of frozen swine semen, housing effects on reproduction, diagnostic ultrasound, and hormonal control of reproduction.
Along with his university work, he serves on committees for the National Pork Board, International Boar Semen Preservation Conference, and the Illinois Pork Producers Association.
In 2022 he won the University of Illinois Faculty award for Global Impact.
IFT: Tell us a little about how you got here. Did you grow up on a farm?
KNOX: No, I did not but my father grew up on a family grain and livestock farm in northeast Iowa and I worked for my uncles on that farm for a few summers in high school
IFT: What led you to the position you hold today?
KNOX: It was a combination of interest in agriculture and undergraduate classes in animal reproduction and anatomy and physiology. My later job as a lab technician got me interested in science and led to my next step as a graduate student in animal science.
IFT: Of the many research projects have you done, what are a couple that really stand out in your mind?
KNOX: Our lab group has been involved with hundreds of research projects over the years. Many of the projects have focused on reproductive fertility in pigs and were performed to address problems or identify opportunities.
The studies that really stick out have included our efforts using advanced diagnostics to help us understand the impact of female ovarian fertility and male semen quality.
Other studies have included our work testing and in development for hormone control of reproduction in swine. Our recent efforts in low dose semen, single timed artificial insemination have been very exciting for what could come in the future.
IFT: How do you determine where to focus your studies?
KNOX: We look at what are the new priorities for commercial producers and companies for the breeding herds. In some instances this has been a focus on reproductive failures or inefficiencies which increase costs, and limit animal flow through the production system. This can involve failure of animals to breed or produce a litter.
In other cases, it involves efforts to understand what the impact of a new technology and how to implement that most effectively. Some problems involve housing, or management of the breeding animals, while others may address breeding or insemination technologies.
IFT: Although there is likely no such thing as an average day, what does a typical day look like for you?
KNOX: I look at my job as somewhat fluid. By that I mean my Extension, research, and teaching often overlap.
I have a research appointment where I try and address applied reproductive problems for producers and companies. This can include writing grants for funding support, writing and publishing scientific articles, and collecting and planning experiments at the farms.
I also have a teaching responsibility where we team teach a 200 level animal reproduction and growth class with a lab to around 160 students.
IFT: What does the Extension work you do involve? Do you work directly with farmers?
KNOX: For my Extension program, I perform applied research, work with colleagues at different universities, at companies, and production operations. I try to answer questions, find and share information, or perform training and certifications when needed.
IFT: What are your main areas of research today?
KNOX: We are working on testing a diagnostic device that can diagnose current and perhaps predict future reproductive status in female swine. This involves an intravaginal device that detects changes in the electrical resistance as a result of changes in ovarian hormones.
IFT: Your colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recognized you for the wide reach of your research with a “global impact” award last year. So we want to know a little more about how your research has global impact?
KNOX: Much of the research I have been involved with has been shared at international conferences. This has also been an opportunity for me to interact with colleagues at foreign institutions and with foreign companies. I have foreign PhD students and professors come work in my lab and we have published scientific research articles and received funding support.
IFT: How did you feel about getting such recognition for your work?
KNOX: This was a great honor for me. I have been fortunate to be at the University of Illinois where we have access to great resources and can share knowledge.
IFT: What is your proudest achievement so far?
KNOX: I have really liked working on the complex and large research projects with the teams in commercial production systems, and with the companies who support those businesses. These have included students, scientists, veterinarians, and production staff who were very bright, innovative, and helpful.
It has been a great pleasure and opportunity to be able to use extension and my contacts to put on industry education events over the years. At these events, all can learn as the assembly of people with great experience allows sharing of production practices and knowledge.