RALEIGH, N.C. — Professor Frank Edens often gets to work at North Carolina State University between 5 and 6 in the morning. But when we say he’s up with the chickens, we mean something else: As a poultry physiology and immunology expert, Edens has spent 58 years keeping up with what science has to say about poultry — and contributing in a major way to advancing that science.
Thanks to his work, the U.S. poultry industry has more research-based knowledge to protect their flocks from stressors that cause a host of health conditions — which might be surprising, given his early distaste for chickens.
Edens grew up on a small farm in southwest Virginia, where his family kept what he calls “yard steppers” or “early free-range chickens.”
“I hated them,” recalls Edens, of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Prestage Department of Poultry Science. “About three times a year, I had to endure the ignominy of being a chicken-house cleaner.”
A high school visit with Virginia Tech’s poultry science department proved life- (and opinion-) changing.
“I got to sit at a table with a member of the poultry science faculty who regaled us with stories of genetics and immunology and physiology and how chickens were involved in so much research benefiting humans,” Edens said.
When Edens became a freshman at Virginia Tech, that faculty member, Paul Siegel, hired him as a student worker. Edens went on to do brain surgery in chickens as a sophomore and, as a junior, had his first scientific article published. It would be the first of some 180 publications, plus several books, that have carried his name.
Edens continued to work with poultry throughout his master’s degree at Virginia Tech and his doctorate at the University of Georgia, before joining the faculty at NC State in October of 1973.
In his 50 years at NC State, Edens has conducted wide-ranging research, spanning endocrinology, immunology, pathology, nutrition, molecular biology and more. The common thread: stress physiology.
Edens has had a hand in uncovering bacteria’s role in the outbreak of poult enteritis mortality syndrome (PEMS), which devastated North Carolina’s turkey industry in the 1990s. He’s also enhanced the industry’s understanding of the stress reactions in chickens exposed to high temperatures and the importance of selenium in poultry nutrition.
He’s most proud of his award-winning work on PEMS, which identified E. coli as a key instigator among several viral and environmental factors contributing to the devastating disease in turkeys.
Not surprisingly, Edens has earned a reputation as an expert in his discipline.
As fellow poultry science professor Jesse Grimes notes, “As a researcher, Dr. Edens knows the scientific literature on his subject matter better than anyone I know. He can recite work released yesterday or from work reported years ago.”
Edens puts it this way: “If I go a day without learning something, I’ve wasted a day.”
For Edens, other points of pride include having turned an empty space in Scott Hall into a staff break room and setting up an annual faculty-funded award for a technician in the department.
“You’ve got to recognize your staff,” he says. “We are nothing without them.”
Students are very important to Edens.
“As much as he appreciates time dedicated to science, he will be the first to advise students to find personal time to make sure that their life is enriched and balanced,” Grimes said.
NCSU Prestage Poultry Science Department Head Frank Siewerdt agrees.
“Dr. Edens profoundly cares about people and will gladly spend time with our students to teach them laboratory techniques, help them understand subject matters, or simply be a sounding board when they are having a difficult day,” Siewerdt said. “He takes a genuine interest in people and looks for ways to advance their careers and lives.”
Edens also practices the advice that he teaches.
“It’s always been family first and career second,” he said.
Planning to enter phased retirement in July 2024, Edens wants to devote more time to his church and one of his old hobbies, painting with acrylics.
Edens also hopes to write an accessible textbook about avian physiology, and he’s committed to ongoing collaborations with his NC State colleagues and even his mentor Paul Siegel.
“I love my job,” he said. “There were a lot of dips in my journey, but every one of them has developed into something positive.”
Dee Shore is a writer with North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.