January 12, 2015

One day, at the Meats Lab

Couple find their life’s work, each other as animals sciences majors 

by MARY CATHERINE GASTON

Kourtney and Jose

Animal sciences grads Kourtney and Jose Gardner found their life’s work and each other while working at the Lambert-Powell Meats Lab.

On any given weekday, Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meats Lab on Shug Jordan Parkway is a great place to find good deals on a variety of quality meat products. The lab is also a state-of-the-art teaching, research and Extension facility where thousands of Auburn students and Alabamians of all descriptions have spent time learning about meat processing and food safety.

For two recent College of Agriculture graduates, however, the Meats Lab, as it is known on campus, holds a deeper, dearer meaning. This most unlikely of places is where two love stories unfolded for Jose and Kourtney Keck Gardner, ’14.

Hired to work at the lab within about the same time, the two were not overly fond of each other to begin with.

“My first thought about Jose?” Kourtney says. “It was ‘Oh great; this is a pretty physical job, and they just hired tiny little me, and then there’s this guy. I’m going to get fired.’” recalls Kourtney.  Adding insult to injury, Jose couldn’t seem to remember the petite blonde’s name, calling her everything but Kourtney until they ended up in all the same classes together the following year. “It wasn’t exactly love at first sight,” she says.

But Kourtney did not get fired from her job at the Meats Lab. She and Jose worked together for over a year and became close friends as they studied together for the major they held in common, animal sciences with a muscle foods emphasis.

When they both landed internships at Pilgrim’s Inc., the world’s second-largest poultry products company, the summer before their senior year, their friendship blossomed into romance, and the two began dating. By the time they returned to Auburn for their final academic year, each had decided they had found “the one,” though neither can say exactly when that epiphany occurred.

“There wasn’t an exact moment,” Jose says. “It was more of a realization that no matter where I saw myself in the future, she was there, and I knew she would make it better.”

So the Danville native did what any wise man would do. He popped the question.

One chilly spring evening, after dinner at a “ritzy” local restaurant, Jose, an AU Student Recruiter, gave his sweetheart a tour of Samford Park. When the couple stopped at the university seal in front of Langdon Hall, the oblivious Kourtney wondered why the scene seemed so bizarre.

“I thought, ‘It’s getting chilly, so why don’t we just keep walking? Why am I getting a history lesson? Why are the two people next to us taking pictures of each other when it’s getting pretty dark outside?’”

Fortunately, she figured out what was going on just in time to realize Jose was down on one knee, asking her to be his wife. Still, it took her a few seconds (Jose swears it was an eternity) to put all the pieces together and to answer with the yes he was hoping for.

After graduating and interning together this summer at the Colorado headquarters of JBS USA, the world’s largest meat processing company, the two tied the knot Aug. 17.

While this is all fun to recount and read, it’s only half of this love story. The other half began when the two entered Auburn as freshmen, neither majoring in—or even aware of—the muscle foods program within animal sciences.  

Kourtney, a Montgomery native, began in animal sciences, but as a pre-vet major. During her first semester, however, she realized that she did not want to be a veterinarian after all and was at a loss as to what else she might study. Having grown up “in the middle of the city,” she had no interest in agriculture. Then she met Christy Bratcher, Auburn’s only meat scientist.

“Dr. Bratcher spoke during one of my orientation classes about what [meat science] was, some of the research she did and what kind of career you could have,” Kourtney says. “I had never thought about there being a science behind the way our food is made, and I just thought it was the coolest thing.”

Jose, who was active in FFA as a high school student and did part-time work on farms near his north Alabama home, started at Auburn as a biomedical sciences major. After changing majors to animal sciences/production and beginning work at the Meats Lab, Jose also met Bratcher who, together with Meats Lab director Barney Wilborn, gave Jose an appreciation for meat science.

Both Gardners now profess an unabashed love for their profession of choice, which made it easy to decide what to study in graduate school. And their connection with Bratcher made it easy to choose where that would be.

“During one of our many ‘what do I do with my life’ conversations, she suggested I contact a professor at Utah State,” says Jose. “I did, and after what I expected to be a five-minute conversation turned into a 45-minute discussion of interests, the ball got rolling.”

Though Kourtney always knew she wanted to attend graduate school, her only requirement was that the school not be in an area where it snows. Located an hour and a half north of Salt Lake City, Utah State definitely does not meet that criterion. But love has a way of changing priorities, and she is happy with her choice and the program at Utah State. The couple are pursuing master’s degrees in nutrition and food sciences.

And after two summers spent interning with meat products companies, they each have a clear vision of their desired post-graduate occupations. Kourtney, whose master’s research focuses on the flavor chemistry and flavor profile of ground beef, hopes to become a food scientist or food technologist for a large food products company like JBS. Jose, who is researching fetal programming and meat quality, wants to work in value-added products in a similar setting.

Both Jose and Kourtney encourage students to keep an open mind when it comes to choosing college majors and career paths.

“I think I officially changed majors three times,” says Jose. “So for anyone reading this and not sure what you want to major in, I’m living proof that it will be OK.”

The lesson in all of this? Something that doesn’t strike you as perfect at the outset just might become the love of your life.

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