Conor de Paor talks to PhD student Beatriz Fernandez about her research into cattle reproduction and what inspired her to pursue this topic.
What is your research about?
I am working on bull sperm physiology, specifically the role that a defensin protein, which is exclusively secreted in the epididymis of the bull and fallopian tube of the cow, plays in fertility. Research has shown that different defensin proteins seem to regulate fertility in other species, including man, however nothing is known about these proteins in cattle.
How did you become interested in your area of research?
It happened during my last year of college. I studied Veterinary Medicine in Spain and I always thought I would work in a small animal practice, however during my last year I took a course on reproductive biotechnology. I can´t remember what moved me to enrol in that particular course, but it opened my eyes to a new field I had not considered before and that absolutely captivated me. One of my teachers, Dr. Belén Martínez, pointed me to Dr. Dimitrios Rizos’ IVF laboratory, where I had the chance to work as an undergraduate intern and where I decided to pursue a career in this field of science.
Why are you doing a PhD?
That’s a question that I often get from my family and friends. I guess to them it must sound crazy that I’ve left everything behind to move to a different country where it rains all the time just so I can study sperm for three years.
After graduation I applied for a Masters under Dr. Rizos’ supervision in the field of assisted reproduction and preimplantation embryology in cattle. Once I finished it I had a strong desire to further evolve as a scientist and doing a PhD seemed like the only logical step to take next. I guess it might be a bit crazy as my friends say but I love it and I can´t see myself doing something different.
What’s the hardest thing about undertaking a PhD?
Apart from the long hours and, in my particular case, being away from my boyfriend, family and friends? I think for me is learning to cope with the frustration resulting from an experiment not working as you expected it to and over-analysing every small detail that can be causing it to fail.
How do you undertake your research?
I like to think about my research as detective work. The experiment´s hypothesis is a mystery that can be solved by studying the clues from the literature and your results and of course a bit of Sherlock Holmes logical thinking.
What do you use for your research in terms of materials and equipment?
Since I’m studying the functional role of a protein on the sperm’s surface I get to work with a lot of different equipment. My myopia is probably getting worse from long hours in the fluorescent microscope, and I also use flow cytometry, western blotting, and IVF techniques regularly.
Do you find funding difficult to acquire?
Fortunately I still haven´t had to worry about that.
What applications do you see for your research?
Infertility is one of the biggest problems of the Irish cattle industry and is a major problem in the bull.
With my research I hope to identify which defensins are relevant to the fertility problem in cattle and how variation in these genes affect reproductive function.
Do you enjoy teaching undergraduates?
I would have never thought that my answer to this question would actually be “yes, a lot”. I don´t consider myself a particularly patient person and that’s why I thought teaching would never be something I enjoyed, but I really do. I love to see how a student’s face changes when the information suddenly “clicks” inside their head after you explain it to them, it’s very rewarding.
What are your plans for when you are finished?
I’d love to go back to Spain to continue my scientific career. There are still so many unanswered questions!
Would you undertake any more academic research after your PhD?
Given the opportunity, definitely.
Would you consider yourself a limousine cow woman or a Friesian cow woman?
I´ll take a big juicy steak before a glass of milk any day. Does that make me a limousine cow woman?