Animals for the Future

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

victoria_W2_picMost people say they like baby animals. Some say they would even like to work with them. However, not many people start a career in reproductive physiology in order to do so. Dr. Barbara Durrant, Carly Young, and Nicole Ravida are a few of the conservation researchers at the Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) lab that are involved in reproductive physiology.

Dr. Durrant began working at the ICR in 1979 is now the Director of Reproductive Physiology. She began her career at North Carolina State University and earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science, a master’s degree in physiology and genetics, and her doctoral degree in reproductive physiology. She also works at San Diego State University and The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. While working with us in the Reproductive Physiology Lab, Ms. Ravida also described the path she took in order to pursue her career. During her years in school, she completed courses in advanced reproduction before volunteering at the ICR. One year later, a position became available in the ICR’s lab, which is where she continues to work today.

While discussing her career, Ms. Ravida taught us how to thaw and analyze epididymis sperm from a cat whose DNA was saved in The Frozen Zoo®. The Frozen Zoo® was created in order to preserve blood and DNA from rare and endangered species. By saving these samples, scientists in the future might be able to further conservation efforts for these species. Ms. Ravida told me that one of her favorite parts of her job is creating the samples they preserve, which are frozen in liquid nitrogen and can be thawed out at 37 degrees centigrade. Determining which particular animals’ DNA is submitted to the Frozen Zoo® is based on which animals have reproduced well in the past and which ones are categorized as endangered or vulnerable.

Reproductive physiologists often collaborate with human fertility clinics to compare theories and techniques. Some of the tools used in the ICR lab were given to the Zoo by local clinics to help further the ICR’s research and development. By collaborating, physiologists are able to advance their techniques and understanding of the possible options available to them in this field of study.

The process Ms. Ravida walked me through taught me how to thaw out the sperm samples and analyze the cells inside. One of the main characteristics she discussed was the motility of the sperm. The motility simply refers to the sperms’ movement and speed. Depending on speed, samples are assigned rankings to clarify the motility. (Level 1 describes sperm that is barely moving or twitching, while a level 5 describes sperm that is zipping and moving rapidly). Ms. Ravida also explained that egg yolks are often used as a buffer for the sperm samples after they have been thawed to stabilize them until they can be analyzed. One of the tests Ms. Ravida runs in the lab allows her to determine if the sperm is alive or not. The eosin and nigrosin stain tests makes the dead sperm appear black while the live ones are white. This test is quick and easy and also provides accurate results which helps preserve the good samples and makes testing more efficient.

Ms. Ravida’s career is one of many fantastic positions available in the reproductive physiology world. With the right educational background and a passion for science, you too are capable of bringing species back from the brink of extinction, one sperm sample at a time.

Victoria, Career Team
Week Two, Winter Season 2013