The University of Queensland
Reproductive biology

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My research focuses on answering important questions about male reproduction. I work mostly in livestock, but sometimes in mice and humans too, depending on the research question. A lot of my work looks at sperm - there's a surprising amount we still don't know about this unique cell type! I want to better understand what happens to sperm under normal biological circumstances, as well as the effects of human interventions like sperm freezing. I'm also keen to figure out how different lifestyle factors (e.g. diet, obesity) impact sperm too. 
I live a bit of a double life in my job. Much of my work happens in a laboratory, using highly specialised equipment to profile how these different factors impact sperm. However I also get the chance to get out on farms and look at the effects of these factors on field fertility too. It’s the best of both worlds!

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

Much of the work I do is aimed at improving the outcomes of reproductive technologies like artificial insemination in livestock. Australia’s livestock industries rely on assisted reproduction to introduce and spread elite genetics to breed animals that are highly productive. However, assisted reproduction also helps breed animals which are more heat tolerant, less prone to disease and more food efficient, thereby safeguarding against climate change, ensuring good animal welfare and reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. These are key priorities for Queensland, which has a strong agricultural focus – 84% of the state is dedicated agricultural land, and agriculture generates $12.9 billion per year in Queensland, primarily from cattle farming. By targeting animal breeding success, my research benefits the Queensland agricultural sector and drives improvements in livestock productivity, health and welfare.

The research I do also helps to keep us informed about what's "normal" for sperm. This makes it easier to identify problems with sperm that could cause infertility, as well as providing the theoretical basis to develop practical solutions. By looking at how lifestyle and environment impact sperm, my research can guide doctors in how to keep sperm healthy and help ensure males are fertile. This is critically important for human reproductive health, which is an issue of growing concern. About 1 in 10 men are infertile in Australia, and male infertility accounts for around 40% of failures to conceive. With 87,613 IVF cycles performed in Australia in 2019, infertility is clearly an important issue for all Australians of reproductive age. By helping to understand the fundamental biology of sperm, and how external factors impact sperm function, my research benefits human reproductive health and could lead to improved treatments for infertility.

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

I think there are many important characteristics that come together to make a good role model. When thinking specifically about girls and women aspiring to work in STEM, some of these characteristics become particularly important. Working in the STEM fields can be really challenging, but also comes with amazing rewards – I feel it’s important for a role model to not only highlight the sparkly, exciting parts of STEM, but to also be an example of how to approach challenges and hardships too. In my mind, learning from failure, promoting inclusivity and being passionate are key traits for a role model to embody, and I feel that my career and life experiences have helped me develop these traits.

Learning from failure is a challenging philosophical lesson that many scientists learn early in their independent studies. It’s easy to be hurt, dismissive and embarrassed by failure, but after years in a lab, I have learned that failures are some of the best opportunities for growth and ultimately, success. By reflecting on what lead to a failure, I’m able to think about alternative paths that could be more successful, or key into exactly which skill needs practice. Failure is an important part of science, and it’s much easier for aspiring scientists to accept and learn from their own failures when they see that everyone fails sometimes, and it’s a good thing!

Inclusivity is something I care deeply about, particularly for women. I think it’s important that this feeling of being included starts from a young age, by showing girls that they can aspire to any career. I grew up with my mental picture of a scientist as an old man in a white lab coat – I’m hopeful that I was the last generation with such an outdated depiction. The simple act of connecting young girls with diverse women working in STEM can be incredibly transformative, planting the seed for a lifelong interest in STEM. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with a wide range of diverse women throughout my career and can share my experiences of the unique perspectives and talents which women bring to challenging problems.

Although it might sound strange, I’m very passionate about sperm! Of course I’m also passionate about science in general, and one thing I’ve discovered is that passion is incredibly contagious. My experience teaching undergraduate university students has taught me that to engage aspiring scientists, passion is sometimes even more important than the science itself. I know I’m among a very small percentage of people who love going to work every day and get excited thinking about their to do list. I hope to use that passion to encourage girls and women to equate STEM with exciting questions, creativity, and a rewarding career.

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

I co-host and produce a monthly science communication podcast, Repro Radio, featuring interviews with leading scientists in reproductive biology, aimed at a wide general audience. Episodes have included human IVF, wildlife conservation, endocrine disrupting chemicals and more. The first season (2021) attracted 1075 listens and has had significant impact on Twitter, with 562 followers, 703 average daily impressions and a total of 4109 engagements and 138.2K impressions over 7 months. The second season is currently in production, airing April 2022.

In the community, I provide expert commentary on Metafact, a fact-checking website, to help address misinformation around reproductive health. I’m also involved in Letters to a Pre-Scientist, a pen-pal program for primary school students interested in STEM. Within my scientific societies (Society for the Study of Reproduction, Society for Reproductive Biology), I am currently involved in helping to plan community outreach activities to engage school students with STEM professionals. I previously held a volunteer role with Graduate Women in Science, copy editing the monthly newsletter. I recently participated in Science meets Parliament (2022) as a representative of Reproductive Health Australia, where I had the chance to meet with Ms Joanne Ryan MP and speak about the state of research in Australia.

At my university, I am a member of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which aims to create a more supporting, inclusive university by organising events (e.g. showcase of Picture a Scientist), highlighting the achievements of women and diverse academics, and driving structural institutional changes (e.g. ensuring gender diverse options are provided when gender is required on forms).