by Sarah Ryan
December 3, 2014
Hometown: Fayetteville, N.C.
Education: B.S., Animal Science, North Carolina State; Ph.D., Conservation Biology, University of New Orleans
Career Highlights: Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania; Research Associate, Colorado State University
Title: Special Assistant Professor, Animal Reproduction, Colorado State University
“My first bison baby was born in the Bronx Zoo in 2012. He’s gonna be a real stud, literally.”
The Eye of the Storm
I was studying at the University of New Orleans in 2005. They were forecasting a pretty bad storm, but I wasn’t planning on leaving because I didn’t have a car or even a bike. One morning I was at a cafe in the French Quarter with my dog when I saw moving trucks pull up in front of the antique stores and art galleries. The movers started loading all of their contents into the trucks and I realized how bad it was going to be. I called the AVIS hotline and reserved a rental car. When I got to the airport, there was a huge line of people waiting, but I got the next car because of the reservation that I had made. It was less than 24 hours before Katrina hit, and the only reason I got out of there was because I was afraid that if the storm got really bad I’d have to leave my dog behind and I would have never done that. On the second night of the storm, the levees broke just a block and half from my house and it was flooded with ten feet of water. Duke was offering a free semester to displaced students who were North Carolina natives, so I enrolled there and didn’t go back to New Orleans until my dissertation defense.
Teddy Roosevelt Would Be Proud
Brucellosis is a zoonotic disease typically caused by drinking unpasteurized milk from infected animals or exposure to bodily fluids of infected animals. In livestock, the Brucella bacteria cause fetuses to abort. In the United States, it’s been eradicated from cattle and bison herds except for animals in Yellowstone National Park. My team takes semen and embryos from brucellosis-positive bison, runs them through a “clean-up” step to remove any Brucella bacteria, and uses the semen for artificial insemination or embryos for transfer to surrogate, brucellosis-free mothers. We’ve produced five healthy, Brucellosis-free bison babies. We can use this technique to get the Yellowstone genetics out of the park without the risk of passing on the disease. We are currently working on a project to start a restoration herd on Soapstone Prairie in northern Larimer County using the offspring with Yellowstone genetics from our research. Ultimately, we hope to have enough animals on Soapstone Prairie to begin moving them to new herds on conservation, federal, and Native American lands. If all goes well, we’ll release ten to twelve animals next year. We are also transplanting embryos to bison in the Bronx Zoo herd.
Fast and Furious
Bison can be deceptively calm, but they have a larger personal bubble than cattle. If you breach that bubble and a bison decides it is going to charge you, you won’t stop it. They are quick, powerful, and feisty. We have rungs going up the walls of the alleyways where we work with them, and on several occasions I have had to scramble up those walls really quickly to get out of the way of an animal that decided she wasn’t going to do what we wanted. We always say that we can get them to do whatever they want to do.
Cap, Gown, and Embryo
With Dr. Jim Graham, I run a master’s program that is unique in the country. It’s a one-year, non-thesis program in assisted reproductive technologies. It’s very intensive, hands-on training that they just can’t get anywhere else. They learn to make embryos, they do an internship instead of a final exam, and many of them help with the bison and cattle work that we do here. Our first graduate now works at a high volume IVF clinic in Manhattan, N.Y. Others will go into cattle reproduction or apply to veterinary or medical school.