Today I did an experiment, but it did not involve microscopes or incubators. I Googled the word “scientist” and clicked on the tab for images. What came up was no surprise to me. There were many cartoon images of Einstein-like men in white lab coats, holding bubbling potions, with crazy looks on their faces. However, if you walked through the halls of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, you would not find this stereotypic image reflected in any of our labs. Our staff is diverse in age, gender, and background, and our safety team generally frowns on bubbling potions in the lab. The biggest myth that I would like to dispel is the notion that scientists work alone.
Every scientist has a community, which exists in many different forms. A scientist may work in a laboratory or on a field research project with coworkers who are collaborating on the same project in the same location, such as my coworker Carly and I, who are working to improve oocyte (egg) and sperm freezing techniques in a variety of species. Some scientists may be the sole person working on a project in their lab, such as studying the genetic diversity of condors, but have scientific partners across the country working on that same project with whom they can discuss their ideas. In rare cases, a scientist may be the only researcher working on a novel project, such as finding a new virus that causes disease in rare or endangered animals. These scientists are not alone either, because they have fellow scientific community members who will review their work and findings and give them feedback. No scientist is an island.
Working in the conservation research community can sometimes make you feel like you are on a small island with few people to reach out to. A small percentage of reproduction research is done on exotic animals. So when we found an opportunity to learn from and exchange ideas with another research group that is working toward the same goal as we are, we jumped on it. For the past four years, our lab has been working to improve our feline oocyte in-vitro maturation (IVM), in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and embryo culture methods. We discovered our greatest results came from methods adapted from a published paper that came out of the Reproductive Biology Laboratory at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species (ACRES).
Published, peer-reviewed papers are fabulous for communicating advances in research to the scientific community. But many times there are little details in the methods that don’t always make it into the papers yet make all of the difference. This is why we decided to reach out to Dr. C. Earle Pope and Dr. Martha Gomez of ACRES to ask if we could come visit their lab and learn the techniques they use to achieve success with feline IVM, IVF, and embryo culture.
The ACRES staff opened their doors to us for four days and gave us unimpeded access to all of their media formulations, processing techniques, surgical methods, and, best of all, their thoughts and theories. In return, we shared some of the techniques we developed for efficiently processing large batches of tissues we collect to give them ideas for streamlining their process. Any scientist working for a biotech company or university might find this hard to believe. Research can be a competitive atmosphere, where new innovations lead to patents, which lead to big paydays. In the conservation research field, one of the main goals is to help endangered species reproduce. There is little to be gained by keeping discoveries to oneself. The biggest losers end up being the animals.
This is why we were so very thankful that the staff at ACRES subscribes to the same idea that no scientist is an island. We have already made some changes to the methods we use in our lab due to the information we learned and continue to have an open channel of communication with them.