Reproductive Curiosity: Brian Whitaker, Ph.D. Leads Students to Research
This is the fifth in a series of stories delving into the various research that College of Science faculty members at the University of Findlay are working on. In an effort to show readers, in part, what UF offers its students in the areas of science, these stories will reveal the diverse methods, processes and topics that faculty shares with students.
There’s a common misconception regarding the conducting of faculty research at universities like Findlay. In the vast majority of examples, when someone who is outside of the college academic perspective considers the research done by those who mold the young minds of tomorrow at the college level, they’re of the belief that it’s exclusively the faculty who is doing the work. What is actually the case–overwhelmingly, in fact, at University of Findlay–is that the students are just as often in control. Such is the case for UF animal science professor Brian Whitaker, Ph.D., and the students he guides.
For around the past eight years, and in an effort to improve the overall production of embryos, Whitaker has been working with students, independent of any particular class, to research in vitro fertilization using pigs as a model. Pigs, Whitaker explained, are notorious for having poor fertilization in vitro. “Obviously, natural fertilization isn’t a problem, but, compared to other species, in vitro for pigs is really sub-par,” he said. The focus of the research is on getting the egg ready for the fertilization process with respect to the egg itself. In an effort to do this, Whitaker’s students go through a painstaking process of preparing ovaries, removing the eggs and cleaning them, keeping them warm and ultimately observing and studying how they behave in a certain environment. “This is a supplement-driven lab,” Whitaker said. “After preparing them and placing them in the media, students add different supplements; most of the time it’s an antioxidant, to see what kind of development then happens.” Whitaker gave the example of using orange juice as an initial supplement idea, then moving on to vitamin C in its pure form. The students observe and test the solution, trying to determine the dose that yields the best results, or in other words, how successful the fertilization is due to the amount of supplement added.
Whitaker said that he and the University were “extremely lucky” to have gotten a contract with a slaughterhouse nearby so that there is an availability of pig reproductive tracts at any time. Obtaining them this way, rather than the old way of having them mail-ordered and over-nighted, which was not cost effective, allows Whitaker and the students to take more liberty with what they’d like to do. “I just go and pick them up, really,” said Whitaker. “We get about twenty tracts, which is about forty ovaries which equals about five hundred eggs. The students do everything: take the ovaries off; aspirate the follicles containing the eggs with a needle and syringe; wash and pick out good vs. bad under the microscope. It’s pretty cool and definitely a great experience for them.”
To further the experience for the students, Whitaker commits to escorting them to at least one conference a year. According to him, this type of experiential learning is not only valuable, it’s very necessary for student success. “A critical part of this process is disseminating the information, whether it’s good or bad,” Whitaker explained. “A student can love research as much as anybody, but if he or she can’t communicate the findings, it’s insignificant. The deal is, I provide the research, if they provide the time.”
These presentations have taken the research groups to many different parts of the country, including, most recently New Orleans for the International Embryo Technology Society’s annual conference. Quite often the conferences help to boost students’ academic egos, sometimes to the point of that proverbial lightbulb going on over their heads. “It exposes students to the process of discovery and curiosity,” said Whitaker. “Part of this is letting them discover and be part of the whole process. The ‘Ah, I came up with something on my own’ phenomenon. And part of our job as instructors and researchers is to help them along that path.”
Helping them along, specifically on these trips, might not always involve things that they are immediately interested in. Whitaker requires student researchers to have what he calls an “elevator talk” prepared for the trip. The idea is that a student should be able to, either figuratively or literally, step inside an elevator and be able to explain to a stranger what it is they’re doing there by the time it gets to the top floor. “A twenty second synopsis,” Whitaker said. “They hate it, but it’s important to their growth. I require them to approach and talk to other researchers, to go to one presentation that they have next to no interest in. You never know. That extra knowledge and networking can get you far. After that and the actual presentations, they know that if they’re capable of those things, they’re capable of getting through an interview and things like that.”
When asked about the preeminent success of the research Whitaker and his students undertake, he was quick to point out more than one overarching benefit. “From a scientific standpoint” he said, “we contribute to a large body of important data. If we can get a higher percentage of viable embryos in vitro, it helps the bio-tech and medical industries. And from an academic standpoint, these students can go on to do anything and everything. They’re well-equipped for their future. That’s all we can ask for.”