Solving Fertility Challenges in Cattle and Women: Brought to You by Tenure

An interview with Dr. Andrea Cupp, Irvin T. and Wanda R. Omtvedt Professor of Animal Science at UNL.

Nebraska is a rural, agricultural state; 90% of the incorporated communities in the state have fewer than 3,000 people. Nebraska has the fourth highest total agricultural sales among all 50 U.S. states, with $29.41 billion in in 2022; livestock account for just over half of that total. One in every four jobs in Nebraska is somehow related to agriculture. Given the agricultural focus of many Nebraskans, what happens in cities like Lincoln can seem far removed from the day-to-day life of farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state. The research that faculty members are doing at UNL, however, can actually be incredibly important to the agricultural life and economy of Nebraska.

In recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Andrea Cupp, Irvin T. and Wanda R. Omtvedt Professor of Animal Science here at UNL. As a reproductive physiologist, Dr. Cupp’s research focuses on cow fertility, with the goal of improving the efficiency and productivity of cattle herds across the state. Interestingly, as I learned through our discussion, Dr. Cupp’s research also has implications for addressing human fertility challenges. As Dr. Cupp described to me, tenure has played a key role in enabling her to do this important work in ways that can be most beneficial to human and animal health. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: What brought you to Nebraska?

Cupp: In August I will have been here 24 years as a faculty member. I had done my graduate work here at UNL, but I never really saw myself back in Nebraska, as I am originally from Virginia. I went to Virginia Tech for undergrad, then UNL for my master’s and PhD, and then I went to the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) for my postdoc. When my boss from UCSF moved to Washington State, I went with him and the lab. So I just didn’t think I would be back in Nebraska. But after interviewing here it was just very clear that this is where I should be. One of the reasons was the incredible animal resources we have. I’m a reproductive physiologist, and the ability to have large animals (cows) to do research on was really important to me. I also had a community here, so I thought that would get me out of the lab every once in a while. It was just a good fit for me.

Niehaus: How did you get interested in reproductive physiology?

Cupp: I was pre-vet for the first couple of years of undergrad, but I decided that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn and explore. Then I took a reproductive physiology class, and I was just blown away by how cool it was, how different processes worked. And I thought, wow, I think this is what I want to do.

My mentor at Virginia Tech was a sheep geneticist, and he connected me with a professor he knew here at UNL who was working on cattle endocrinology. That’s how I ended up here at UNL as a master’s student. Even then I wasn’t sure that graduate school and science was what I wanted to do, but the first semester I did this crazy trial where we did blood collections on cattle for two weeks. One day we would collect the blood, the next day we would be in the lab spinning the blood, then the next day we were back to blood collection. We were trying to do a whole reproductive cycle. And after that trial I was like, oh, this is so cool, which is crazy because I was exhausted. But I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.

My master’s and PhD work was in reproductive endocrinology, trying to understand hormones and how they affect the ovary. When I went to UCSF I did a lot of work with embryonic testes development in rodents. When I moved here I sort of did a bit of both, in part because I could do rodent work faster than I could with cattle, which was important for getting tenure.

Niehaus: What do you find interesting about studying fertility?

Cupp: I think that we really still don’t know much about infertility – in humans or animals. What I am working on mostly right now is the process of why females don’t ovulate – what causes anovulation, which then causes infertility? What’s involved in that process? What can we do to manipulate that process?

The nice thing about cattle is that if I can enhance reproduction in cattle, I can do a lot for Nebraska’s economy. There are more than three cows for every human in Nebraska. We have a tremendous amount of cattle in Nebraska, and we have a lot of producers who need to find ways to make their operations more efficient. So, if we can figure out ways to enhance fertility, that really helps producers.

On top of that, the cow is an excellent model for women. A cow ovulates one egg every cycle, which is similar to humans. The reproductive cycle length without menstruation is the same length as women’s reproductive cycle. The luteal phase, the phase that comes right after ovulation, is the same length in cows and women. The timing of pregnancy is the same. There are a lot of similarities in the hormones that are secreted and their patterns. And another nice thing about the cow is that we have research animals that we can collect tissue from to understand more about the physiological processes. Then we can take what we learn from the cow and try to translate that to women.

Niehaus: Can you tell me more about how your work benefits producers here in Nebraska?

Cupp: Probably all of the synchronizing regimes that producers use to synchronize reproductive cycles have come directly in some way from reproductive biologists. Collectively, in the field we have done a lot of things to understand different hormones and how those affect the brain and the ovary, and some of those things have had direct implications for the synchronizing tools the producers use.

What I do is more basic science, which can take years to get to producers. But the more we learn and add to each other’s learning, the more we can get those tools back to those producers.

The project that I am working on that will likely have the most impact is a project to develop puberty classifications and the genetic markers that might allow us to determine when a female is going to achieve puberty. We are finding that the classifications we have developed are moderately to highly heritable, which is really cool. Delayed puberty is not really a trait that you want to retain in your herd. So if we can select against those heifers that have delayed puberty we can help producers’ operations to be more sustainable and efficient.

Unfortunately, one of the things that in my graduate work we learned was that if we treat a cow with progesterone, we can get them to start cycling earlier. But I think what that is doing is retaining heifers that may actually have a genetic predisposition for delayed puberty when we should instead be culling them.  If we can identify genetic variation in females that cause delayed puberty, then, we can cull them from the herd. This makes producers more efficient, because they are not developing these females and then having to cull them later. Long term it can also producers develop a more productive herd.

Niehaus: Why is delayed puberty a problem for producers?

Cupp: You really want heifers that have early puberty because they have a longer reproductive lifespan. They will get bred early and have heavier calves. Then you have more pounds to sell, and she’s going to cycle back and get bred in that first 20-30 days of the next breeding season.

Also, what we are finding is that these cows that have later puberty are just probably not very fertile to begin with. Because this is a trait that is heritable, if you keep these cows in the herd that is probably not a good thing. Before I retire I would like to find something that we could use to actually select against this late puberty trait. Then I’ll feel like my time here has been well-spent.

Niehaus: How do you think tenure has played a role in the work that you do?

Cupp: Number one, tenure has allowed me to do work that takes more time. I’m not constantly scrambling to do rodent research to get something published quickly. This cow puberty classification work started in 2012, and we had our first publication in 2021. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t doing other things along the way, but tenure has allowed me to do some things that are very important, and to take the time to do it in a model that is better for Nebraska and better for human’s health. Tenure has afforded me the freedom to use a different animal model to investigate things that we can translate to women as well.

Second, tenure means I don’t have to worried as much about a lot of the politics that happen. My work touches on a lot of hot topics – abortion, IVF, I’ve even done some animal germ stem cell work as well. Something I would like to see us do in the future is to make an animal that is heat resistant, and it would be embryologists in my area that would do that type of gene editing. I think if we didn’t have tenure it would just be very difficult to do the types of research that are important for curing a lot of diseases and disorders, and for continuing to feed the world despite climate change.

I don’t know if not having tenure would have stopped me doing what I’ve been doing. But I think it would have made me think and worry a lot more about it than what I have. And you really can’t be a reproductive biologist and worry too much about what other people think about what you are doing.

Niehaus: Where do you think you have seen the biggest impact of your work?

Cupp: One of the most important things that I have done is training students – undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs. It’s the human talent that has probably been the most fun, and the most frustrating! But it’s also been the thing that has benefitted Nebraska the most. I have several PhD students who now work for consulting companies within the state, and several who are now professors at other universities. There have been tons of undergraduate students who have worked in my lab, the mouse room, or up at the cow calf unit. At least 24 or 25 undergraduate students have done research projects with me. I think I have hopefully impacted some of those students’ careers along the way, and then they can go out and can have their impact in the world. And having tenure definitely helps me be a much better mentor to my students.

Niehaus: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences with tenure?

Cupp: I am just so disappointed that senators who are supposed to be representing people in Nebraska have such a dismal viewpoint of tenure. Tenure doesn’t make us stop working; I work just as much now as I did before tenure! I think everyone has their own motivation that they bring to their work. For me it’s animal and women’s reproductive health. I’m very passionate about trying to understand more about biological processes to improve both animal and hopefully translate that to women’s reproductive health, so I wouldn’t ever stop working for that.