While most people are aware of the threats posed by climate change, few know of just how drastic those threats are to biodiversity. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Earth loses roughly 10,000 species every year, roughly 5,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.
While zoos are an effective way to house endangered or threatened species, the reproductive biology of these animals is largely unexplored but is becoming increasingly important for species conservation. Two of the most pressing issues facing zoos today are space and lack of genetic diversity. Even when zoos are well-managed and internationally connected, zoo populations rarely contain large enough animal populations for long-term sustainability. Moreover, when new animals are brought in to revitalise captive population genetics, the logistics of moving animals between zoos can be extremely challenging (imagine the logistics and costs of moving an elephant or giraffe from New Zealand to New York). This is where assisted reproduction can play a significant role.
What is assisted reproduction?
Broadly speaking, assisted reproduction involves managing an animal's reproductive cycle or manipulating gametes to achieve fertilisation and a subsequent pregnancy/live birth. Some of the most common assisted reproductive techniques in our arsenal are gamete cryopreservation, artificial insemination, and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Assisted reproductive techniques have become very well defined in humans that, since the birth of the world's first IVF baby in 1979, around 8 million children have been born from assisted reproductive techniques globally. Assisted reproductive techniques have also become so commonplace in laboratory rodents and farm species that we often forget the incredible difficulty in defining the fundamentals of a novel species' reproductive biology. Unfortunately, this is exactly the case with many endangered or threatened species. Even artificial insemination, one of the more basic assisted reproductive techniques, requires an in-depth understanding of male and female reproductive physiology before we can even think of making an attempt. Although daunting, once even simple techniques like AI or reproductive cycle management are defined, assisted reproductive techniques can be incredibly useful in supporting captive breeding efforts.
As I mentioned earlier, the difficulty of transporting some animals between zoos (let alone continents) is extremely challenging. Sperm cryopreservation is an effective procedure for many species, where semen is collected either voluntarily or through electroejaculation and frozen without dramatically affecting sperm viability. Similarly, even cells from wild individuals can be collected, frozen, and used in captive breeding programs. Cells frozen correctly can (in theory) remain viable forever and be shipped around the world far more cheaply and simply compared to shipping an entire animal. Several institutes around Australia, including the Taronga Conservation Society and Monash University, have adopted this idea and have established the futuristic concept of a 'Frozen zoo.' Frozen zoos store cells from endangered animals and plants in liquid nitrogen until they're needed for future genetic reintroduction programs into captive or wild populations through techniques such as artificial insemination or IVF.
I think it needs to be clearly stated that assisted reproductive techniques never intend to (or I think ever will) replace captive breeding. Assisted reproductive techniques are tools that scientists, conservationists, and zoo staff can use to more effectively increase captive animal numbers without replacing traditional breeding methods.
Have frozen zoos and assisted reproductive techniques been useful before?
In practice, assisted reproductive techniques are rarely used in captive settings due to their technical complexity and perceived costs. However, assisted reproduction continues to make headlines in scientific literature and the media, including artificial insemination in giant pandas and jaguars, cryopreservation in coral and fish species, and, most recently, the cloning of black-footed ferrets from cells frozen over 30 years ago. While it may seem drastic to start cloning rhinos or freezing sperm from lions, climate change poses incredible threats to species biodiversity, which we are doing a terrible job in mitigating. The Earth is losing roughly 10 million hectares of forest every year, and, as a result, animal populations are becoming increasingly fragmented and isolated, limiting gene-flow between populations. By not having enough genetic diversity between populations, a species can suffer from inbreeding depression: the reduced biological 'fitness' of a species and their ability to reproduce and survive in the wild. Reliable techniques for preserving and transporting species genetics between captive settings (or from the wild to captive settings) enable better management of genetic diversity while increasing that species' biological fitness.
So, what does the future of assisted reproduction look like?
While assisted reproductive techniques have clear immediate and future benefits to species conservation, their use is unfortunately not up to the conservationists and scientists but up to funding bodies and political big wigs.
The importance of assisted reproductive techniques in the future of species conservation cannot be understated, and researchers continue to build the case for assisted reproductive techniques as reliable, effective tools for the protection of biodiversity. Conservationists and assisted reproductive biologists have chosen a difficult career, often restricted by funding issues and a pervasive misunderstanding of the importance of biodiversity in the general population. Although everybody loves the trailblazing, revolutionary discoveries, or achievements in science, these discoveries are only possible after decades of fundamental research. Without the proper funding or public interest in biodiversity, species conservation will remain an incredibly tough, arduous field. That being said, although progress may seem slow, if we continue to fight the uphill battle against climate change, we will be glad we invested in assisted reproduction science when we had the chance.
How long do you think is an appropriate time for students to commit to their PhD? If you ask around, the perceived time range varies quite a bit, 3-4 years, 4-6 years, or even double-digit years. If we can't agree on the time length of a doctoral degree (like Med, Pharmacy, and Law school), there must be other cemented parameters that guide students to graduation? .... Right....?
How do you know when you are ready to graduate?
Most STEM doctoral students travel a similar path. They conduct research until their project is complete, then after writing a thesis and defending it, they are conferred with the title of "Doctor." The question is, when does one actually "complete" a research project? Research is never done. One question is answered, which leads to another question, which leads to another and to another.
So how does one judge if a graduate student's work is finished? I tweeted out this question sometime ago and received various answers. Most responses were number of publications, completion of proposal aims, or the amount of years in the program. A few other less common answers were, "vibe," "loss of funding," "up to the PI" and....
So let's break the most common answers down:
Number of publications: Many programs require 1-2 publications for a student to graduate. Often, this is considered a fair. Other times, it puts the student at a disadvantage. This parameter neglects to normalize the support systems within the lab. Some students have no lab-techs, post-docs, or collaborators, meaning that publishing is a much more arduous task than their counterparts. If a student is lucky, they receive a project that is low-risk or partially finished, while other students work on high risk projects for years without a payout.
Completing proposal aims: At the surface, this seems to be an equitable stipulation for graduation. But often, students write proposals off-topic, rendering this parameter impossible. Frequently, projects evolve and take the student in another direction than their proposal. If they veer off path for the sake of science exploration, should they be still held to the same proposal they wrote years ago?
Years in program: Not all projects are created equal, and not all students put in the same effort over the same period of time. However, I argue that putting a time cap drives productivity, encourages streamlined research, and motivate PIs to support their students in finishing their projects.
Graduate student labor.
Graduate students are cheap labor, most making about $30,000 a year. PIs are reluctant to allow students to graduate, thereby forfeiting a valuable resource. Besides the project a student is working on, a grad student is also expected to train incoming lab members, maintain lab equipment, contribute to lab chores, and work on side projects other than their thesis.
We have to ask ourselves if more years in the same program with the same mentor is beneficial to a student's education and training. Is a seventh-year student still learning from their mentor, or are they underpaid employees receiving typical on-the-job training? Furthermore, extending a student's PhD training can certainly have setbacks.
Time at school should not be taken for granted.
A long PhD can have detrimental effects on a students' life and career:
From the many student-PI conflicts I've seen, it's naive to believe the current system of arbitrary graduation guidelines is working. To give more protection to graduate students, I propose two policies: (1) A 4-year time cap for students with a Master's degree or a 5-year time cap without a Master's degree, and (2) salary raises for students throughout the program.
Providing a time cap.
With no time cap, graduate students are encouraged to work on non-thesis research and to tackle high-risk projects that are likely to not pan out. A time cap can motivate both the student and the mentor to come up with a practical project plan and remain focused at the proposed thesis work needed for graduation. Consider Parkinson's Law which states that work will expand to fill the time allotted. Under this principle, a student will finish their dissertation research in four years if given a four year time limit. Without the time limit, a student will linger in the program until an external factor (funding, unhappiness, or a job offer) influences them to wrap up their project.
However, there are plenty of reasons to fight against a time cap: variability between disciplines, discrepancies in work ethic, and neurodiversity of students. This is why I recommend a 4-5 year time cap with an opportunity to extend. Extensions can be offered to students with disabilities, or if a student, PI, and thesis committee mutually agree staying in the program is beneficial.
Demanding raises for long-standing students
Paying senior students more money is another way to ensure equity to graduate students. Senior students take on more responsibility and are [usually] more skilled. Granting raises rewards students for more time in the program and also removes the cheap labor bias.
It's not all the PIs fault.....
It's easy to blame the thesis advisor. But if PIs aren't given the proper tools and support system to keep a lab running smoothly, can we blame them for wanting to keep students on longer? Here's a few ways institutions can support PIs more:
I am aware that many European Universities have time limits. This post is written by an American graduate student whose program has a loose 7-year limit. I am a fourth-year student who intends to graduate during my fifth year. Even with three pubs (one published, one submitted, and one underway) and a Master's degree, I receive pushback that I should stay well into my 6th year. I'm convinced that more time in my PhD will not further my education or career prospects, but I am certain that it will affect my financial and mental health.
We’re a year into this pandemic, and although the numbers seem to be improving, video-chatting is here to stay. Even once we reach “normal,” the convenience and flexibility of virtual meetings likely means we have plenty of web-based interactions in our future.
So, when it’s time for you to plan your next zoom event, here are a few things to consider:
1. Schedule time for IT issues. Plan on time for connectivity issues and microphone checks for all speakers. And if using multiple speakers and break out rooms, plan for some adjustment time. Don’t expect all changes between speakers to happen smoothly and instantly.
2. Schedule breaks. Just because we are sitting at our laptops, doesn’t mean we don’t need coffee, lunch, and bathroom breaks. During long meetings, your participants' brains likely need a break from that dense content.
3. In person format ≠ zoom format. I’ve participated in a few events where the organizer took the same schedule from previous in-person events and used it over webchat without modification. With the lack of in-person socialization, the audience members likely have decreased attention spans. So, for web-based events, less is more. Consider shortening your format. We don’t want to stare at our computer screen for a full day!
4. Ask questions to improve engagement. You may have noticed there’s less questions and participation during webchat events. Utilize the poll functions and don’t be afraid to have fun quiz questions with your audience.
5. Take advantage of break out rooms (when necessary). Break out rooms can be great to facilitate conversation, ie: for panel discussions or to answer discussion questions. But gage your audience, will breaking out into smaller rooms facilitate more conversation? Or will it dilute the pool of participants likely to actively participate?
6. Say good-bye to weekends. Often, conferences may be held on a weekend due to availability of parking, hotels, and conference rooms. But with the internet, availability is endless. Please organizers, leave my weekends alone.
Although we complain about zoom-life, I love it! I can easily meet and talk with people around the world. Covid-19 brought about terrible atrocities, but at least it acclimated us all to the lovely world of video-chatting.
When we think of the hard-working scientist, we think about a scientist that enters that lab early in the morning. They work through the day using multiple cups of coffee to keep their energy up. Late at night, they can be seen writing on a whiteboard, making the prime discoveries in their field.
Scientists have come to romanticize workaholism. We believe that the person who works the longest hours and sacrifices the most for their work will be the most successful. This idea comes from "grind culture" or "hustle culture."
If we believe in the "grind culture," we believe a lie. The person who works the longest hours is really the person losing out on the enjoyable things in life.
Think about the last time you put in a long day. At the end of that day, did you think, "Oh, I just keep wanting to do this forever?" Probably not. Instead, you probably thought about how much you want to go home and how you do not want to come in tomorrow.
As scientists, we can truly love and enjoy our work, but too much of anything can be a bad thing. The grind culture leads scientists to burnout, neglect self-care, and actually become less productive.
When I started graduate school, I believed in this lie. I tried to devote nearly every waking hour to my work to be successful. After every week, I wouldn't get out of bed on Saturdays until the afternoon. Even if I woke up around 10 a.m., I would just lay there questioning what was wrong with me. Once my partner would finally convince me to get up, I would eat and then start doing more work.
Not only did I waste a large amount of my time, but I also dealt with very high anxiety and depression through this time. Any moment that I wasn't working, I felt guilty. At my core, I believed that not working was an expression that I wasn't serious about my work.
In reality, this idea is a fairly disturbing notion.
After seeking therapy, I realized that my long hours and constant work are not what made me successful. What made me successful was my determination, problem-solving skills, and ability to develop ideas. Yet, burnout decreases all of these abilities that lead to success.
How to Really be Successful
Therefore, instead of working more hours, you should focus on becoming more efficient in your work. We are all inefficient in our work. In fact, a recent study found that typical workers only work less than 3 hours in an 8-hour workday.
Think about your regular day. How much of your time did you truly spend working on things that move your science forward?
On a typical workday, I spend time socializing with my colleagues, checking out my social media, watching shows or YouTube, and staring at my screen, not wanting to do work. Yet, I would be at work for over 10 hours, saying I worked 10 hours that day.
If you give in to grind culture and think you should work all the time, then you lose your motivation to do work. If completing work doesn't allow you to leave work sooner, what motivation do you have to complete work?
There are two principles that can help you become more productive by working less: Pareto's principle and Parkinson's law.
Pareto's principle states that 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort. Therefore, if you think about your typical workday, only about 20% of your time is creating 80% of your success in science.
Parkinson's law states that work will expand to fill the time that it is allotted, meaning that if you give yourself 10 hours in a day to complete a task, it will likely take all 10 hours, even if it only really requires 2 hours of work.
If you apply both of these principles to your approach to work, you can work less and accomplish more by becoming a more efficient worker.
While you may be on board about becoming an efficient worker, you may still wonder how to become more efficient. So let's go step-by-step through a system that I created for myself, which has proven to make me more productive while decreasing burnout.
Set Work Hours
The very first step of becoming efficient is to set your work hours. You should set your work hours based on your lifestyle and work requirements.
Do you want to work 8 hours and be off in time to make an exercise class? Then set your work hours to complete your workday in time for your class.
However, you also need to take into account the needs of your work. What times do you have meetings? When does your boss or supervisor expect you to be around?
The benefit of setting your work hours is that you are already combating Parkinson's law. You now have fewer overall hours that work can expand to fill. Additionally, you can regain motivation because you know that you need to finish your task by a specific time so that you can leave work accomplished.
Make To-Do and Not-To-Do Lists
Once you have your work hours, you need to concentrate your efforts on the things that are bringing you success in your science. The best way to focus is to create to-do lists and not-to-do lists.
First, think about all of the things that you genuinely need to do to make progress. If you think you need to do everything, ask yourself, "If I could only work 2 hours a day, what would I do?". Suddenly, your brain will flood with the most important things that need to be done for you to be productive in science. Write these things down to make your to-do list.
Now, make a list of at least three things that you do that waste your time, such as tasks that make you feel productive but don't result in actual progress. For many graduate students, I believe that reading scientific papers for the sake of reading them should be on your list. Reading papers should be done for a specific reason, not simply so that you can feel productive or say you read so many papers that week.
Personally, my not-to-do list includes checking my social media, checking my email, and watching shows during my day. Place your to-do and not-to-do lists somewhere where you can see them regularly.
Block Out Your Time
The third part of becoming more efficient is to block out your time. The essence of this idea is to prevent you from task switching multiple times and wasting time as you move from one task to another.
There are two ways that I like to block out my time. The first is to theme my days, and the second is to create time blocks.
If you have specific themes to your work, then it is nice to theme your days. For example, if you are a graduate student, you may have coursework, research, and teaching. On a day that you teach, make it a teaching day. Take the time during the day to grade assignments and plan for the next week's lesson. On a day that you attend multiple classes, take the free time you have to study and do homework. On days that you have research meetings or primarily free days, focus that time on research-related activities.
Themed days help you plan your day, keeping you focused and allowing you to make progress on one task all day long.
Time blocks allow you to work on a single task for 45-90 minutes. Maybe this task is a meeting, class, or writing a paper, but after your set work time, you have the margin to move from one task to another. The way I prefer to do this is 90 minutes of work with a 30-minute margin. However, depending on your schedule, a 45-minute block with a 15-minute margin may work better.
Overall, the idea that you need to work longer hours to be successful is not only a lie but counterproductive. Instead, by increasing your motivation and efficiency of your work, you can become more successful while maintaining your personal life. To become more efficient, I have a 3 step system that I employ: