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  • Animal Science
  • Animals
  • Biology
  • Health + Nutrition
Specializing in reproductive biology and integrative endocrinology, Yi Athena Ren, Ph.D. ’11, recently joined CALS as an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science.

How did you become interested in reproductive biology?
It all started when I attended a lecture by a well-respected reproductive biology professor at my undergraduate university in China. I was dabbling in research at that time, and his lecture on the dynamics of ovarian follicle growth wowed me. The more I learned about reproductive biology, particularly in females, the more fascinated I became. What other system in our body goes through such periodic and dynamic changes during adult life?

What have been a few of the biggest takeaways from your work?
The first is the importance of development and developmental programming. We were studying a mouse model in which a specific cell-signaling pathway was disrupted and those females were infertile. We then discovered that the ovaries of these mice had started to develop abnormally before they were even born.

The second insight is that very often diseases in one organ are caused by problems in seemingly unrelated cells or organs. So when things go wrong, treating the symptom is not enough—we need to find the initial trigger. When things go really wrong, perhaps the structure of communication between different systems is malfunctioning, then we need to rebuild the linkage between those systems. It is challenging because there are a lot of variables to control for, like solving a four-dimensional puzzle.

What do you think is important for people to understand about your field?
Reproductive biology is fun! It is also one of the most important subjects, as it will literally influence generations to come. Yet federal funding has been very limited and support for reproductive biology has been disproportionately small. This echoes with a general view of the subject: "People are having babies with no problem, so why do we still need to study reproductive biology?" Well, about one in eight couples in the U.S. suffers from infertility, and the cause is often unclear. This means we do not yet understand enough to treat infertility.

What makes the matter more complicated are issues like obesity, environmental pollutants and increasingly delayed first childbirth. Through sperm and eggs, the negative impact of these factors can be passed on and impact the health of our children and future generations. This applies to other species too.

We live in an age of both innovative research breakthroughs and profound human and environmental challenges.
How do you think our understanding of biology could shape the world by 2100?

There are profound societal and environmental challenges, but I’m optimistic that, overall, human society is on an upward trajectory. I think a major societal challenge is that, for the first time in human history, kids are growing up surrounded by electronics and social media, and we don’t know what the consequences will be.

In the long term, with advancing technological breakthroughs, especially in artificial intelligence, I think it is plausible that our society will someday be dominated by artificial intelligence as depicted in many works of science fiction. Perhaps it is time to re-emphasize the pursuit of "full humanness" as espoused by the ancient Greeks—to experience and express fully what it means to be a human being. Automation is powerful, but let’s not automate ourselves!

As we gain a better understanding of reproductive biology and technology, what kind of framework should we have to make ethical decisions?
I think we should always ask ourselves not just, "Can we?" but also, "Should we?" At the societal level, it is often difficult to predict all the consequences of a new technology. Reproductive choices are very personal but, cumulatively, have a profound societal impact, spanning generations. So, transparency and accessibility of information in reproductive biology and technology should be achieved at individual, political and societal levels.

Learn more about all our new 2019 faculty. 

This article was originally published in the CALS Magazine.

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