Infertility among women is a common problem in the United States, with about 6.1 million women who experience difficulty becoming or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While infertility is a stressful human problem, it is a problem most mammals experience as well. At New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Department of Animal and Range Sciences associate professor Jennifer Hernandez Gifford is leading research to understand the mechanisms involved in normal estrogen production and how they can help address problems that arise from abnormal estrogen concentrations, which lead to infertility. Specifically, Hernandez Gifford investigates signaling pathways that regulate ovarian function and steroid production in livestock.
“For humans as well as livestock, estrogen is required for female fertility,” Hernandez Gifford said. “Our lab has a long-vested interest in ovarian biology and estrogen production. Some of our work has been to identify novel signaling pathways that regulate estrogen production. This has led us into a new research area in which we are evaluating the oocyte, or egg, that has the potential to be ovulated and become fertilized.”
Hernandez Gifford said infertility research is important for both women trying to conceive and ranchers raising livestock.
“Infertility is a big issue faced by many women,” Hernandez Gifford said. “We recognize that women are more frequently delaying having children due to socioeconomic pressures. This often means women are facing a decline in fertility when they are having children. Our research may give insight that will have a positive impact on those women.”
For agricultural purposes, “we know that we need to have optimal reproductive efficiency in an effort to provide food for the continually growing population,” Hernandez Gifford said.
Some of Hernandez Gifford’s findings include the identification of hormones from the pituitary gland converging with signaling molecules in the ovary to inhibit estrogen production.
“We are currently investigating the mechanisms by which this occurs,” Hernandez Gifford said. “It is our thought that this complex interaction may be necessary to keep ovarian follicles developing at the appropriate rate to allow maximal fertility.”
Hernandez Gifford said ovarian follicle development is a tightly coordinated event that relies on multiple hormones and intersecting pathways.
“While many follicles will develop throughout a regular cycle, typically only one will be selected to mature to dominance and ultimately be ovulated,” Hernandez Gifford said. “There is still a lot of unknowns about how a single follicle is determined to be selected and ovulated.”
Hernandez Gifford said NMSU students play a helpful role in gathering research data. Currently, four students assist in her lab and research sheep barn. Kylee Forrest and Keegan Taylor are both master’s students in the Animal and Range Sciences department, while Victor Flores is a Ph.D. student and Sara Gurule is an undergraduate research student. Her first two graduate students at NMSU, Bahaa Aloqaily and Emily Ferranti, were instrumental in getting Hernandez Gifford’s program re-established.
“Students and student training are at the heart of what I do,” Hernandez Gifford said. “I have been so very fortunate to have worked with a number of bright, talented and hard-working students through the years. These students each bring different talents to our research and keep me on my toes.”
Hernandez Gifford was once in her students’ shoes. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science from NMSU, then went on to earn her Ph.D. in animal science from Washington State University. She returned to NMSU in 2016 as a faculty member after teaching and establishing a research program at Oklahoma State University. Her return to NMSU allowed her to work with her former NMSU mentor and longtime collaborator Dennis Hallford, who died in late 2016.
“I have returned to the place where it all started,” Hernandez Gifford said. “I am now working in the same lab and overseeing the sheep unit where I was trained as a student. I was fortunate to get to work alongside Dr. Hallford for a short period before his passing. I am honored to now teach the classes he taught as well as oversee the Research Sheep Unit, known as the West Sheep Unit, he started 40 years ago.”