Martim Kaps
Veterinarian and Schrödinger Fellow Martim Kaps temporarily moved to Nebraska, in order to dive deep into the research of reproductive medicine. © privat

By Martim Kaps

Reactions were mainly of surprise and disbelief, when I told my friends and colleagues that I will spend one year in Nebraska. Among Europeans around my age, this state right in the middle of the USA is, if at all, only known as the home state of the “The Big Bang Theory” character Penny.

Most people don’t know that a hotspot for research in livestock can be found here, the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC). On a total area of 14.000 hectares, about 30.000 animals are housed and taken care of. Besides pigs and sheep, also about 6.200 heads of cattle. Many researchers investigate a variety of aspects of livestock farming; one aspect under focus is reproductive physiology.

Saddled to cattle

During my doctorate at the Vetmeduni Vienna I investigated the function of the horse’s ovary. A central question was, how modification of the ovarian function alters behavioral patterns in mares. Among the many other exciting topics that the field of animal reproductive medicine offered to me, the ovary with its thousands of follicles and oocytes became the center of my research interest.

This I have in common with my current colleagues at the USMARC. In how far the number of follicles on the ovary (the so-called Antral Follicle Count) is linked to a cow’s fertility, was one of their main research questions in the past years. And indeed, they found that the AFC is linked to fertility. For example, cows with a high number of follicles have high fertility for a prolonged time, compared to their low follicle number counterparts. After my doctorate supervisor got me in touch with the USMARC team and motivated me to dive into their publications, I realized quite quickly: That’s the place I want to go … even if it is Nebraska!

Broad methodological toolbox and new scales

The Erwin-Schrödinger Fellowship brought that to reality. The aim of our current project is to see, if fertility in low AFC cows can be improved by feeding a yeast based nutritional supplement. To investigate the effects on fertility, we use a variety of methods, including quantitative gene expression, hormone analysis and fertilization of oocytes in a dish. The development of the resulting embryos is then studied in detail by time-lapse monitoring.

With my start at the USMARC especially one thing changed: the scale. From study-size to animal number and sample size, everything became bigger (as one could probably expect – it’s the US). This comes with an increase in responsibility but is also associated with a broader range of possibilities to address the main questions behind our study.

No more “Wiener Schmäh”

Of course, I had some worries about moving across the Atlantic Ocean, but I was also pretty excited to have the opportunity to conduct research at the USMARC. In the end, obtaining the visa was the only administrative hurdle that took a little longer than expected. The life outside of my working environment in Nebraska turned out to be pretty much as I expected it to be. One can find a lot of corn, a lot of cattle, beautiful sunsets and sunrises and a whole lot of nothing more. Ideal conditions to be really focused on research. The differences in mentalities between Americans and central Europeans proved to be more obvious than I expected. Intensive small talk is pretty common, as well as being enormously polite. Quite a challenge after living in Vienna for 5 years.

By moving from the Vetmeduni Vienna to a research-only Institute, the interaction with students and the clinical work as a veterinarian vanished. I miss both aspects of working at a veterinary university but the possibilities in research I have here at the USMARC compensate for that. During my Erwin-Schrödinger Fellowship my scientific “tool- and idea box” got already filled well, and they will continue to do so. When I graduated from vet school it seemed impossible to me that research would become a substantial part of my life. But luckily, plans change.

Scroll to the top