Meet Dr. Fuller W. Bazer
Written by Lei Lei in Honor of Veteran’s Day
In honor of Veteran’s Day, we had a conservation with a Veteran SSR member Dr. Fuller W. Bazer. Dr. Bazer is currently a Regents Fellow, Distinguished Professor, and O.D. Butler Chair at the Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University. Dr. Bazer is a pioneering scientist in uterine biology and pregnancy reorganization signaling.
1. What inspired you to pursue reproductive biology research?
I first earned my B.S. in biology from the Centenary College of Louisiana, and I had been in the pre-med curriculum because I started wanting to go to medical school. Later, I became interested in veterinary school. I grew up in Louisiana, where the closest veterinary school was in Texas A&M. They only take six students from Louisiana each year, and animal sciences courses are required, including nutrition and genomics. After the summer of 1960, I went to Louisiana State University to take those courses and that’s when I first got involved in reproductive biology research. We looked at the effects of heat stress and thyroid function on reproduction in sheep and I really enjoyed the research.
Then I had a commission in the military, so I had to go into active duty in January 1963. After some basic training, I spent 13 months in South Korea as an air defense officer, sitting on top of mountains and thinking about graduate school and veterinary school. I decided to go to graduate school, so I went to North Carolina State University. The reproductive biology area intrigues me because two fundamental things people have to do to maintain a society are to reproduce and to eat. The reproduction of animals leads to the production of high-quality meat for our diets. Reproduction is also important for maintaining population, as people either try to improve fertility or try to control fertility through different types of birth control measures. So that’s why I liked agriculture and biomedical sciences a lot. It motivated me in my career.
Growing up in a farm family, I was expected to become a worker on the farm, but my dad encouraged me to go to college and he was surprised I kept going on for a Ph.D. I enjoy research in academia and the requirement of a Ph.D. degree was a motivation as well of course.
2. How has your military service affected your perspective as a scientist or your career trajectory?
I was on active duty for two and a half years. I started off in January 1963, and in April of that year, I went to South Korea and served for 13 months. I came back to Texas and continued service until the end of July 1965. I had been a national guard in Louisiana for three years before that.
Military service for me is an advancement because you learn a lot about discipline and you learn a lot about yourself. You learn about yourself in terms of leadership by interacting with a lot of people, and you gain interpersonal communication skills which are useful when you are a leader of a lab. I think it would be good if most people in the US serve in some way. During the experience, you grow up, you learn to deal with other people, and you learn a lot about yourself, and how to deal with stressful situations. To me, military training and military experience has always been a good thing.
3. What advice do you have for trainees in the reproductive biology field?
I think the primary thing is that you have to be passionate about what you are doing. If you don’t have the passion, if you don’t enjoy getting up in the morning, thinking about your science, embracing your science, and interacting with other people, then you’re probably not going to be very successful.
The other thing is that you can’t just be a reproductive biologist and just learn reproductive biology, you need to learn from people in other disciplines, such as people in the fields of genomics, genetics, and cell biology. Whether you work on large animals or mice, it is all biology.
You also have to realize that you can’t be intimidated by failure. When you are writing grants and papers, you will have those three or four people who are going to critique what you are doing. They may or may not agree with you, but you have to learn from what they say, make adjustments and never give up trying to get funding. It’s a very competitive world. You have to be prepared to be competitive, instead of just giving up.
One thing that bothers me is that students nowadays are always wearing headphones and being on their phones. They are not communicating with each other. I think this is a big problem. Because they should be learning from each other, and they should be helping each other, but it is like everybody is isolated on their own island. I don’t think it is good for science in the lab, so I tried to discourage it. My dad told me a long time ago that the only time you aren’t learning is when you are talking. I tell my students now that if you are not learning anything when you are talking, you are not listening. Listen for new knowledge from your colleagues and know that what they are doing is important.
4. What advice do you have for junior faculty in the reproductive biology field?
When I started my first faculty position back in 1968, I was given a startup package of $2,500 and some lab space at the University of Florida. We developed a team right away, and many of us were trained in different ways. We worked as a team because we were all poor and none of us had all the resources we needed to do the kind of projects we wanted to do. By collaborating not only with people in reproduction but with people in nutrition and chemistry, only then we were able to accomplish what we need to.
For junior faculty, I understand that you want graduate students when you’re first starting. But if you start bringing in graduate students too early on, you don’t really have a lab to train them properly, and they become a liability to you. The better thing to do would be to get a technician or somebody who can devote a little time to help get your research program going. Once you get your research going, you get some funding, like R21, then you can start to have graduate students. By that time, you have a legitimate environment for them to get the training they need to be successful. If you have a successful program, you become a magnet and attract a lot of students.
It is also important for junior faculty to remember to interact with other people. You can take advantage of their expertise, experiences, and maybe resources to help you get started. You don’t have to start off with your own lab fully equipped with everything, because usually there are people that you can collaborate with, who will have equipment that is beneficial for you. It might take a while to accumulate these things, so you have to be patient in terms of developing your own program. You have to have a steady progression in publication. The last step in scientific method discovery is publishing. If you don’t publish your research findings, it’s like you never did it.
When discussing potential collaborations with colleagues, it is important to communicate what your research projects are about, why you would like to collaborate, and what the expectation will be throughout the collaboration. I think in order to have a good team, collaborations have to be done in such a way that everybody’s ego is satisfied. It is important to build a true team that publishes together, and graduate students take advice from collaborators. It’s very important that students are getting a new perspective from you that’s different from mine because then they can see things from two different perspectives.
5. What do you think the most exciting scientific topics are in reproductive biology?
I think environmental factors that affect the male reproductive system and spermatogenesis is an exciting topic. We used to think males weren’t vulnerable to those factors, but now we’re seeing effects on spermatogenesis, epigenetic changes, and some effects on the micro-aspect of sperms, things we haven’t thought about before. Epigenetics is also very important. Now single-cell analysis allows us to look at cell-cell interactions and answer many other interesting questions that we were not able to answer before.
Gene editing is still a very important tool. By collaboration, we were able to knock out genes in pig conceptus that we were interested in for a long time and show that those genes are critical for the establishment and maintenance of pregnancy. Another thing that we did in the lab a while ago is having yeast make a protein that sheep embryos normally make. By doing that, we were able to ask biological questions because we had enough protein to do studies in vivo and in vitro. All these new techniques that developed during my career are very important, it will be interesting to see what we’re able to do in the span of the next ten years. We should be cautious with using cell lines because cells change their phenotypes under culture conditions compared with in vivo. I really hope people will begin to appreciate large animals as a better research model in terms of relation to human conditions.
6. What do you consider the most significant achievement or scientific discovery in your scientific career?
My lab discovered that estrogen is the pregnancy recognition signal in pigs and we published it in 1977. Then we moved directly into looking at cows and sheep. We spent at least 12-14 months doing radio-label steroids. We then found that estrogen was not involved in pregnancy recognition singling in sheep and cows. After that, we began radio-label amino acids. We discovered uteroferrin. My lab collaborated with Michael Roberts, and together, we discovered that uteroferrin is a protein that is transported across the areolae of the pig placenta by fluid-phase pinocytosis and released into fetal circulation. Uteroferrin is used in hemoglobin synthesis. In adults, it is associated with mostly monocyte/macrophage lineage diseases. For example, osteoporosis, hairy cell leukemia, and Paget’s tumors of bone. The uterus of sheep, cows, pigs, and horses all express uteroferrin protein. In humans, the placenta expresses this protein, they serve the same function.
Most recently, we have done a lot of work on the effect of interferon tau (IFNT) on pregnancy. Along with progesterone, IFNT upregulates a lot of nuclear transporters and affects the ability of conceptus in utilizing glucose, not just for energy production.
We are also getting into mineral metabolism and the effect of phosphorus and calcium on reproduction. We found that really low levels of phosphors could cause abnormal placental function.
7. Is there anything you would change or do differently in your scientific career if you had the chance?
I thought about your question, and I’m not sure if I would change a thing. Maybe if things were different back in 1968, I would have done a postdoc somewhere after I finished my Ph.D., or at least considered a postdoc more seriously. That’s one path. The other path was to go ahead and get my program started. I am 84 years old now and have grant money until I am 88. I still enjoy going to work every day, participating in student training, and the process of letting science lead you from one step to the next step to continue making discoveries.