Meet Dr. M. Sofia Ortega

Written by Angela Gonella for Hispanic Heritage Month

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Diversity Committee Co-Chair Dr. Angela Gonella sat down with University of Missouri Assistant Professor Dr. Sofia Ortega.

Dr. Ortega’s research program focuses on the genetic regulation of fertility with an emphasis on preimplantation embryonic development in the bovine. They use novel genomic approaches, including gene editing, to investigate the effect of reproduction-related genes on development and physiology. The long-term goal of her program is to identify key genetic variants and mechanisms associated with pregnancy establishment and use that information to improve reproduction and genetic selection for fertility in cattle.

Check out this interview with her:

1. What is your current position, and what does it entail?

I’m currently an Assistant Professor of Reproductive Physiology at the University of Missouri. Besides my research program, which is a combination of laboratory and farm work, I teach Physiology of Reproduction and Reproductive Management at the undergraduate level, as well as some serving in some committees in the Division and College. My research group now consists of 1 postdoctoral trainee, 1 Ph.D. Student, 1 Master’s student, and 3 undergraduate trainees.

2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I’m from Honduras, where I completed my undergraduate degree in Agricultural Sciences at Zamorano Agricultural University and worked managing a bull stud there for five years after graduation. While working in Honduras, I participated in some research projects. I realized that I wanted to be part of that, asking how things work and how you use this knowledge. I always had a passion for teaching, so I knew that academia was the path for me. I got a scholarship from the Chilean government to complete my master’s degree there. I then moved to the University of Florida to complete a Ph.D. in Animal Molecular and Cellular Biology under the Mentoring of Dr. Peter Hansen. After my Ph.D. I moved to the University of Missouri as a postdoctoral trainee under Dr. Tom Spencer. During this time, I was very fortunate to be selected to the program Preparing Future Faculty to increase faculty diversity at the University of Missouri. After completing this program, in 2019, I joined the faculty at the Division of Animal Sciences at the University of Missouri.

3. What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?

It was a tough time; it was my first semester teaching, and halfway through, we had to adapt to teaching online, which was challenging for both professors and students. In terms of teaching, with the help of technology, we were able to push through. On the research end, we didn’t completely stop. We implemented a system to ensure safety following University guidelines and were able to carry out some research activities. We also continue virtual group meetings and use that time for my trainees to acquire other skills helpful for their research, such as bioinformatics.

4. Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?

Learn to adapt quickly. I think the pandemic was a wake-up call for everyone in terms of not taking anything for granted, being grateful for what we have, and taking advantage of any opportunity to do things. Because you never know how long they will last.

5. What are you most excited to do over the next year?

I’m excited to be back at the laboratory full force, with motivated trainees, and looking forward to starting new projects this year. I am really looking forward to seeing everyone in person in the upcoming scientific meetings and catch up.

6. What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?

• Seek advice, and more importantly, listen to it.
• Work with people, cooperate; help is crucial in science.
• Don’t take anything for granted.
• Something didn’t work, regroup, think, and try again. Don’t give up.
• Don’t be afraid of the long road.

7. Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?

Yes, in a good way. When I first started doing some research back in Honduras and later in Chile, I didn’t have many resources to work with. I learned to do a lot with less; it helped me become efficient. Somehow, that also drives a lot of my ideas while designing projects nowadays – how to get the most out of each experiment, for example. I think it also helped me not taking anything for granted. I’m always grateful for the opportunities and resources I have been given. As a professor now, I try to provide similar opportunities to students from Latin America and give back a little of what I have received through the years.

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