The Birds and the Bees at Big Red

Cornell has a strong history in reproductive biology going back to the early 40s, making discoveries on hormone cycles and IVF methods, and inventing the Pap smear. Dr. Paula Cohen builds on this legacy through her work in improving human reproduction and male contraception--two major hurdles in science and health today.

The Birds and the Bees at Big Red
Featured Speaker:
Paula Cohen, PhD

Dr. Paula Cohen is professor of genetics at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and associate vice provost for life sciences at Cornell. She is also director of the Center for Reproductive Genomics. Cohen studies how the function and dysfunction of meiosis affects human and animal health. 


Learn more about Dr. Paula Cohen 

The Birds and the Bees at Big Red

 Michelle Moyal, DVM (Host): Welcome everyone to the Cornell Veterinary Podcast, where we do a deep dive into the discovery, care, and learning that happens at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. I'm Dr. Michelle Moyal, the Vet College's only, I mean favorite extrovert and lover of all things Cornell Vet. Our guest today, I'm super excited, is Dr. Paula Cohen. She is a Professor of Genetics, an Associate Vice Provost for Life Sciences at Cornell University, and Director of the Center for Reproductive Genomics. She was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, amazing, in 2022 for her contributions to the fields of meiosis and germ cell development.

Welcome! I'm so excited to have you here.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Me too, me too. This is my first ever podcast, so I'm very excited.

Host: This is, well, this is my first time hosting a podcast, so we are together, we are on this journey, and I'm really excited.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Great, and we're probably the two only big extroverts in the vet school.

Host: Yes! You've heard it, everyone. I have found the other extrovert. And we will now get together. Maybe we will form a club.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yes. Heaven help us. Heaven help us.

Host: Amazing! Well, thank you, self proclaimed extrovert. Let's dive right in because I really want to get into talking about some interesting things. So, I would love to hear a little bit about your journey that got you to where you are today. Like where were you before Cornell? What brought you here? Even whatever you want to share.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Okay. I mean, I'll go way back. I come from a family that never went to university. No one in my family ever went to university. I think I have a cousin who went to university before me and not much older cousin, but my parents for many different reasons moved from England in the fifties to Nigeria, West Africa where they had me and my sister.

We grew up in Africa a long way away from our family, and went to boarding school in England. So, probably because of that experience, I hated English weather and rain, in

Host: particular.

Oh, she's here in Ithaca, folks.

Paula Cohen, PhD: It's not rain. It's different. I can deal with snow, it turns out. But I think that that's really what prompted me to leave England when I completed my PhD.

Growing up in a girls English boarding school, you were not expected to be academic at all. Uh, you were expected to become a nice wife to some big executive and both my sister and I completely bucked that. Thank goodness. And I just always had a fascination for science. I mean, growing up in Africa, I was just bewitched by the animals around me.

We used to do the safari thing in Tanzania and Kenya, and I just loved animals. Incidentally, never thought about becoming a veterinarian. I don't know why. Maybe because I didn't feel I could operate on animal. Yeah, I just, it was just too close to me, but I was fascinated by the plethora of animal life and the commonalities between species and the differences, you know, through my mother who had a really dreadful time conceiving or holding a pregnancy and through my sister who had similar issues, I became fascinated with pregnancy and why humans in particular are so bad at conceiving and having healthy babies. We are amongst all animal species, we're particularly bad at making healthy embryos.

It's fascinated me greatly. So I moved into reproductive biology, really just because I loved the subject at university. I had a professor in my second and third year at university who taught reproductive biology, and remember this was way, way, way, way, way back in the, late eighties, early nineties when we were just finding out how sex determination happens in embryos. There was big controversies about how you get sex determination in mammals and then how that sexual determination influences how the gonads form. And so there was a lot of really exciting reproductive biology happening.

Although I wasn't directly involved in that, I was really interested in pregnancy itself because of what my mother had gone through. And really how the mother and the embryos speak to each other. So here you have a maternal system that is built to make eggs, right? So, a woman reaches puberty, ovulates once a month and her entire body, her entire physiology is built to make perfect eggs.

It turns out we don't make perfect eggs, but anyway, that's what we're built to do as are all species. And then suddenly you become pregnant and your body has to change into a baby making machine. And it's a totally different set of needs. You know, arguably males don't have to change their entire physiology to accommodate these things.

And so I was really fascinated about that. And that really intrigued me. That's why I did my PhD in London.

Host: I feel like you could write a book about everything you just said. Like, I'm in. I'm invested.

Paula Cohen, PhD: You know, I think that science is really half about what we see around us in the world and what just makes us question. And the reason people don't go into science is somewhere along the line, some teacher beats that love of science and that inquisitiveness out of you and it's so sad and especially for women, you know, women, have less confidence about asking questions and actually, that's what science is all about, it's asking questions and half of them may be off base but it doesn't matter, you know, we question everything around us.

Host: I love this for so many reasons. And so I would love to highlight a few things about why I love your story so much. One, as a first generation American myself, who came from a family who was uneducated, I truly understand what it's like to come from people who maybe didn't pursue those goals or weren't raised to pursue those goals, right? Especially women, like you said.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, even who do you ask? I mean, I didn't even know what a PhD was. I mean, I, started doing research for this professor who I adored and he said, well, have you thought about doing a PhD? And I thought, what does that mean? I,

Host: What are those letters?

Paula Cohen, PhD: I had no idea. I was so naive.

Host: But it also highlights what one person can do as far as being a mentor. Or igniting that passion, I always truly strive for that daily, and I'm sure you are the same, but you're right. One opposite experience for someone could completely turn this story around. So I love that.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, absolutely. And I really believe that it's not just as a mentor who is traditionally older than you, traditionally at a different career level. It can be a mentor who is just a peer, a peer who says to you, have you thought about X? Or you're really good at this. Have you thought about this? And it's like a light bulb goes off and I feel that the more you get exposed to that and the more you expose people from different backgrounds to that, the more those opportunities open up for them. Because it's not purely academic. It's just someone giving you the little prompt to say, actually, you could do this with your life. And I knew I always wanted to do something to do with conservation.

You know, I came from Africa. In fact, my, my PhD mentor always used to tease me because from the very start, my goal was I was going to go back to Africa and save the white rhino. Actually the white rhino is still struggling, but they didn't really need me, it turns out, but, that was kind of my dream, but I couldn't articulate how I was going to do it or what I was going to do.

I just knew I wanted to do something along those lines and science found me. I didn't go out seeking it and I think that I'm so fortunate for that.

Host: Oh my gosh, I love that. And I hope for people listening who maybe haven't found what they think is their exact path, that they understand that you don't need to have an exact path. Sometimes science tells you as you're on your path, it tells you the direction to go in. And also about, mentorship and colleagues, right?

You're not guaranteed wisdom with years, so going, I mean, I'd like to think we all are. As I get older, I would love to think it's a guarantee. But there is a lot of wisdom in your colleagues and you might call them a friend, but that doesn't mean they can't be your mentor.

And not only is it about their academic history, but maybe it's about cultural background. Maybe it's about them introducing you to something that culturally you weren't introduced to. And that is something that I find happens a lot.

Paula Cohen, PhD: And just being open to that. I mean, I, from an early age, everyone said, well, you're so bright. You've got to go to medical school. You like sciences. You've got to go to medical school. That's your automatic path. It never felt right. I actually don't like sick people at all. I have, you know, if my dogs, if my dogs are ill, my whole life stops and I have to look after them. If my husband is ill, forget it. He's on his own.

Host: Yeah, fend for yourself, dude.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Exactly. Listen to yourself. Medicine was never going to be something enjoyable to me. Hopefully my science will help many more people than I could do one patient at a time, or even one white rhino at a time. But, I didn't know the words to use.

I didn't know what to articulate about myself until my professor pointed this out to me and he forever changed my life.

Host: Well, thank you to that professor. And we kind of touched upon this, but I would love to hear more, we know that anything STEM, right? So like science and tech and all things medical is a male dominated profession currently. And so as a woman in this profession, what has your journey been like?

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, it's funny. I mean, so starting at boarding school, I went through a unique schooling situation. They didn't want me to do all the sciences. I did it at 16. You take your O Levels in England and, you have a nice balance between the arts and the sciences.

And I wanted to do all sciences. They actually summoned my mother from Africa to come and speak to the principal of the school to tell her off.

Host: My mouth is open here, people. Her mother was summoned not for bad behavior, for her keen interest in science.

Yeah it was

It was

Paula Cohen, PhD: really funny. It was really funny. So I had to leave boarding school to go to a public school to do sciences. So I left at 16 and went to a public school so I could do more sciences. So that was probably the hardest thing. I was very fortunate through my undergraduate days and through my PhD and through my postdoc, which was now moving to the States.

I moved to New York City to do my postdoc. I was very fortunate. I was very, very, well supported by my peers and by my mentors around me. But I also saw a lot of inequity about how women scientists were treated relative to men. And a lot of that is promoted by the society around you. A lot of it is an intolerance. You can't be hesitant about things.

You have to be, and a lot of women do have problems. You know, you see it in a seminar, hands go up first and women hold back. And, I try and point those things out to people in my lab. I have lost track, 16 permanent people in the lab and about anywhere between 6 and 10 undergraduates at any one time, and many of them are women.

And I always try and point out, there is no such thing as a stupid question. There are many, many stupid answers, lots of stupid answers, but don't ask, don't not answer the ask a question because you think it's stupid. If you don't understand something, then the person who's speaking has not relayed it properly to you.

Or maybe they haven't considered something that you find glaringly obvious. It's really important and it's so against what we do and how we think about ourselves, but yeah, it's, hard. But that, to me is one of our own battles that we have to fight. And then there are the various things where I sit in a committee meeting and I make a suggestion and it doesn't get broadly taken up until a guy repeats the question. I get that a lot.

Host: I'm shaking my head, yes.

Paula Cohen, PhD: It happens so much and so I used argue it and fight it and now I just laugh and, you know, the way you overcome these things is you surround yourself by people who are supportive and encouraging of you, and you don't give up. I mean, we can't fight this battle unless we're in the ring together, and so we have to take it on headfirst.

Host: Absolutely. And it's not necessarily about waging a war every time. It's about these small wins, right? So, you win by speaking, and women are getting inspired, and scientists are collaborating with you, and representation is really important, and, this isn't one of the things I was planning to say, but I will tell you that when I stalked, and by stalked, I mean researched appropriately, your lab I wanted to say how thankful I was to see a statement on diversity and equality and science.

And so I just want to make sure our listeners understand that they're all linked and it's really important. And I know we're talking about women in STEM, but it stems across for our students of color and so on. And so I wanted to make sure I highlighted that. Thank you for mentioning that here.

Paula Cohen, PhD: I mean, it's not just about the education process and the research process. The work we do which I'll bore you about ad infinitum in a minute.

Host: I have more questions about it, yes.

Paula Cohen, PhD: But the work we do is really important in the diversity realm. Women of color have traditionally many more infertility issues, issues in conceiving, issues with reproductive health than do standard white women.

It's really sad that maybe health inequities are related to that, but there may be genetic and environmental inequities as well that we need to address. And there's a real stigma about talking about these things in some of these communities. Admitting that you can't have a baby is kind of saying, I'm not a woman.

I can't do what I'm supposed to be doing and, and it's really hard to break that barrier. And I think from a basic research standpoint, we can be part of that conversation. We can go out into the community and believe me, scientists are not the best at doing this, but we need to, we need to.

Host: I hear they're are a bunch of introverts, Dr. Cohen, and here you are telling me you're an extrovert and I don't know what to do with myself.

Paula Cohen, PhD: I have a fairly loud, extroverted lab. I clearly attract these people. But we need to have a place at the table and we need to engage in these dialogues. So the more diverse our community is of basic researchers, the easier it is for them to go out and help these diverse communities understand the stigma of infertility and the stigma of reproductive health issues.

Host: Yes. I love that. We send that out into the community, but again, back to what we said earlier, if we have diverse labs, these people are asking questions that maybe someone would not be thinking about. And the other thing is, there is a focus, I hope it's a rising focus on inequities in healthcare, but I'll admit I didn't think about inequities in conceiving, like in the genetic basis. And so I'm fascinated by that.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, I mean, I don't have the numbers on hand, but if you look at Assisted Reproductive Technologies, IVF, and all these things, many, many babies are conceived by IVF nowadays. The majority of couples who can afford IVF are wealthier, higher socioeconomic status, predominantly white.

That doesn't mean they're the only ones who are struggling to conceive. It's just, they're the only ones who have the financial resources to use these services and they're more free to talk about these things. I think it's a really important thing that we have to understand. Infertility is not a crime. It's a disorder that affects millions, millions of couples. And we have to understand that and say this is not to do with who you are or what you did or what you engaged in, just a fact of our species.

Host: Absolutely. And so now, before we jump into the bulk of infertility and things, I was reading all of these things about your work and I read it in your intro. So using some lay terms, how do we tell our listeners what you do with, I mean, meiosis was all over the place, germ cell development. How can we give them the crux? This'll be easy. Just like a few sentences. Using lay terms for what you do? Easy as in quotes, everyone. Easy as in quotes.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The basis of life is eggs and sperm, right? An egg has to meet a sperm, they fertilize, and then you make a new embryo and you make a new individual. Very, very easy. It's actually very tricky to make an egg or a sperm. So think about the cells in your, ovary or your testes that are going to be eggs and sperm, right?

They have the full number of chromosomes. So we have 46 chromosomes in the human genome. And chromosomes are the strings that attach all the genes together that encode our bodies and encode what our bodies do. And we have 46 chromosomes and to make an, a new individual, that new individual also has to have 46 chromosomes.

But if you took a egg that had 46 chromosomes and a sperm that had 46 chromosomes, do the math. You would have too many chromosomes. So to make an egg and a sperm, you have to halve those chromosomes. And so I think about it, when you were playing in the playground, you used to have to line up in pairs to go out to the playground and line up in pairs to go back.

And that was an easier way for teachers to count the kids going in and out of class. Chromosomes do the same thing. They line up and they pair, and that's the easiest way to then separate them equally. Makes sense. You pair them, you tether them together, and then you separate them equally. That goes wrong in a huge number of cases in human eggs and sperm.

Other animals don't seem to do this, and other organisms don't seem to do this. But humans, for reasons we don't understand, do this really badly. And so you could say, well, okay, you know, people smoke and people take drugs and yes, that is probably a component of it. And of course, you've all heard about the maternal age effect, the older a woman gets.

And this always scares my vet students who are thinking about delaying their family planning to have their careers, as many women do nowadays, but the older a woman gets, the more likely you are to have an egg that has the wrong number of chromosomes. They separated unequally.

But it's not just age. I mean, many of these chromosomal defects happen in young women. So it's not just maternal age. It does predominantly happen in female, in egg production versus sperm production for reasons that we're starting to understand but sperm production can be wrong too.

And so that's basically in a nutshell, what we're trying to understand is how do you make perfect eggs and sperm that are going to make perfect little babies? And humans are the worst example, and then we go up to all sorts of other fun and, interesting species beyond the animal kingdom, into the plant kingdom, and so forth, where we can start to study these things and, and understand how differently, these different species do this. I mean, it's the same process, but it can be very different.

Host: Who is the best at this might I ask?

Paula Cohen, PhD: Well, the predominant model for meiosis is process of separating your chromosomes is yeast. The yeast that makes beer and bread, they are single cell organisms and, they're good at doing this but they're also easy to manage. So the reason is that most yeast reproduce asexually, so they clone themselves. But if they're starved or they're put in a condition of stress, they do sexual reproduction. So they make cells with half the number of chromosomes and those cells fuse, much like fertilizing. So then you can starve them to induce this process. So that's why single cell organisms are very good at doing this.

And then you have things like worms. Lots of people study nematode worms, and they're really good at doing this too. And the reason that worms are so cool, I mean, this is why I love my field, but it's so beautiful to watch these chromosomes dance with each other and do these funky things. It's really cool. And in worms, you can literally just look straight through the worm and you see it happening. Zebrafish are another really good model for this.

Host: I love zebrafish. Just in general.

Paula Cohen, PhD: We use the laboratory mouse because the mouse is a really good way to, to study genetics. And the mouse is a mammal, so it's as close as we can get to human and other larger mammals that we may be interested in.

And so we study the laboratory mouse just because it's easily malleable, but it's not as quick as yeast or worms or flies or zebrafish.

Host: I want to make sure I summarize. So, beer lovers everywhere are essentially researching as they support people who use yeast. Is that what I'm hearing? Great. You heard it here. Yes. She said, yes, that's perfect.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Well, it's funny, one of my colleagues in Israel who has studied yeast meiosis for many years, he found some ancient yeast in some old architectural pottery, and he's brought this meiosis. But incidentally, he's making beer with this ancient yeast.

Host: Bonus.

Paula Cohen, PhD: It's just amazing.

Host: That is amazing! Oh my gosh. Okay, I'm having too good of a time chatting about these things. So, you've mentioned it, and I know we talked about the eggs and sperm, and you've done a lot of work in male reproduction, which I think is very interesting. We don't often hear a lot about it. And so, what are some of the biggest issues or questions you're looking to tackle in male infertility or contraception? Because I hear you work with both.

Paula Cohen, PhD: So we study male and female together. Males are much easier to study so just a little word about female meiosis. So, as you know, because everyone learns this but doesn't really understand why, women are born with all the eggs they will ever possess, contrast that to men that make 10 million sperm a day for their entire life, post puberty.

Women, all the eggs are established in the ovary when you're an embryo and they go through the first stage of meiosis, the first stage where these chromosomes dance with each other, talk to each other, pair, and then have to do their first separation. They actually don't do the separation until after puberty and that may be one of the problems, right?

So you've got these chromosomes that are stuck together for years in humans and then suddenly after with each ovulation they have to separate their chromosomes. So if you want to study the mechanisms of how those chromosomes find each other, so we have 46 chromosomes. They have to pair, but they don't come with little labels that say, Hello, my name is chromosome one.

Hello, my name is chromosome one. They have to find each other in some amazing way. And lots of those processes could be what are partly responsible for these errors that we see. So studying females is our goal. But it's harder to do because it happens in the embryo. So what we do instead is we study these events in the male first because we can get lots of sperm.

We can get lots of meiotic cells and then we understand the processes there and then we apply it to female. But that raises a lot of issues. So first of all, there are differences between the way male meiosis and female meiosis happens and one is the timing that I just pointed out to you when initially the textbooks used to say, well, meiosis is the same whether you're a boy or a girl.

It's always the same. It's clearly not. There are clearly differences. And so that intrigues me greatly. I'm also intrigued by the idea that if we understood these processes, could we then apply this to things like male contraception? So a lot of what I work on is infertility but I also want to prevent fertility in, in cases where you need to do that.

My goal is to be able to make healthy babies, but to make those babies when you want them, not because of some social norm, or because of some other issue. It's about making babies when you want them to be made and to make healthy ones. So, the flip side of thinking about infertility is to think about contraception.

And so I had an idea many years ago that we could apply our knowledge of meiosis to make a male contraceptive. Because, girls out there, it's about time.

Host: Yes, obviously there are a few choices for women, but it could hinge on a lot of factors, right? So like medical device implantation and then obviously remembering to take pills every day. Like injections.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Absolutely. And the basic thing is, you know, I don't want to stand on my soapbox, I've already pummeled this into my graduate students enough. But, the pill was invented 73 years ago, and we've really had no innovation since then. So the contraceptive pill was liberating to women, and for many decades we were supposed to be eternally thankful for this.

But the truth is that many women can't take this, and many women get dreadfully sick because of the pill. It can cause heart problems, it can cause all sorts of things, and so it's not the drug of choice for many people, and if you think about heart medication or, any other type of medication, you go to the pharmacy and you have many options, it's really sad that in contraception we have still very, very few.

There are barrier methods that are shaky at best, and there's pill, there are spermicides that again, many women can't take. But again, we don't have choice. These things are unhealthy and bad for you in many cases. And it's always, the burden is always on the egg producing partner rather than the sperm producing partner.

And that is not fair. We will never have equality in this world until we can have equity in all of the responsibilities, whether it's family planning, careers, child rearing, you name it. And so this is just, to me, one additional aspect of equity between men and women.

Host: I appreciate that so much, that something so scientific, again, can involve something that is so true to equality for everyone, right? And so I love that. And so I guess my question is, when you talk to people and people find out, what are the most common questions they ask you?

Actually, let me preface that with this. If you're on an airplane and you start talking to someone, do you tell them the truth about what you do? Or are you an accountant? I'm just a plumber, maybe.

Paula Cohen, PhD: No, I, seldom tell people what I do when I meet them. You know, I say I'm a professor of genetics at Cornell and they're usually blown away by that and say, what do you teach? And I, really just teach the vet students. So I usually wax lyrical about how amazing the vet students are, because to get into some of the details can be a little bit scary for people. However, I do have a very large family that like to boast tremendously about what I do which, can be embarrassing because then, you go and meet friends of theirs and they want to know all about it and my family themselves only have the barest understanding of it, so they've said everything wrong. And then I find myself sort of taking over a dinner party and boring everyone silly because I can't stop once I start.

Host: I don't think anybody would be bored. I am completely captivated. And I have to tell you, I totally can understand that even as a veterinarian myself, I think my parents sometimes are like, you do surgery? Is that a thing?

Paula Cohen, PhD: No, it can be tricky. There are lots of social issues around what I do. You know, a lot of what I do has implications for abortion. So there are those things, animal experimentation, there are those issues. We've worked on human fetal tissue. So there are lots of layers. But what I hope that people can do and people do in the US very much is on the whole, Americans really have a fundamental respect and love for science, basic research. And that amazes me. That I noticed that from the very first day I arrived here.

There is just this passion for science and for learning. And so usually you can get over some of these very, very sensitive issues. It doesn't matter who is in government and who is in the White House. The budget for the NIH is always pretty safe. Both sides of the aisle in Congress agree that NIH funding is really important, that federal funding for research is really important.

So, you can move beyond a lot of the more politically sensitive issues and talk about what this means for humanity, understanding these equity issues, for example, understanding why we have such a high rate of birth defects in humans and why it's important to understand that as women think about delaying childbearing, for example.

And then, adapting this to animals. We need to understand how these processes work so we can understand how to help the rhino and, and, those endangered species. This is a really critical component of what we do.

Host: Absolutely. And I saw, and I think that conversation or that answer just really resonates with what I read on your bio that you've worked with all of these institutions, right? The NIH, the March of Dimes, like all of these critical organizations that are helping their own individual causes.

So your research clearly extends into so many facets of life and so many things that are important for others. And so, oh, I'm going to ask you this question and I'm sure you've gotten it before. So, just wondering, why isn't there a male version of like the pill yet? Like what's, what do you think is the barrier here?

Paula Cohen, PhD: Well, there's multiple barriers. There's a social barrier. I mean, I am funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for some of our contraception work. And they've embarked on a massive social science study across the world to find out what user preferences are. And it depends on the country you go to to ask these questions.

Incidentally, in the U. S., when they interview couples, men and women equally say, we don't want him taking the contraceptive. Woman doesn't trust the man and the man doesn't want it. Yeah, there's a health issue. I know it's insane, right? But the man is really worried about his virility and will it affect, you know, his performance?

There's a lot of male machismo that's wrapped up in this. I mean, this is a social issue, we need to get past these sort of stereotypes and past this idea that you'll somehow become less of a man if you take contraceptive. But we also need to address that in what we're looking at what, pathways we're targeting because of course we don't want to make the pill is the hormonal contraceptive that affects women's entire endocrine system and can be catastrophic in many cases.

We don't want to do that to men. We've made that mistake. So if we're thinking about a sensible alternative to the pill for men, what do we want to target? We don't want to change their hormonal profile. We don't want to change their sexual libido or any of this stuff. We want to simply switch sperm production off and then turn it back on and hopefully have no effects on the sperm that result from that. And so that's what I'm looking at is trying to bypass the hormonal approach and just use a non hormonal approach to basically add a little on off switch to meiosis or spermatogenesis, to stop sperm production and then bring it back. So that's the kind of thing we're challenged with is how do you do that without affecting the entire physiological system of the man?

Host: Which is interesting because again, you have the focus of trying not to affect the whole system, but we have this pill and we are by no means saying the pill is bad. It's needed for people who need it, and we totally understand. But that is just the case of something that completely affects the system of the woman.

And you are doing research into trying to make sure that contraception for men do not affect their entire system.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, and to just give choice again. I mean, you go to the supermarket and you have a choice of 28 different laundry detergents. Why don't we have that choice for contraception? There should be many options for people.

Host: Exactly. Absolutely makes sense. And again, there are different types of pills, but again, for some, they're not a good option. And so you're trying to help us expand those choices. So I really appreciate that. I love that. And so, okay, there's so much here that I really want to talk to you about, but I don't want to keep you all day, but we would love to bring you back in the future also, but you are the director of something called CORE. Which brings together Cornell's scientific experts on reproductive health and fertility with the focus on the genetic components we've just been talking about, that lead to healthy sperm development. So can you tell me a little bit about that project and, what work is coming from it?

Paula Cohen, PhD: It really surprises people to know that Cornell has a really, really, really rich history in reproductive biology. I mean, some of the very, very early seminal work on the endocrine basis for puberty and the menstrual cycle or ester cycle in animals was identified and characterized here in Ithaca. We have a huge history in cloning of animals, as you, probably know. There's a very strong emphasis on nutritional health, maternal nutritional health, and the inequities that lie there and that's just the Ithaca campus. If we go to the medical school in New York, the medical school is where the PAP smear was invented.

Host: What? I didn't know that.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Amazing.

There's a method of assisted fertility called ICSI, which stands for intracytoplasmic sperm injection, where they basically take a sperm that's not motile, that's unable to swim, and they inject it into the egg and that assisted reproduction technique is probably the most common one method used for assisted fertility in humans. So that was all invented at Weill Cornell Medicine. So we have a really, really, really strong history in reproductive biology. And we have people, emeritus professors now from the vet school and beyond who have been really important in understanding how eggs develop within the ovary, how the ovary supports the egg development and ovulation.

At every level, we have amazing, amazing research and an amazingly rich research history. So I started the center when I first came as an Assistant Professor, actually, because I wanted the links to the medical school. I felt that it was really important to understand the reproductive issues in animals and humans side by side, because actually that many of the issues are not that dissimilar. And that's not just in egg and sperm production, it could be in pregnancy, it could be in lactation, it could be in any aspect of the reproductive axis. And so I got a group of people together and we were initially focused predominantly on the genetics of infertility. We've expanded that now to include all areas of reproductive sciences.

We're, I'm really, really fascinated by health inequities and the fact that, maternal mortality is higher in the U. S. than in any other quote unquote Western country. And that's really bad. I think that that's something we need to understand and it's usually socioeconomic.

There are many different reasons for it. So I really wanted CORE to, to think about these things as well. We happen to have a lot of sperm and egg biologists, so there's a big focus in that area, but we do have a lot of people working on maternal people medicine. We have an amazing OBGYN department down at the medical school that's becoming more and more involved in what we're doing at the basic science level, but also at the translational level to understand health inequities in women across New York City, which is, very, very ethnically diverse.

So that's really what CORE is doing. I would love us to move into the realm of being a voice for reproductive biology, you know, post Dobbs, post the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. These issues are coming to the fore all the time and rarely do scientists get involved in these discussions.

This is really an important issue. I mean, this is a really key issue if we're going to make big decisions about women's bodies and women's choice, scientists need to weigh in more. So I'd love to see CORE move in that direction a little bit. It's way too much for me to do, but I'm hoping that we'll get together and do it. And I know that our trainee population is really excited about participating in those kinds of debates.

Host: I was just reading, an article, on just collaboration between scientists in different areas. And I know, we spoke about it as far as like your peers and your mentors, but how it truly invigorates a project, again, by bringing in ideas or perspectives, and this was unrelated to veterinary medicine, but it sounds like you've taken that step with CORE is to really include these different things to be really collaborative.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we're really reaching out to non traditional departments that we wouldn't normally target. So, the Department of Psychiatry here. They have a lot of focus on mate selection, sexual selection and wild species. You know, those are things that are neuroendocrine pathways that we need to understand.

And, they have these really cool models to understand these things. Bringing those people here in the sort of interest group, it's really critical to understand where they're going with this. Because there are many sides to reproductive health, women's health, those sorts of things that we need to understand both from the endocrine perspective and just from the normal physiology of women how they adapt to climate change.

There's just so many nuances. And so the more people you talk to about these things, the better, I think.

Host: Yeah. And, and there are people I'm sure that will be listening and political beliefs aside, science and research and data and scientists speaking up and getting involved in this and providing the research will only allow for people to be educated and make the decisions that are best for them. And so I want to make sure we highlight this. This is not about opinions. This is about scientists feeling, hopefully, the freedom to share, how they feel based on what they've studied and allow others to share in that. And so I just.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Absolutely. I think that today's emerging young scientist is much more socially aware, is much more willing to become part of the dialogue. I mean, since we started the Gates funded work on male contraception, I can't tell you how many undergraduates have come to the lab because they're really interested in solving an everyday problem.

They love the idea of getting involved in research, and that's fine, but the fact that this research could help people in some way or could tackle a social issue is really meaningful to them. We have a fantastic undergraduate Olivia Scaparrotti, I've probably said her last name wrong, who's in, ILR and she had never been in a lab before.

She heard me speak and she said, I want to come and work on contraception. I want to understand how you do this. And she's amazing. She's fantastic. She's never done science in her life, but, people want to help and solve problems and I think that basic science can do that now.


Host: moments. And this is for everyone listening. And I don't care if you're in high school, in middle school, in college, in undergrad, at Cornell, not at Cornell. If someone says something that resonates with you, reach out to them. Please let them light a fire to help you follow that passion. I just love that so much. And you never know what they will bring to the field. So, Olivia. Nice job.

Paula Cohen, PhD: She's amazing. All our undergraduates are amazing.

Host: Yes, and all of the undergrads. And so, on a totally separate topic, trying to get the breadth of your amazing work. I know that your work does have some kind of awesome implications for endangered species conservation, and you mentioned the rhino before, but can you talk to me about that a little bit.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Yeah, so, it's really amazing. I mean, given that assisted reproduction in humans is so common now, it surprises people to think that actually we don't know how fertilization happens in every species and

Host: Eighth grade me is floored right now by the way.

Paula Cohen, PhD: We know all this stuff.

Host: Like meiosis, meiosis, right? It's the same.

Paula Cohen, PhD: We really don't understand much about how different species do this. For example, not to get too technical, but, chromosomes find each other in meiosis. They stick together and then they exchange bits of DNA. And that's called crossing over, right? So that process is what gives you your mom's hair and your dad's eyes. And, you know, that's what mixes the traits from your parents to give you a mixture, a good, healthy mixture of both.

And that crossing over process is basically breaking DNA and reforming it. And we know that every mammal finds where to make those breaks in the right place. Because of course, if you make these breaks in your chromosomes, that's actually a silly idea to break your chromosomes and then form them back together. It's quite dangerous, right? Because you're breaking that genetic code that makes you a person.

Host: And depending on it to be put together in a correct way, right?

Paula Cohen, PhD: Exactly, and so you have to make those breaks in just the right place, at just the right frequency, and you have to fix all those breaks. Well, it turns out, bizarrely... Dogs do it a completely different way.

Why do dogs do it a different way? I mean, knowing my dogs, they're very difficult. They want to be different. But dogs do it a completely different way. So actually that's amazing to me. I mean, they do meiosis and they make eggs and sperm and they do all that stuff, but they decide to break their DNA in different places in a completely different mechanism.

And so firstly, understanding this from a perspective of trying to understand the commonalities and the differences in these processes is really important, but that then leads us on to the idea, okay, when we're talking about endangered species, how can that information inform us on how to help make healthy eggs and sperm for a species that may be undergoing really catastrophic downturn in their numbers.

So we're ready when and if we need to intervene with assisted reproduction, we're ready to be able to do these things. You of course probably know that we can freeze eggs and sperm from many organisms. Some don't freeze well, some do freeze well, some fertilize well in a dish, some don't. Those differences, I mean, the more we study these things and find out what the key elements are of these processes, the easier it will become as ecosystems change, as the environment changes.

We're not going to see the end of catastrophic changes in ecosystems for certain animal species and there's going to be extinction events and all sorts of things. So we need to be ready with this information.

Host: I love that. And so, with my stream of consciousness, of course, I thought about saving endangered species and then I thought about species of animals that have gone extinct, unfortunately, and how this relates to them. And then that brought me to a random thought about dinosaurs. And so here I am asking you, Scientist, Associate Vice Provost, I think the listeners would like to know, what is your favorite dinosaur?

Do you have a favorite dinosaur?

Paula Cohen, PhD: I don't have a favorite. I mean, the big guys are always really fun. Rexes and all that stuff. And all the evil plotting ones in Jurassic Park are all really fun. But I kind of like the ones with weird names. Like, the spinosaurus or the ankylosaurus, I mean, just weird names. I mean, someone had real fun coming up with these names and I just don't have a yearning to have a species named after me, but, I just wonder how they came up some names.

So it's the names that I love more than the actual shape of them. And yeah, they're all very cool. But, dinosaur meiosis would be great to study, but I don't know if I'm going to get to do that.

Host: Right. But you know, it's on the list hopefully, and I laugh about some of those names of these scientific names they include celebrity names. It's a very interesting process. I'll say.

Paula Cohen, PhD: It's fantastic, so.

Host: As I mentioned, you're not just a scientist or dinosaur lover. You're also this Associate Vice Provost for Life Sciences for all of Cornell University, which is really incredible. So what is it like, again we talked about women and leadership roles. We talked about STEM. What is it like to be in a leadership position at this university level? I mean, Cornell is quite a big university. So pluses, minuses?

Paula Cohen, PhD: Well, I mean, the plus is when I first came to Cornell as an Assistant Professor, we had very few female deans. Maybe we only had one female dean when I first came, very few female chairs of department. And look at the vet school. We have a large number of female chairs of department. I think, I can't remember the numbers, but we have a huge number of female deans.

And we have a female president, our second. And now I work within the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, who's a new Vice President Kristen Van Vliet. We have three AVPs, myself for Life Sciences, Maria Fitzpatrick for Social Sciences, although she's on, out on sabbatical and Julia Tomlevy for Physical Sciences and Engineering Sciences.

So we have three incredible women, I, that's just,

Host: She had to include herself, yes. Include yourself in that yes. Mm hmm.

Paula Cohen, PhD: It just feels really, really good, and I love that. I love that the education enterprise is often being equal, but the research enterprise is not. And so that makes me really, really, really proud. We're not all the way there yet. Of course, we need more diversity.

We need more leadership in some of our research institutes and centers. But one step at a time. I mean, we have to applaud where we've come to right now. And I just hope it gets better and better. The flip side is you often get the criticism that, oh, well, we don't want this to become women's work.

And I, don't actually know what that means. Setting myself aside Kristen, Julia, Maria, and, Natalie, who's now our, stand in associate vice provost for social sciences. They're all incredibly accomplished women. They don't need to do this job. They just do it because they love the academic adventure.

They love the research endeavor and being involved in that. And they want to make research better on this campus and the other Cornell campuses. So I'm really proud of that. Are we there completely yet? No, we're not, but we're getting there. And I'm really excited to be part of it.

Host: Sure. It will be a journey, but isn't it lovely to be part of an institution that welcomes this challenge and takes these small steps, right? And to look around at these other women sharing in this experience with you and doing good things, how neat is that, right?

Paula Cohen, PhD: It's amazing. It really is amazing.

Host: Oh, I love that so much. Yes. Okay. So before we end our discussion and your first podcast ever, is there a question, one or two questions that you really want to dig into in your future? Like, what do you see for yourself down the line, if anything? I mean, obviously continued work in this area. Is there something you'd love to see to focus on?

Paula Cohen, PhD: I love the innovation in science that we have right now. Things are going so fast, I mean so fast. We used to be able to look at an entire tissue and understand the genomic makeup of that tissue, what made that tissue happen. But now we can go to the cell level and we can understand things at the cellular level, what this cell is doing compared to this cell right next door to it.

I just want to be part of that where we continue to innovate in that area. Cornell is really, really, really good at this. And so I'm really fascinated about getting right into the single cell. If you're looking at egg production, for example, the ovary forms, you have all these eggs, they're all there from birth.

What I forgot to actually add is they all go through the beginning of meiosis in the embryo. And then at birth, women are born with 7 million eggs. And a few weeks after birth, six million of them have died.

Host: Oh my gosh. My mouth is agape.

Paula Cohen, PhD: Why the hell does that happen? What a waste, actually. What a waste of time. We don't understand why. We don't understand. Those are not all the unhealthy eggs. It's not like we just throw out all the bad ones because there's a lot of bad eggs in there. So I want to understand why you get rid of so many. And I want to be able to look at the ovary and say, we can predict which of these eggs will have the wrong number of chromosomes. We can predict which one of these will make a healthy baby. We're nowhere near that position yet. And I want to be able to do that for women who are experiencing infertility. I also want to do it, for transgender individuals, who are desperate to have their own biological children.

What can we do for them? So thinking about this process called in vitro gametogenesis, where you take any cell in the body and you make it into an egg or a sperm. Wouldn't that be amazing to allow everybody to have a biological child if they wanted? And then the flip side is, there are those of us who don't want children, let's create healthy ways to achieve contraception for all individuals so that we can make this happen. It's just more of the same. I know it's boring, but we're so far away from this yet but I can see it. I can see it happening.

Host: Not boring, extremely exciting and talking about innovation and being here at Cornell and being on the forefront of it, I love it so much and I just really appreciate your passion for social justice and equity and allowing the opportunity for families who want to add children, no matter who they are and who don't want to have children, right?

It's respect for everybody's decisions. I just appreciate you so much, Dr. Cohen. You are an absolute gem. This was fantastic. And again, I really appreciate you being a guest on the podcast today.

Paula Cohen, PhD: My pleasure, my pleasure, and good luck, I will be listening in.

Host: Yes! Thank you again, and for everybody listening, I hope this spurred your excitement and passion for all things genomics or fertility or contraceptive, and then you will reach out and you will find your own journey and maybe you will make some of the strides that Dr. Cohen hopes to see in the future.

So thanks everybody for joining us. Have a great day.