Crystal Roach receives fellowship for research on environmental stressors

December 06, 2021 - by Sarah Igram

Crystal Roach, a doctoral student in Iowa State’s Department of Animal Science, recently received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) predoctoral fellowship through the National Institutes of Health. The award allows Ms. Roach to expand her research into the field of reproductive toxicology examining the impacts of zearalenone, a mycotoxin commonly found on corn and grains in prepubertal gilts.

“When I found out I had received the award, I was thrilled,” Roach said. “It was exciting to know that I secured funding, and it felt reassuring as a scientist of my ideas, my writing, and what I could do.”

Photo of Crystal Roach

Crystal Roach

Mycotoxins, according to the World Health Organization, are toxic compounds produced by certain types of molds. They can grow on numerous foods and can often survive food processing. The mycotoxin zearalenone has been found to cause reproductive issues in people who consume it. Zearalenone mimics estrogen, meaning it affects estrogen receptors and acts as a hormone disruptor.

Increasing temperatures also cause larger amounts of mycotoxins to be present on corn. Although producers use chemicals to eliminate mycotoxins from corn, residue can remain and cause fertility problems for both its male and female consumers.

“My lab looks at different ovarian signaling pathways to see how they’re disrupted with this mycotoxin and heat-inducing stressors,” Roach said. “With climate change increasing and in Iowa, where you consume a lot of corn, it’s important to try to mitigate reproductive effects and reduce the risk of infertility.”

Since corn is one of pigs’ primary source of food, they are at risk of zearalenone-induced infertility as well. Roach uses a pig model to conduct her research, something more scientists are beginning to do because of pigs’ physiological similarities to humans. Roach’s findings may be useful to agricultural companies looking to moderate pigs’ dosages of zearalenone.

After researching the NRSA predoctoral fellowship, Roach decided to apply. She spent roughly a month writing out the specific aim of her research and consulting with a grants coordinator. Roach’s major professor, animal science professor Aileen Keating, was also helpful throughout the application process.

“Applying for the grant was complicated, but worth it. I would advise anyone applying for a grant to start early, create a plan of action, do a little at a time, and try to get it done a month early in case something happens,” Roach said. “Get advice from your advisor and have them look at it, or have your peers look over it. Everyone has a different writing style, and other people can see things differently than what you see, so you might be missing something in your own writing.”

Now that Roach has secured funding from the National Institutes of Health, her next steps are to collect data and learn more about climate change’s impact on ovarian responses to zearalenone.

“I came to Iowa State because I am passionate about reproductive physiology, women’s health, and infertility, and Aileen Keating is one of the top scientists trained in reproductive toxicology,” Roach said. “Through my research, I get to bring animal science, the physiology of reproduction, toxicology, and human health all together. You can’t get that type of experience elsewhere.”

Tags: animal science, academic awards