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  • Simon de Graaf

My research and why I do it

An interview I did with the School of Life and Environmental Sciences back in April 2019. A little about what I do, why and some career highlights:


1. Can you share with us in the simplest terms what your research is about?

I develop reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, sperm sexing and semen freezing for production animals (mainly sheep) and wildlife. At its most basic level, this means studying how sperm function, interact with the female reproductive tract and ultimately what makes them fertile. My research helps accelerate genetic progress and production efficiency in animal agriculture, while also helping to save endangered wildlife through captive breeding programs.


2. Why sheep?

You could say that sheep reproduction research is in my academic DNA. My supervisors and ‘grand’-supervisors were central figures in the development of all the reproductive technologies the sheep industry utilise today and quite famous in our field. Given that academic lineage it was probably inevitable I would carry on the sheep reproduction legacy!

Aside from my inherited interest in the species, I work with sheep as their reproductive physiology is interesting, they’re quite enthusiastic research participants and they’re genuinely enjoyable to interact with. More broadly, I am passionate about the sheep industry and its people and their contribution to society. I am very lucky to work closely with an industry that has done so much for Australia and has been very welcoming to myself, my students and our research and ideas.

3. Your research has recently ‘gone viral’, in your opinion what part does the media play in creating impact?

The media can assist to grow the impact of research beyond a specific academic discipline to external stakeholders, whether that be industry (for me it is sheep production and animal agriculture) and/or the general public. Research disseminated in scientific papers (even if open access) often only impacts our own discipline, but concurrent reporting in the media can help reach a much broader audience and influence many people who would not normally be aware of the work we do. For me personally, media reporting of my work has facilitated discussions with artificial breeding companies and farmers around the world asking how they can support and/or utilise our research. To summarise, the media has played a major role in dramatically growing external engagement with our research and generated considerable industry and public support for the work we do.

4. Your research has taken you all over the world, do you have a favourite place that you’ve visited?

Difficult to narrow it down to a single place. In Australia, I always enjoy my time in the Western Districts of Victoria. Very friendly farming community, so much interesting history and architecture and some fantastic bakeries! Internationally, I can’t go past the Loire valley in France. We have a collaboration with INRA in Nouzilly that stretches back over 50 years and it is always a pleasure to work with our French colleagues in one of the world’s foremost food and wine regions.

5. What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Two recent things come to mind:

  1. Last year, after around two decades of research, ‘sexed semen’ in sheep was released commercially. Our lab worked for around two decades to develop this technology so that was immensely satisfying.

  2. As a boy, I watched Landline every Sunday on the ABC with my family, religiously. So it was very special to appear on Landline last month (‘Sheep and Science: Merino lambs sired 50 years ago’) alongside my former PhD supervisors and my current staff and students in a story dedicated to the long history (from the 1950s onwards) and achievements of our research group. To share with the world how 60+ years of research revolutionised the sheep industry and set the foundation for modern day human assisted reproduction was an incredible experience. To have my own research featured as a part of that long, storied history was very humbling and probably my overall career highlight so far.



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