Interview With a Reproductive Biologist: A Closer Look at the Life and Work of Dr. Anne Croy
Dr. Anne Croy is a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University. She also holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Reproduction, Development, and Sexual Function, which is reflective of the outstanding contributions she has made to the field of reproductive biology. While her current research interests lie with conditions that affect human pregnancy, such as preeclampsia, she boasts a long career of research in immunology as well. Currently, Dr. Croy is hanging up her lab coat as she bids farewell to over 30 years in research and heads into retirement.
Can you tell me a little bit about your education and background?
I did pretty well in the sciences [in] high school, and I decided I was going to be a veterinarian. That was well before there were any women in the veterinary profession. I was told to go to Guelph to see what this was all about, and I fell in love with it. At that time, two big public research programs were going on. One was the first chimp in space, while the other was the polio vaccine development with [Jonas] Salk. Veterinarians held the primates in these news reports, and this made me want to be a vaccine development person doing human-oriented research.
What led you to pursuing a career in the field of reproductive biology?
I actually started in vaccine immunology. When I started my career, people were just beginning to do cell culture, and looking at how cells interacted in immune reactions. I worked at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, and I was the first woman in the department of biomedical sciences, as well as the first woman to get a PhD in that department- things you don’t think of at that time as being special. My PhD question was looking to see if Nude mice with no thymus had an impaired immune response.1 I didn’t get interested in reproduction until later on, when I met a developmental biologist at Brock University. It was in her lab that I got interested in pregnancy research.
What has been the most exciting finding of your career thus far?
The first time we were working with Nude mice, and trying to reconstitute cell cultures, we looked at their immune responses. That was actually around the time IL-2 was discovered.2 It was cool to be at the cutting edge when people were discovering it! Another time was the first time I renewed a grant. At the time, there was interest in immune deficient mice that had no T and B cells. They had just been described and you could put [elements of] a human immune system in them. I wrote the grant saying that [actually] any animal can be grafted into this mouse and give a model.3 When that grant came in with exactly the funding I asked for, with no cuts, that was huge.
What recent projects have you been working on?
For the last while, I have been interested in the disease preeclampsia(PE).4 We think the NK cells in the uterus are very much involved in the blood vessel building that helps support the pregnancy.5 Children who were fetuses during PE pregnancies actually have 4x more stroke than people from normal pregnancies. So we got interested in the blood vessels in the brain, and we started working in mice. Most people don’t hypothesize that a vascular problem could underlie a brain anatomical problem. Another recent project was looking at a model for Salmonella infection in pregnant women.
What challenges have you had to face over the course of your long career in research?
I commuted over 1000 km a week for the first 6 years, from St. Catherine’s, where I lived with my family, to Guelph, where I worked. Then, I was teaching veterinarian students for 21 hours a week, in addition to 6 hours in the lab, twice a week. That was all physically demanding. The students were wonderful though, and I helped change the anatomy program there. These were fun challenges, not non-surmountable ones. Another minor stress has been travelling a lot. I used to make about 15 trips a year, to places like Brazil, China, and Japan. These trips are tiring! But when you get there, they’re wonderful.
What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your career?
Working with grad students, and undergrad students. I’ve been very fortunate not to have very big class sizes, and when teaching fourth year classes and veterinarian students, you really got to know people. The interaction with people has been the most fun.
What advice would you have for prospective scientists looking to pursue a career in research?
Be sure to pick something that interests you. It has to be something that engages you, because nobody can motivate you but you. Keep an open mind. Just be curious. Participating and being involved in organizations is also good. Science is a community, and you build on the work of other people! For younger people starting out, try to find a really good mentor. You want someone sympathetic to you, not someone who is so involved with their own work that they don’t have time to coach you.
1 Nude mice: a laboratory mouse strain with a genetic mutation that causes a damaged or absent thymus, resulting in an impaired immune system, due to a drastic reduction in T cells (which the thymus produces).
2 IL-2: a signalling molecule in the immune system which helps to regulate the activities of white blood cells, which help confer immunity.
3 This refers to the ability to place elements of one species’ immune system into another, and be able to observe an immune reaction in the recipient organism.
4 Preeclampsia(PE): is a condition which pregnant women can acquire, which can involve maternal hypertension, renal damage, and other harmful symptoms which can affect both the mother and the fetus.
5 NK cells: Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that can bind to virally-infected and tumour cells and independently cause cell death. In pregnancy, the action of these cells helps to remodel blood vessels that service the maternal-fetal interface. Without the action of these cells, vessels are too narrow, which causes an array of complications, such as PE.