First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Journal of Cell Science, helping early-career researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Ferheen Abbasi is co-first author on ‘RSPH6A is required for sperm flagellum formation and male fertility in mice’, published in Journal of Cell Science. Ferheen conducted the research in this article while an MSc student in the lab of Dr Masahito Ikawa at Osaka University, Japan. She is now enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley Post-Baccalaureate Health Professions Program, hoping to continue investigating reproductive biology, male and female fertility, and working towards finding new forms of contraception.
How would you explain the main findings of your paper in lay terms?
In order to fertilize the oocyte, spermatozoa have strong tails that help them swim up the female reproductive tract. These tails, or flagella, are present in many different kinds of organisms. There are many proteins that make up this tail, including the radial spoke proteins. This radial spoke is thought to help relay messages to the microtubules that make up the flagella. We found that if a radial spoke protein called RSPH6A is absent, male mice are no longer able to have offspring due to sperm flagella truncation and immobility. We also found that the flagellar components can start elongating but then stop before accessory parts can form. So we concluded that RSPH6A is essential for sperm tail formation and fertility in male mice.
Were there any specific challenges associated with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
Immunofluorescence staining, especially staining of the manchette, is incredibly tedious and difficult. It is hard to get beautiful images since there are few knockout (KO) spermatozoa at specific stages of interest. Thankfully, my co-authors dedicated their time and effort to making as many slides as they could until we could get enough phenomenal images to analyze.
When doing the research, did you have a particular result or ‘eureka’ moment that has stuck with you?
When we were looking at the ultrastructure of Rsph6a KO mice, we found extremely disorganized axoneme structures and I was so excited that I ran out of the electron microscopy room back to the lab to tell my co-author the good news. There are other radial spoke head proteins that have disorganized axonemes when mutated (even in humans!) so it was really exciting to see that this gene has a similar phenotype.
Why did you choose Journal of Cell Science for your paper?
I really appreciate Journal of Cell Science's commitment to excellence. Many of my lab's papers have been published in JCS.
Have you had any significant mentors who have helped you beyond supervision in the lab?
My co-first author Haru was also my mentor and he was really instrumental in supporting me throughout my research journey. If I ever needed extra help, he would be there for me no matter what, even at 1:00 am. I am so grateful for all that he has done for me!
“I wouldn't have been able to pursue my degree if it weren't for all of the mentors in my life pushing me to strive for greatness”
What motivated you to pursue a career in science, and what have been the most interesting moments on the path that led you to where you are now?
I have been fascinated with female reproductive biology ever since I began learning about the menstrual cycle and hormonal controls. Learning about fertility has strengthened my desire to further the reproductive field in the hope of finding new modes of contraception for women. I wouldn't have been able to pursue my degree if it weren't for all of the mentors in my life pushing me to strive for greatness and the Japanese Government MEXT Scholarship that funded my studies at Osaka University.
Who are your role models in science? Why?
My role models are all of the women who have stood up against the patriarchal society of science. It is so difficult to be a woman trying to pursue a career in research. Women like Prof. Doudna at UC Berkeley, my college graduate student instructor Emilia, Rosalind Franklin, the women of NASA, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and more, inspire me to fight harder for myself and my fellow sisters.
What's next for you?
After finishing my master's degree at Osaka University, I have returned to UC Berkeley to pursue my dream of becoming a gynecologist. I would love to go into clinical medicine and research women's reproductive health, especially new forms of non-hormonal menstrual controls and contraception.
Tell us something interesting about yourself that wouldn't be on your CV
I have been learning Japanese for 12 years now, which is why it was a dream come true to be able to combine both of my passions – biology and Japanese – into one! That, and giving back to my community through volunteering is an extremely important part of my life. From hospitals to libraries to animal shelters, I want to help better my community through service. When I'm not studying or holding a pipette, I'm probably volunteering!
Ferheen Abbasi's contact details: Research Institute for Microbial Diseases, Osaka University, Suita, Osaka 565-0871, Japan.