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Couples podcast: spark of true love

A spark of true love leads to the spark of new life. Teresa Woodruff and Tom O'Halloran's morning walks on the beach launched an idea that could forever change our understanding of conception.

Photos by Jim Prisching.

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Podcast transcript:

This is Northwestern Now, a podcast through Northwestern University. We’re starting a new series now about couples who work together on campus.

Nationally, more than a third of research university faculty are married to other academics. Of those, 40 percent are married to someone who works in the very same department. Academic couples who work at the same university report being happier at work, so the incentive for universities to hire couples is two-fold – happy employees are proven to be more productive; plus, hiring in pairs makes it easier for universities to attract top candidates.

Over the course of this series, I’m going to put those statements to the test, profiling several couples who work together at Northwestern, doing amazing work and research both as couples and as individuals.

For this first story, I’m going to start at an odd place – right in the middle, talking to Tom O’Halloran from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Teresa Woodruff from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Teresa: I’m Teresa Woodruff. I’m the vice chair for research in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. I run a research lab, as well as I’m the director of the Women’s Health Research Institute, the Center for Reproductive Science and the Oncofertility Consortium

Tom: I’m a professor in the chemistry department and the molecular bioscience department, and I’m the founding director of the Chemistry in Life Processes Institute, as well as the director of the Quantitative Bioelement Imaging Center and the Center for Developmental Therapeutics.

So, very busy people. Alright, instead of starting from the beginning, with how they met and got together, I want to jump 10 years into their marriage, when they were out for a walk together and stumbled on an idea that could forever change our understanding of human conception. This story starts with what Teresa and Tom now call a zinc spark.

Tom: It all came out of this argument about whether there’s anything useful about zinc in the head of the sperm.

You know, the usual things married couples argue about. Anyway, here’s what they mean.

Teresa: We probably have slightly different versions of that story, so I’ll start. I’ll take the prerogative.

They started their day like any other married couple might.

Teresa: On one particular day, Tom was talking about science, as we often did.

A walk on the lake, chatting about their interests, but Tom and Teresa’s interests aren’t your usual fodder for small talk.

Teresa: He mused about zinc levels in sperm.

Sure, why not?

Teresa: I told him I couldn’t care less.

Ouch.

Tom: I was shocked.

Teresa: He was shocked. His lower lip started quivering a little.

Tom: Teresa is a broadly versed scientist. She usually likes all sorts of problems, so it was a surprise there was something she couldn’t care less about.

Well, to say she didn’t care isn’t exactly accurate.

Teresa: The problem was Tom thought it was the zinc I couldn’t care less about, and, really, it was the sperm.

Teresa says sperm is the smallest, simplest cell in the body, and she just doesn’t find it interesting.

Tom: If it’s that small, how significant can it be? Remember, that was really what made my question boring in the first place. I just asked the right question about the wrong cell.

Teresa: When Tom realized it was really the sperm, his lower lip stopped quivering. I said, ‘Well if you can find some reason for zinc to be important in the oocyte, then we could talk.’

Oocytes are part of the female reproductive system. One of Teresa’s passions is finding ways to help cancer survivors, or people who struggle with reproduction, have babies. Teresa is totally uninterested in the sperm zinc at this point, until Tom brings on a grad student researcher named Alison Kim.

Tom: Well, I don’t have something right now on copper, but there is a debate I’m having with a colleague about the role of zinc in sperm and eggs.

That colleague is of course his wife, Teresa. Alison ended up working in both Tom’s and Teresa’s labs, putting zinc probes into the oocyte that Teresa mentioned earlier. The probes glowed under the lens of the microscope, revealing the location of pools of zinc within the oocyte.

Tom: One part of the egg stained very brightly, and other parts didn’t. Teresa and I scratched our heads. We didn’t expect that.

But upon closer inspection, Teresa, biologist and egg expert, realized the parts that lit up weren’t all that impressive.

Teresa: Actually when Tom and Alison came to me and showed it as the ‘aha’ moment, said, ‘See, there really is zinc in the egg,’ I said, ‘Well that’s in the polar body, which really is just the trash compactor for the oocyte. Really, that is irrelevant.’

Tom: It took the wind out of our sails again.

But Tom still wasn’t ready to let it drop.

Tom: So Alison, it took four weeks until she realized that the intensity with which we would defend our positions might have something to do with the fact that we were husband and wife.

Tom was convinced that there was something to this zinc thing, and he was right. Eventually, they witnessed this amazing spark – a reaction that occurs when the sperm fertilizes the eggs. You can actually see it under a microscope.

Teresa: On a personal level, when I first saw the human zinc spark, I just broke down crying.

This discovery will have huge implications for reproductive research. One area it could potentially impact is in vitro fertilization. Right now, there’s no way to know which fertilized eggs are viable. Women will often implant three or four in order to improve the chance that at least one will take. That often leads to high-risk pregnancies with twins or triplets, but with the discovery of the zinc spark, scientists may one day be able to see which eggs are viable, so they only have to implant one.

Tom: If these discoveries of the zinc spark can provide a way that leads to a more optimal selection process, that’s going to eliminate suffering and lead to a healthier population.

Now this zinc spark is a huge focal point in both Tom’s and Teresa’s research, but they both had their own successful careers in science long before they married. For that story, we’re finally going to start at the beginning.

Tom: We met first when Teresa was a graduate student at Northwestern working for Kelly Mayo. We discussed briefly our articles in “Science.” Both of us were hoping to get the cover, but a fish – a fossilized fish – instead appeared.

Yes, they built their bond on a love of science and a type of jealousy of an ancient fish. This was in the 1980s, but Tom and Teresa didn’t get together for another decade. Teresa went to work for another research company after grad school while Tom stayed at Northwestern. Then Teresa came back to the University, no longer a student.

Tom: Our second meeting was in the cancer center, where you were my boss.

Teresa: Right. I had to keep him on his toes, basically. That was my job.

On his toes all the way down the aisle to recite their wedding vows.

Tom: 2004 in July.

Teresa: In my mother’s back yard.

Tom: In Oklahoma.

Teresa: Yes.

One of the things that first attracted them to each other…

Teresa: I think the neat thing about both of us is we’re innately curious about everything. That is the phenotype – the best attribute of a scientist – is being willing to go out and explore.

Intellectual exploration and also geographic.

Teresa: We live in a beautiful home that’s halfway between the medical school and the Evanston campus.

Tom works in Evanston. Teresa is downtown at the medical school.

Teresa: That allows Tom to come north, and I head south every day. We live right along the lake. Every morning we walk out and have a wonderful time, chatting about this or that.

Teresa says on those walks….

Teresa: We talk about three main things. One is the Chicago Cubs.

They’re big fans. They also love the Chicago Symphony, and they love to talk about cooking. Then, of course, there’s work.

Northwestern: Do you ever feel the need to say, ‘We’re not talking about work tonight. It’s off the table’?

Teresa and Tom: Never.

Tom: We never find the need to say that. We might have to say we can’t talk about the Cubs anymore.

Teresa: I think we’ve never ever said that.

Tom: Not about science.

Tom says sometimes they have to make a conscious effort not to talk about office politics, but he says they never stop debating scientific questions. If they had drawn that line, they might never have discovered the zinc spark.

Northwestern: As you said, this entire thing started with a random thought: What if? You have to wonder, if you two weren’t married and exposed to each other’s research so closely, would you ever have had that question to start this in the first place?

Teresa: No. There’s a lot of great discovery out there waiting to happen.

The zinc spark discovery came about in a totally unexpected way. Science is usually very derivative. Researchers form questions and hypotheses based on someone else’s work.

Teresa: This was really a very different path because there was no antecedent. There was no paper about this.

It was just a casual conversation between husband and wife, a musing, what if? They’re coming at it from very different directions – remember biology versus chemistry.

Tom: By having these arguments and thinking across the discipline boundaries, we realize that each other’s disciplines could hold some of the answers to give us a toehold to break into that new space.

Tom and Teresa say working together at Northwestern makes it easier for them to collaborate on these projects, not just because they work under the same research umbrella, but because Northwestern encourages these kinds of multi-discipline working relationships. In Tom’s words, this type of collaboration…

Tom: It’s kind of in the genetic code.

Northwestern administrators would probably agree. After all, they based an entire marketing campaign on this idea of cross-discipline education.

Commercial clip: At Northwestern, “and” is in our DNA.

Northwestern reinforces that branding, right down to the physical structures on campus.

Tom: They built what at that point was one of the largest buildings in the United States.

Talking about Tech, home to all of Northwestern’s sciences.

Tom: That created a space where people were constantly colliding between departments. It’s part of the genetic code, one of the reasons Northwestern has an advantage in that area.

An advantage that for Tom and Teresa crosses boundaries of professional and personal.

Teresa: Advocation and vocation, when they marry, is an important part of happiness. We both love what we do. We love doing it together. It’s a perfect marriage, perfect science, perfect life.

This has been Kayla Stoner with a Northwestern Now podcast.

Thanks to Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Their study provided the numbers we reported at the top of this podcast. Music courtesy Kevin MacLeod and Incompetech.

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