New faculty profile: Sofia Ortega explores cattle fertility

By Jim Massey, Freelancer for UW-Madison Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences ( or (608) 574-8011 )

Dr. Sofia Ortega, Assistant Professor of Reproductive Physiology

Sofia Ortega joined UW-Madison’s faculty in August of 2022 as an assistant professor of reproductive physiology in the Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences. Funding for the position comes from the Target of Opportunity program, which enables academic departments to hire exceptional faculty members who would greatly enhance the diversity of the department.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I’m originally from Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, and I grew up there.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous positions?
I earned a bachelor of agricultural sciences degree at Zamorano Agricultural University, a private agriculture-dedicated university 30 minutes from Tegucigalpa. After that I worked for five years in Honduras managing the Honduran National Cattlemen Cooperative, a bovine reproduction laboratory. I then completed a master’s program in animal sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile before moving to Florida, where I earned a Ph.D. in animal molecular and cellular biology. Next, I did my postdoctoral training at the University of Missouri, working on reproductive biology and genomics. After my postdoctoral training, I joined the faculty as an assistant professor of reproductive physiology at the University of Missouri Division of Animal Sciences, and was in that position for 3-1/2 years before coming to Madison.

How did you get into your field of research?
Surprisingly, I never worked with cattle before going to Zamorano, but I always knew I wanted to work with animals. As an undergraduate, I started to get interested in reproductive physiology while I was in the animal physiology undergraduate course. I find the complexity of the reproductive process to be fascinating. Moving further in my training, I focused more on understanding how genes control reproductive function, and again, I was very intrigued by the topic, so I continued to seek training in that area.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My research tries to understand how the genetics of the sire and dam influence the early stages of the pregnancy, which are very susceptible to failure, and are one of the causes of economic loss on dairy and beef farms. We use novel genomic approaches, including gene editing, to investigate the effect of reproduction-related genes on development and physiology. The long-term goal of my program is to identify key variants and mechanisms associated with pregnancy establishment and use that information to improve reproduction and genetic selection for fertility in cattle.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
UW-Madison is one of the best universities in the country, with a great Animal & Dairy Sciences Department with a lot of expertise and potential for collaboration. The dairy industry, where most of my research is focused, is strong and vibrant here, and genetic companies, which are key collaborators of my program, are also in Madison. So it was a great fit for my current and future research endeavors.

What was your first visit to campus like?
On a February day, everything was white. Nevertheless, it was a great visit. The people were welcoming, and the campus and facilities were impressive.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
Everything is connected, at the cellular, tissue and organism level, and understanding this has a direct impact on animal well-being and productivity. This applies to humans, too. So it is important to know the basics to understand the bigger picture and be able to connect the dots.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
My Twitter handle is msofia2009.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I love to spend time with my two dogs, Cooper and SNP (pronounced Snip), and travel when possible, as I think exposure to different cultures enriches your views on everything. I also enjoy taking on some DIY projects around my house.

What can you tell us about your family?
I’m the only one in my family working in this field. My household has a diversity of professions including special education, law, computer science, and me, talking about cows. I would say we have very interesting Sunday conversations. All my family is back in Honduras, so even when I don’t get to see them as often as I would like, they are very supportive of my career. My maternal grandmother has been a great influence in my life. She always motivated me to improve myself and said, “Having the courage to try is halfway to achieving things.” I think that always stuck with me and I remember those words every time I embark on new challenges or opportunities.