Laporta a ‘rising star’ in department

By Jim Massey, Freelance writer 

Jimena Laporta first came to Madison in 2010 as part of a study abroad program while she was a master student in her home country of Uruguay. 

Dr. Jimena Laporta

She came back again six months later to work on a Ph.D. in lactation biology, and in 2020, she came to stay when she was recruited into the UW–Madison’s Animal and Dairy Sciences Department as part of the Target of Opportunity Program, a program aimed at helping departments diversify their faculty.  

“There is something about Madison,” Laporta says about settling in at a career at the UW. “The coincidental part is that when I came for the first time in 2010 as an international student, I worked in a lab on the sixth floor of the Dairy Science Department. And now, that’s my own lab space. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it.” 

Laporta was promoted to associate professor with tenure in December, and about that same time, was nominated by Animal and Dairy Sciences Department Chairman Kent Weigel for and selected to receive the Vilas Associates Award. The Vilas Associates competition recognizes “new and ongoing research of the highest quality and significance.”

“Dr. Laporta is a rising star in the fields of lactation biology and stress physiology,” Weigel says. “Her work on the impact of heat stress during late gestation on the health and performance of dairy replacement heifers is groundbreaking, and it is undoubtedly just one of many important scientific contributions she will make during her career.”

At the UW, Laporta has established a well-funded research program focusing on three primary areas: mammary gland development and lactation; fetal programming; and heat stress physiology of dairy cattle. Her work focuses on studying the effects of environmental heat stress on mammary gland development and function and how early-life experiences affect the developing offspring.

Laporta started her professional career with a tenure-track position in lactation physiology at the University of Florida. She says her five years on staff in Florida – which she describes as the “epicenter of heat stress” – were instrumental in piquing her interest in heat stress biology. 

Heat stress is generally not the first thing that people think of when they think of dairying in Wisconsin, but Laporta says while the hot summer season isn’t as long as it is in the southern U.S., animals are still impacted by the heat and humidity here.

“In Florida, cows are under heat stress 24-7 for a longer period of the year, but in Wisconsin, cows are under heat stress at least 13 hours a day during the summer,” she says. “There are a lot of cows here, so the research we’re doing is impactful.”

Laporta expects the research will be even more important in the future as the climate continues to warm in the Midwest. 

She has conducted her research not only on lactating cow but also on dry cows and calves, which are not always considered a priority for heat stress research and heat abatement. 

The younger members of the herd are the future milk producers, she says, so her work is aimed at convincing farmers that the younger animals also need cooling.

“We know that the better the animals do during their early-life moments, the better the cow is going to perform later in life,” she says. “We are trying to find heat stress benchmarks for calves and dry cows to know when we should intervene, and developing new startegies to effectively intervene. I think it’s important to start thinking about how to detect and prevent heat stress in all cattle in the heard.”

Her research focuses on the transgenerational effects of heat stress on cows, including cows she brought from Florida to Wisconsin as part of her research program. She has recorded data from first-, second- and third-generation cows, showing that when the fetus is developing in the mother, heat stress can have long-term effects later in life and those effects can be transmitted to the next generation.

“These are ‘hidden effects’ of early-life heat stress that manifest years down the road,” she says.

Three graduate students also followed her from Florida to Madison to continue their studies.

“I moved my family, my entire lab and even cattle across the country to come here,” she says. “It was scary at the time. The fact that the grad students followed me meant a lot.

“It takes funding and it’s expensive to maintain those cows for years and years. The money allocated as part of this Vilas award will help keep this project going. It’s very meaningful in that sense to be able to continue this work.”

Laporta isn’t sure why she was selected for the Vilas award, but believes it could be because of her multi-faceted research and her early-career productivity. She has produced 76 peer-reviewed publications in leading journals to date, including 32 since joining UW–Madison in the fall of 2020.

“I’m really very grateful for this award,” she says. “It is very humbling to me and it inspires me to continue doing what you do but with even more passion and dedication.”

Laporta, 39, says her career path “was not really a straight line.” She didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to be a scientist and a researcher.’ Her career choices evolved over time.

At one point she thought she might be a veterinarian, then a doctor, and then it was a forensic investigator. But as she got older she realized she loved science, so she went to college to pursue a major in biology.

After earning her undergraduate degree Laporta says although she knew a lot, “I felt I didn’t know anything.” She had a desire to continue learning. 

She started working with sheep and then beef cattle before she became intrigued about how dairy cows continue to produce milk, year after year. 

“I enjoyed everything about control studies, data, pursuing my own ideas, collaborative work, the scientific community, and asking questions and solving problems,” she says. “Mentors encouraged me along the way. That’s what I’m trying to do now with my students when they are asking all these questions of what I should do. I try to go back and think of where I was 15 years ago.”

Laporta notes that when she was recruited to come to UW–Madison, she came with her husband of 10 years, Francisco Peñagaricano, who is now also a professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. Peñagaricano came to the department as a “spousal hire,” Laporta kids she reminds him of sometimes.

Peñagaricano is now heading up a multi-state research program on ways to reduce methane emissions in dairy cattle. He received his master’s and doctorate degrees from UW–Madison.

“It was really a great opportunity for us to come back to our alma mater,” she says of taking positions at the UW. “I feel we’re adding our footprint to the dairy industry of Wisconsin. It was a great move for us.”

Laporta and Peñagaricano live in Middleton with their two sons, Lucas, 7, and Pablo, 5. Besides spending time at their childrens’ sporting events, Laporta says she has developed an interest in baking bread.

“I’m enjoying it very much,” she says. “That’s my current hobby.”