The very beginnings of life fascinate NDSU animal scientist Kim Vonnahme.
Raised in west central Iowa, where her family ran a feedlot operation, the associate professor of animal sciences has become a recognized expert in understanding how animals grow and develop. Her leading research focuses on the reproductive physiology of beef cattle, dairy cows, sheep and pigs.
“I do a lot of work with nutrition and pregnancy,” Vonnahme explained. “Many faculty members here at NDSU’s animal sciences department are very interested in what moms eat and how that impacts the babies. We know an animal’s growth trajectory and their ability to thrive begin very, very early.”
Vonnahme’s most recent research uses Doppler ultrasonography to study the placenta, an organ that connects the developing fetus to the uterine wall of the mother. The technology uses reflected sound waves to measure blood flow and supply.
“The placenta, to me, is the most beautiful organ because it’s a baby’s lungs and stomach. It supplies oxygen and nutrients while it takes away waste. It is the conduit between mom and baby,” said Vonnahme, who is a former co-director of the NDSU Center for Nutrition and Pregnancy. “In sheep and cattle, we’re studying how a mom’s diet affects that blood flow. We want to know how we can set up a healthy placenta earlier.”
According to Vonnahme, researchers know a great deal about nutritional needs for agriculture animals, such as how much amino acid or fat content is necessary in the diet. But, there is always more to learn.
“In the livestock industry, we want the females to be highly reproductive. On the other side of things, are we creating a healthy product? Our livestock animals can spend anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of their lives inside the uterus, so it’s really important to feed them well before they hit the ground,” said Vonnahme, who earned her bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University, master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and doctorate in reproductive biology at the University of Wyoming.
Vonnahme joined NDSU in a post-doctoral position during 2003 and became a faculty member one year later. Her vita lists 98 peer-reviewed publications, 191 abstracts, 54 proceedings, two book chapters and one patent.
In 2008, she received the Earl and Dorothy Foster Excellence of Teaching Award from the NDSU College of Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources. The American Society of Animal Science recognized Vonnahme in 2011 with the Early Career Achievement Award.
She also is a member of Gravida, an international research network of research scientists concentrating on the biology of growth and development. She plans a trip to New Zealand next year to work with colleagues in the organization.
When Vonnahme was an undergraduate student, taking part in a research project sparked her interest to go on to graduate school. Because of that personal impactful experience, she likes to get undergraduates involved in her research activities.
“There are things I get to see routinely that the undergraduates are just discovering for the first time. That is so special to see — and that is why I don’t think I will ever get tired of teaching,” Vonnahme said. “My graduate students are amazing, too. They come from all walks of life, but have one similar goal — to learn more about reproductive physiology. For those who want to do Extension work, I pair them with one of our Extension agents; and for those who want a career in research, they get opportunities to develop new technologies and design new projects.”
Vonnahme’s research, while technical in nature, has many practical applications and she is a regular speaker at meetings of regional livestock producers, where she often discusses what supplements can help animal pregnancies at risk. Her comments are especially requested in times of drought or when there isn’t much forage on the rangeland.
“My hope is to help and influence animal agriculture,” she said. “The North Dakota economy depends on animal agriculture and we’re working on improving sustainability by enhancing reproduction.”
Another factor suggests her research may have an even broader impact in the years ahead.
“There is a parallel world where a lot of this research can be applied to human health,” Vonnahme said. “Sometimes our animal models, especially research in sheep, are or can be used in human medicine.”
Vonnahme’s research is funded, in part, through Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grants numbers 2005-35206-15281, 2009-65203-05812 and 2009-35206-05276 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well as National Science Foundation grant HRD-0811239 to the NDSU Advance FORWARD program.