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Benson Akingbemi

Associate professor of anatomy
College of Veterinary Medicine

Benson Akingbemi is an associate professor of anatomy in the College of Veterinary Medicine. He received his initial education in Nigeria where he earned his doctor of veterinary medicine in 1980, master of science in 1988 and doctorate in1997 from the University of Ibadan. With a research fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Akingbemi came to the U.S. in 1997 for postdoctoral training, studying environmental toxicology at Rockefeller University in New York. His work focuses on chemicals in the environment and their effects on public health, particularly, male reproduction.

1. You are originally from Nigeria; what brought you to the United States and ultimately to Auburn University?

I had all of my initial education in Nigeria. After teaching in a number of universities in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, I began to explore opportunities for professional development. I was fortunate to receive an international research fellowship from the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center which led me to the Population Council's Center for Biomedical Research at Rockefeller University. At the end of my two-year postdoctoral fellowship stint, I extended my stay in New York for another five years and left to join Auburn in 2004.

2. What can you tell us about your research in reproductive toxicology?

In the last 15 to 20 years, the public and the government have become interested in the possibility that chemicals in the environment may impair public health. Most people will remember issues with asbestos and lead. More than 10,000 chemicals have now been identified to be in our environment. Due to a combination of factors that no one has been able to adequately explain, several chemicals of concern behave in the body like the female hormone estrogen. Both the male and female sexes have the estrogen hormone in their bodies, but females have much more and are able to cope with subtle changes in the levels of this hormone. In contrast, males are especially sensitive to slight changes in their estrogen levels.

Thus far, my research has focused mostly on the effects of environmental estrogens on male reproduction. I had worked on the chemicals bisphenol A, or BPA, and phthalates prior to coming to Auburn. These chemicals are found in several consumer products. Although the BPA compound continues to generate arguments both for and against its capacity to cause biological effects, results from our studies have consistently shown that BPA does in fact adversely affect testis development in the rat model. Most people will agree there is some similarity in reproductive physiology among mammalian species. Here at Auburn, I have initiated studies into the toxicity of soy-based diets because soybeans are increasingly forming a greater portion of the diet of the population.

3. What led you to study male reproductive biology and environmental toxicology?

My major professor at the master's and doctorate degree levels was a reproductive biologist. After I earned my master's degree, we wanted to move into the area of toxicology. Just about that time, there was much interest in China about developing gossypol into a male contraceptive. Gossypol was derived from cotton seeds and therefore cheaply available to the population. To join in the action, we decided to look into aspects of gossypol toxicity. As it turned out, and in spite of reaching clinical trials in China, a number of side effects were identified, most notably hypokalemia in men. The finding of hypokalemia, which is a lower-than-normal amount of potassium in the blood and not good for heart function, discouraged the pursuit of gossypol as a contraceptive. However, my studies of gossypol got me interested in the general area of reproductive toxicology and later in environmental estrogens, which was an emerging field at the time I was contemplating coming to the U.S.

4. What classes do you teach in the College of Veterinary Medicine?

I am part of the team that teaches freshman gross anatomy. The freshman class spends a great deal of time learning how different tissues form the building blocks of organs and how organs are integrated to help the body function as a whole. It is amazing to see the transformation that students are able to make in just one, albeit intensive, semester. I also take part in teaching graduate-level courses in reproductive endocrinology and physiology, toxicology and molecular endocrinology.

5. What is your favorite thing about working at Auburn?

Having trained initially as a veterinarian and having taught previously at two veterinary schools in Africa, I was excited about an opportunity to work in the professional environment that is prevalent at the veterinary college. We had lived in New York for seven years prior to coming to Auburn. As you can imagine, living in Auburn is a sharp contrast to life in New York City. Getting around here is a lot easier; I am not anxious about leaving work in order to get home early enough to be ready for work on the following day. And the weather is a huge bargain. In contrast to the one really cold month in Auburn, the winter is four-to-five months long in New York! I miss the go-for-it attitude of New Yorkers, though.

Sept. 19, 2011