This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Women’s History Month, WCS and Nature are bringing you seven stories of women in the fields of nature and conservation.
When I think about my identity as a woman in conservation, I feel fortunate to count myself part of a community of such intelligent, hard-working, inspiring people. My aspirations to work in this field have frequently felt more theoretical than achievable. It is due to the support of my mentors and colleagues throughout the years that I have found myself working in my dream career.
While my career path has never felt straightforward, one constant motivation has guided me: a deep love for animals and the natural world they inhabit. Growing up in upstate New York, I spent most weekends of my formative years alternately caring for and riding horses, or hiking and camping in the wilderness of our beautiful state parks.
When applying to college, I eagerly heeded the advice of career day pamphlets to animal lovers and set out to Cornell University to become a veterinarian, only to discover through a summer internship that treating sick or injured animals was unlikely to be a sustainable daily mission for me.
Fortunately, my course was corrected relatively quickly when I took an introductory animal reproduction class and was immediately captivated by all aspects of animal reproduction, from environmental influences to behavior to endocrinology and physiology.
In my first research lab, run by Dr. John Parks, I learned the fundamentals of lab science through my work to improve media used in cryopreserving bovine sperm for artificial insemination. Most importantly, through his connection to the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Dr. Parks introduced me to what immediately became my ultimate career goal: using reproduction science techniques to conserve wildlife.
After graduation, I obtained a summer fellowship at the Institute, where I continued to learn about molecular and cellular reproductive technologies under the guidance and mentorship of Dr. Barbara Durrant. Dr. Durrant helped me realize during this fellowship that I wanted to become a leader in my field. I began to focus my research interests as I searched for a lab in which to pursue my PhD.
The possibilities seemed endless, but I sought advice and opportunities everywhere I could and followed the research themes that most sparked my curiosity. Gravitating toward endocrinology after an internship at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I finally found my graduate research home in Dr. Greg Demas’s lab at Indiana University.
The Demas Lab focuses on the neuroendocrine mechanisms regulating interactions between organisms and their environment, which was the perfect context for me to study how animals manage successful reproduction in a dynamic world. I eventually completed my dissertation on seasonal reproduction in Siberian hamsters.
Through this academically-focused journey, I never lost sight of my original motivation to apply scientific thinking and techniques to conserving wildlife. After graduating, I was intent on finding a path back to conducting research in a zoo setting, but I was apprehensive about my prospects.
As my cohort of fellow graduates braved the increasingly competitive academic job market or got progressively more creative in applying their skill sets to other endeavors, I worried about where I would end up. Through what I can only explain as serendipity, I found my way to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Central Park Zoo to begin developing a career I had once only dreamt of.
In my work at CPZ, first as an Aviculture Associate and now as a Curatorial Science Fellow, I continue to find daily inspiration in the animals and in my (all-female) team, led by Curator Susan Cardillo. Although I had to quickly make the physical and mental transition from lab research, I fell in love with the work involved in managing and caring for zoo animal populations.
Whether I am thinking of ways to evaluate and improve artificial egg incubation, observing snow leopard behavior during an introduction of a male and female for breeding, or participating in logistics planning to ensure safe transport when an animal is scheduled to be moved to another zoo as part of a conservation program, I couldn’t be more grateful for all of the opportunities I have to learn every day.
I move ahead with the goal of continuing to support wildlife conservation with science. With my background in reproduction science and a newfound interest in the myriad additional aspects of zoo animal management, I hope to become part of the leadership community striving to apply evidence-based decision-making to our efforts.
I also continuously look to pay forward the mentorship opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have over the years. Each summer I enjoy working with research students as they explore the possibilities of careers working with animals. I hope to instill in them the same passion and curiosity my mentors inspired in me.