Focus on the Future is a series that seeks to highlight the early career scientists who conduct research at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Learn about our undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral fellows and the conservation research they are supporting through first-hand accounts and stories.
Endangered species are why I get out of bed in the morning.
I am originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was born and raised there. It’s a blue-collar industrial town. Fortunately for me, Pittsburgh is also home to the National Aviary and the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. Growing up, I did not have many female mentors in STEM. I didn’t know many scientists either, except for my granddad. When I was in early high school, I had the opportunity to do an apprenticeship with the National Aviary. That was how I got my start in conservation. I learned about the conservation and care of endangered species and went on to intern and eventually work at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. The zookeepers I worked with there were some of the first role models I had as women in STEM. Many of these women were conservationists who were also doing fieldwork. Their enthusiasm for conservation was infectious.
I went to Kent State University in Ohio for my undergraduate degree, where I studied molecular/cellular biology. At that time, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. After college, I worked at an equine hospital as an emergency operating room veterinary technician and regenerative medicine laboratory technician. There I fell in love with clinical research. Later, I went to Colorado State University to get my Professional Science Master’s degree in Zoo, Aquarium and Animal Shelter Management. At CSU, my advisor introduced me to an organization called the Southeast Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC). They are reproductive physiologists who work on endangered animals throughout the United States. I did my master’s research on endangered species reproduction with SEZARC, and fell completely in love with endangered species reproductive physiology. Through SEZARC, I eventually met Budhan Pukazhenthi, Ph.D. of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival. Now, I am finishing my Ph.D. through the Environmental Science and Public Policy Program of George Mason University. Pukazhenthi is one of my advisors, along with Emanuel Petricoin, Ph.D. at the George Mason University’s School of Systems Biology at the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.