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 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral fellows and the conservation research they are supporting through first-hand accounts and stories.
Featured photos provided by Juliana Vélez Gómez.
I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, where I explored the stunning biodiversity and captivating landscapes of my homeland. However, I also saw conservation challenges associated with resource extraction, which motivated me to pursue a career in conservation biology. I studied biology as an undergrad and did my master’s in biology, primarily studying lowland tapirs, which were also one of the focal species of my doctoral research in conservation sciences.
When the Fulbright scholarship that sponsored part of my Ph.D. ended in 2021, my advisor at the University of Minnesota, John Fieberg, encouraged me to apply for a pre-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. During this fellowship, I finished the first chapter of my dissertation, in which I evaluated the use of artificial intelligence tools for processing camera trap data, and I analyzed the data I had collected in multifunctional landscapes in the Colombian Orinoquía Region. I was interested in understanding interactions among wildlife and domestic animals and other forms of anthropogenic disturbance. When cattle roam freely in the forest in search of water and forage, they often degrade the understory and habitat for wildlife. At the same time, the cattle would get stuck in the mud within the forest and die trying to get out. It was a lose-lose situation for both wildlife and ranchers, and I realized there was an opportunity to help improve management in these systems to sustain both conservation and economic objectives.