My Experiences as a Scientist at the National Zoo


Currently, I am a research geneticist at the Molecular Genetics Laboratory, a research group directed by Robert Fleischer within the Department of Conservation Biology at the National Zoological Park (NZP). The lab is dedicated to molecular genetic studies in evolution and animal behavior including population genetics, behavioral ecology, and systematics. A sizable portion of our research is directly applicable to concerns of conservation biology, and most of our basic research is relevant to endangered species or biodiversity issues.

My broad interests lie in the evolutionary biology and population genetics of mammals, using genetic techniques in conservation biology. I am interested in studying the genetic basis of adaptation and its importance in the process of speciation in mammals. I am working on research projects dealing with conservation genetics, systematics, and the evolution and genetic diversity of a variety of mammals.

One project involves the study of population sizes in the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. I am also presently working on projects dealing with conservation genetics of different endangered species in Latin America, including South American Pampas deer, California sea lions, and a species of Mexican bat (Myotis planiceps) that until recently was thought to be extinct and is now listed as critically endangered.

Zoo vs. University

The research department of the NZP was the first to be established in a North American zoo. Expertise in the Department of Conservation Biology covers an unusual breadth of disciplines that are highly relevant to preserving Earth's biological diversity. Our programs are national and international in scope and include collaborative, multidisciplinary research and conservation efforts at long-term field sites; state-of-the-art laboratories that develop innovative methods in molecular genetics and nutrition; and sustained efforts to assess and mitigate the consequences of small population size for animals in both zoo and natural systems.

As researchers at the NZP, we have the advantage of the zoo's public image in conveying the need and process of scientific research and integrated conservation and environmental issues to its visiting public and Internet visitors. We are able to integrate field, captive, and laboratory research and, as part of the Smithsonian Institution community (one of the largest collections of biologists in the world), we have a diversity of expertise among our staff. We are able to effect real change because of our location in the nation's capital, which arguably has the greatest level of environmental policy-making in the world. We can reach out with a general message about the importance of science in protecting our heritage of biological diversity, as well as effectively communicate our specific research results and conservation efforts to an interested public visiting the National Zoo and its Web site.

How We Measure Our Performance

  • Peer-reviewed publications and citations of research

  • Presentations at national and international meeting

  • Competitive funding from outside NZP

  • Involvement in professional societies and service on journal editorial boards

  • Appointments to committees and panels related to science and conservation issues

  • Paticipation in conservation and policy discussions with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations

  • Participation in outreach programs and activities in local communities, in international community field programs, on the Internet, and through nationally and internationally distributed film documentaries

  • Contributions to zoo education programs and exhibits

  • Participation in media activity (e.g., television, radio, and newspaper interviews)

  • Students and fellows trained for careers in environmental science and science education

We can sustain long-term field studies because we are not tied to teaching commitments or agency funding cycles. However, because the Smithsonian is federally funded, the money we receive depends on allocations made by Congress; accordingly, we are dependent upon decisions made by our representatives as to the amount of money assigned for research. Recently, there was an effort to close the world-renowned Conservation and Research Center. Thanks to massive public outcry, the center was spared. However, there is a continuing need to educate people about the importance of research if research at the NZP is to continue. Zoo researchers do not have a system akin to tenure; they are federal employees, and in the wake of the cutbacks in federal positions, it is difficult to find research jobs at the NZP; however, the situation may be different at privately funded zoos.

Training for a Career in Zoology

At the zoo, our group is very active with several undergraduate students, most of whom are funded through zoo or Smithsonian internships (see recent GrantsNet articles on Smithsonian Fellowships and on what it is like to be a fellow). The students work under our direct supervision on research projects dealing with the population genetics of birds and mammals, learning new and valuable molecular genetic techniques and how to score and analyze the data obtained. We also encourage our students to present the results of their findings in local and national annual conferences. Students also participate in weekly lab meetings and journal club discussions. Our program is designed to provide guidance to students for the skills necessary to pursue academic careers and graduate education. We hope that with this training students will obtain a broader view of the field of evolutionary biology and its applications to conservation biology and wildlife management. We also advise graduate and postdoctoral fellows that come through Smithsonian Institution fellowship programs or actively seek them through other means and obtain funding to support their work.

How did I become a researcher at the NZP? Because the main purpose of my position as a research geneticist at the zoo was to develop and conduct theoretical and applied research in my area of expertise, I needed to have a Ph.D. and research experience in population genetics and molecular systematics of mammals with a strong emphasis on genetic techniques applied to conservation of threatened and endangered mammals. In addition, my position called for efforts to coordinate a program to train and advise Latino students in conducting research and science outreach, and to assist in developing and conducting science outreach activities at the Smithsonian.

Based on my past experience as a graduate student science mentor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I had been successful in motivating minority students to become interested in science. Acting as a mentor gave me the invaluable experience of advising Latino undergraduate students on campus. But the pool of Latino students at UCLA enrolled in the natural sciences was very limited, and I realized that the main challenge was not at the college level but earlier on. Accordingly, I volunteered at the Los Angeles County Museum's Research Apprenticeship Program, which catered to minority students from inner-city high schools. These types of experiences proved very successful and helped me develop similar programs at the NZP.

Educational Outreach

The number of Latino students who lack access to higher education is growing every year; therefore the number of Latinos pursuing advanced degrees and obtaining faculty and research positions in the natural sciences is very small. I believe there is a vital need to encourage Latino students to pursue the advanced science degrees necessary for careers in research and teaching, at all levels. One of the main solutions to this problem is getting young Latino students motivated, interested, and excited about the natural sciences, and the NZP is the perfect setting to accomplish this goal. The zoo is an attractive place for people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds and offers many opportunities for stimulating interest in science.

As a Latino researcher, I am well aware of the problems that minority students face in trying to pursue careers in the sciences. I am dedicated to helping minority students succeed in their career objectives and continue to work toward that end by serving as coordinator for the NZP's Latino Initiative Program to enhance professional opportunities in science. Our program is designed to provide guidance to underrepresented students in obtaining the skills necessary to pursue academic careers and postgraduate education. In addition, for the last 2 years, we have been working with the local Latino community to establish an innovative educational program that utilizes the NZP's resources in science education programs for children. We have established a partnership with the Latin American Youth Center and the Community Science Workshop in California to develop a site here in our community, which will be called The Columbia Heights Community Science Workshop. We feel that through this project we can open up the science resources of the Smithsonian to minority children in a neighborhood community. This can be accomplished in a way that will not only enhance the youths' scientific literacy, but also will improve their way of life and make a positive contribution to community development.

In addition to community outreach, we have scientific outreach in situ at the zoo, in the form of the Amazonia Science Gallery, an experimental science education-outreach center that provides visitors informal opportunities to learn about scientific research by exhibiting working labs; it also creates links to promote biological science education and career development in local communities. At the gallery, we aim to do more than unearth the molecular basis of species survival. By putting some of the wonders of nature on display in the Science Gallery, we hope to both fascinate and educate zoo visitors. One of our goals in the Science Gallery is to help kindle an interest in science and to keep the fires burning so that people will continue to understand and appreciate nature.

The Future of Research at the National Zoo

I feel that one of the most important missions of the NZP as part of the Smithsonian Institution is to conduct research and to educate the public about wildlife conservation. Arguably, our research is what sets us apart from other zoos, as we are leaders in conservation studies. The research that we do is important, interesting, and has a major impact on ecosystems in many parts of the world. During the next few years, we will see a major reorganization of the science units of the NZP and the Smithsonian in general, and this will no doubt have an impact on our research programs. Only time will tell if conservation research will be a priority for the National Zoo.

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