Latina (Mexican, Costa Rican)
Smithsonian's National Zoological Park
Year zoo career began:
Daniela Chavez is a reproductive biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo where she studies eggs cells in domestic house cats to improve artificial reproduction for endangered felids. Daniela’s research uses donated reproductive tracts from spayed and neutered cats to study egg development. Her research is used as a model for artificial reproduction, specifically in vitro fertilization, in felids including cheetahs. Daniela also assists with the zoo’s biobank, where sperm and eggs from over 100 different species of animals are collected and stored using cryopreservation. Occasionally Daniela is part of a team that collects sperm from various animals at the zoo that are undergoing routine health checks, including Andean bears, panda bears and several big cats.
Daniela grew up in Utah near Salt Lake City in a large family. She began her undergraduate studies at Salt Lake Community College in 2006 before transferring to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. After receiving a Bachelor of Science in biology in 2010, Daniela spent some time working in a lab and briefly working for the National Parks Service. In 2011, Daniela began pursuing a PhD at the University of Utah in the Department of Human Genetics, where her studies focused on molecular biology, genetics, and reproductive biology. Daniela found a real love for working in a lab and found that she could “be on a microscope all day long”, where previously she had envisioned herself working in the field. In 2017, after receiving her Ph.D., Daniela wanted a break from the traditional University setting and began exploring possible careers including genetic counseling and working in fertility clinics. She saw a job posting for a reproductive biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and, thinking it was the perfect career, she applied. Daniela was not hired for the job. However, she got in contact with the hiring researcher, explored some options, earned a grant, and was hired for her current position at the zoo in 2018.
Daniela finds that her current position is a perfect fit because it allows her to contribute to animal conservation while continuing her education, working in a lab, and thinking about molecular reproductive biology, which she loves. Daniela’s biggest recommendation to future reproductive biologists is to find and form a strong support group in school. Graduate school was a big adjustment for Daniela, and she struggled to feel as though the belonged in a Ph.D. program at the beginning of her studies. She found a supportive mentor, joined SACNAS, the Society of the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and found a community where she felt comfortable and a network of fellow scientists. Daniela also recommends that future scientists begin reaching out to current scientists and learning about their careers to see what’s out there.