Budhan (Buddha) Pukazhenthi
Research Physiologist- Ungulates
Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute
Year zoo career began:
Perseverance and hard work = success. Don’t allow anything stop you!
Buddha currently serves as a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA where he leads conservation and research programs focused on rare and endangered ungulates. Currently, he directs reproductive research on diverse species including the Przewalski’s horse, Persian onager, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, Grevy’s zebra, Scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelle, and Eld’s deer. Buddha also conducts health and reproductive research on the critically endangered black rhinoceros and all four species of tapirs. Research priorities include developing assisted reproductive technologies, genomic tools for metapopulation management, and facilitating conservation of animals in the wild. He works closely with species management groups, veterinarians, animal managers and researchers to identify highest priority research needs and collaboratively develops solutions.
Growing up in India, Buddha did not have pets nor was he exposed to too many of them. He developed a passion for wildlife by reading the National Geographic magazine and watching re-runs of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau’s shows on television. In India, parents typically expect their children to become an engineer or doctor. But Buddha had other plans. He joined the Madras Veterinary College to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. Unfortunately, those days veterinarians were not regarded highly in society. That did not deter Buddha from following his passion. While in veterinary school, he became interested in the study of reproductive biology and quickly focused on pursuing a career in wildlife reproduction. This was unheard of in India those days. There were no role models to emulate. He researched various programs around the world and set his sight on the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Reproductive Sciences program. This meant migrating to the United States (traveling for the first time in an airplane) on a scholarship to the University of Maryland’s Department of Animal Sciences. He studied biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology and conducted laboratory research.
During this time, he repeatedly met with lead scientists at the National Zoo – Drs. David E. Wildt and JoGayle Howard and a senior graduate student, Annie Donoghue. After almost two years of trying to convince Dr. Wildt for an opportunity to pursue training under him, the door finally cracked open in 1992. Buddha started his doctoral research under the mentorship of Drs. Howard and Wildt. Buddha’s dissertation research focused on understanding the cellular mechanisms involved in compromised fertility in rare and endangered felids. Following graduation (1996), Buddha continued a post-doctoral fellowship for two years and was awarded a prestigious Special Emphasis Research Career Award (1998) from the National Institutes of Health to improve sperm freezing in felids. Then in 2003, Buddha was hired by the Smithsonian Institution as a Cryobiologist. After four years in that position, Buddha transitioned to his current position – Research Physiologist (Ungulates).
The accomplishments described above were not easy. Being an immigrant, Buddha had to figure out how to become a permanent resident and then a US citizen. These steps were critical for a job with the Smithsonian Institution. Buddha’s career progression was facilitated by numerous people (family, professional colleagues, and friends) who encouraged him to shoot for the stars. His mentors were instrumental in helping Buddha make the right decisions and expand his professional network.
In 1992, Buddha was only the third person of color in the science community at the Smithsonian National Zoo. But early on he realized that hard work, dedication, and being respectful will never go unnoticed or rewarded. Buddha is a proponent of these core values. He is passionate about opening the doors for anyone interested in zoo careers including minorities, poor, and the underserved. Buddha believes that there is no substitute for hard work.
For anyone dreaming of a career in the zoo industry, Buddha recommends that you research all opportunities that are out there. When possible participate or accept volunteer or training opportunities or entry level positions. The zoo industry relies heavily on networking. For instance, if you have volunteered at a zoo, and a job becomes available, your past performance and interactions with staff would help. Make the most of any opportunity that is presented to you. Career opportunities in zoos are extremely competitive and hence commit to work hard. Don’t hesitate to reach out to people who are already working in that institution and learn more about the institution and job opportunities.
To close, I commend you for having taken the first and most important step – being part of AMZP. Engage with members and seek input. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot be a zoo professional. Follow your dream. Shoot for the stars.