Women of STEM

A profile series highlighting women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Anna Czupryna, Serengeti Health Initiative Coordinator and PhD Candidate

Anna Czupryna, Serengeti Health Initiative Coordinator and PhD Candidate

Anna Czupryna, Serengeti Health Initiative Coordinator at Lincoln Park Zoo and PhD Candidate at University of Illinois at Chicago

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What do you do? 

I coordinate the Serengeti Health Initiative, which is a project in Tanzania (in East Africa) that is lead by the Lincoln Park Zoo. The Serengeti Health Initiative vaccinates domestic dogs in villages that are near Serengeti National Park to prevent diseases such as rabies and distemper from spreading into the park and infecting wildlife such as lions, hyenas, and African wild dogs.

What does a day in the life look like for your job?

It really depends on whether or not I am in Chicago or in Tanzania.

Chicago- I usually report to my cubicle at the Lincoln Park Zoo and spend my days organizing logistics, writing up reports, and managing our budget. I often have phone or Skype conference calls with the team in Tanzania to ensure that things are running smoothly. I also get to interact with various school and camp groups and talk to students about working in Tanzania.

Tanzania- a variety of field work, paperwork and meetings. I usually go to some of our vaccination points and help the team vaccinate dogs. This can involve driving anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour over bumpy roads, setting up our vaccination point in the middle of a village, and vaccinating anywhere from 100 to 800 dogs, and then heading back to town for the night to repeat again the next day.

We are also walk house to house to collect data about whether there have been rabies cases recently, how many dogs are owned per household, and why people own dogs.

We also meet with local stakeholders such as wildlife officials, other researchers, and village leaders to share information about our work and discuss any issues.

What is the coolest part of your job? 

I love working in the villages, meeting new people and dogs, and constantly learning. I like learning about dog life in a very different context than that of the pet dogs we’re used to here in the US. I find that even though the dogs we work with in Tanzania are working dogs, people do have interesting stories about them, tricks that they teach them, and that they are considered an important part of the family, just like dogs here.

I enjoy traveling in general and learning about different cultures and learning different languages, which is very appropriate as there are over 100 different tribes and dialects in Tanzania.

Finally, I love being able to visit Serengeti National Park and see the amazing wildlife that we are protecting with the vaccination project.

How did you become interested in your field?

I always wanted to work with animals, and initially wanted to become a veterinarian, and worked for many years as a veterinary assistant during high school and college. I later taught high school biology and chemistry, and realized that while I loved teaching about conservation and science, I wanted to be the scientist. I started volunteering at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2007 as an education docent and later worked as a research intern in Conservation and Science, which is when I decided that I wanted to conduct my own research. I fell in love with Tanzania in 2009 when I traveled to the Serengeti to collaborate with the Serengeti Health Initiative team to begin planning my research. I was hired as the coordinator for the Serengeti Health Initiative in 2012 and am currently writing up my dog research for my PhD.

How did you get interested in science?

I liked learning about living things and science in general. I liked hands-on experiments (loved dissecting things!) and anything that involved nature. I think participating in science fair, and not only being able to design and run my own experiment, but also to share my results and learn about other research really inspired me.

If I can do things hands-on, I learn better that way, I feel more productive, and enjoy that kind of work more. So for me, science classes, especially if we were doing hands-on stuff, were always way more fun than just sitting in a lecture in English class or history class. So that’s a big part of it for me, but I also just like learning about how things work, and then being able to design my own experiments, and play around with things and investigate stuff.

What kind of science projects did you do in middle school? 

I did science fair in 6th/7th/8th grade, in freshman and sophomore year, and I think junior year of high school too. I also really like the social aspect of things like science fair or conferences. I like being able to share my data, but I also like hearing about the other types of research going on. I liked doing science fair not just for my own research and making my own poster, but also I loved going to science fair as in walking around and looking at the other science boards and talking to people. I enjoyed that aspect a lot.

Does what you are doing now relate to what you were interested in, as a child? How?

Yeah, with what I do in Serengeti, it’s an applied type of science. We are applying what we know about disease management to an actual living environment. So, we’re vaccinating the dogs, and we can see the results in less rabies and distemper cases than what there were before.

In terms of me just being interested in animals, it 100% relates, because I’m working with domestic dogs, we’re also directly working with wildlife, and I get my social aspect fix when we’re constantly in meetings, talking with villagers, talking with project partners, the wildlife officials, and rangers.

I also always loved teaching. When I was a kid, I either wanted to become a veterinarian or I wanted to become a teacher. One of the big things that I want to start doing is to start doing some conservation education in some of these village schools as well. So I think it definitely relates to a lot- I feel like I’m starting to finally come full circle.

What kinds of challenges did you overcome or face to get to where you are now?

Trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do, or actually understanding that I didn’t need to know exactly what I wanted to do and that I could try some different things to figure it out.

Growing up, if you wanted to be in science, you were going to be a doctor, or work with animals and be a veterinarian. Back when I was growing up, I didn’t have access to what were the different STEM fields out there. So, actually traveling, and when I did my study abroad later, and when I started interning at the zoo, and learning about all the different projects in conservation and science and meeting people, I realized “oh you can actually do this stuff and it’s not just the stuff of movies.”

What’s been really frustrating for me is when applying for research funding, or when I first graduated and wanted to start working at the zoo, I didn’t really have a lot of internship or volunteer experiences when I was growing up, because I always had a part-time job. One way that we could increase diversity in science, not just with women but also across different cultures, is understanding that’s a lot of students out there that are unfortunately not able to volunteer, not for lack of want, but that they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and that really holds back a lot of people.

Jennifer Hawkins, Brewer and Co-Owner of Tomoka Brewing Company

Jennifer Hawkins, Brewer and Co-Owner of Tomoka Brewing Company

Christa Chatfield, Assistant Professor of Biology

Christa Chatfield, Assistant Professor of Biology