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Professor Natalia Prado Champions Commitment to Groundbreaking Wildlife Research

By Hussein Ali Rifath

For Natalia Prado, a professor in the Biology Department, studying wildlife has been a lifelong concern. It all started when she paid a visit to the Bronx Zoo during her first week in the United States.

“I came from Colombia when I was three years old. That was a culture shock: Columbia to the United States. I was on a farm one day and then on concrete the next; that’s literally how it felt. And so, my mom took us to the zoo to cheer me up; I loved animals,” she recalled.

She soon found herself standing there in awe at the sight of an Asian elephant. This experience was one of many that would later inspire her to embark on a career in animal physiology.

During her undergraduate years, Prado initially intended to become a veterinarian. Her work as a veterinary technician at New York University’s Animal Research Hospital, however, brought her to the world of research.

“My job was to be loaned out to researchers who didn't have students. I got exposed to a lot of research and really, I think, started to appreciate research and the research process,” she said.

Prado first began teaching at George Mason University in Virginia while pursuing graduate studies there. After completing her doctoral and postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia, Prado began teaching at Adelphi during the 2021 school year in hopes of striking a balance between her work and family lives.

Dr. Natalia Prado (center) pictured with some of her research students: (from left) Gabriela Castillo, MS student; Mary Kearney, senior undergraduate; Jennifer Ingenito, MS student; and Aaron Comerford, junior undergraduate.

“As a Hispanic woman, you have family obligations outside of your immediate family,” she said. “I’m expected to take Grandma to the hospital. I'm expected to babysit my nieces. I have obligations. I wanted to find a place that was going to be family-friendly and that would see me as a whole individual; a place where I wouldn't have to check my soul at the door because I walked into work. I wanted to know that I’d be accepted, valued, appreciated and really be able to make a difference for students and for the conservation community that I'm working with. I feel very supported at Adelphi.”

Her favorite experience at Adelphi thus far has been working with her research students. “I've just been really pleasantly surprised with the quality of students at Adelphi,” she said. “The undergrad students are doing graduate level types of data wrangling, analysis and writing because they're that good. I can give them more, and don't have to dumb things down. Watching them build their confidence, skills and competence: that’s so beautiful.”

While most research on animals is done for the benefit of humans, Prado and her team are more concerned with the condition of our wildlife.

“Our research projects are really interesting, especially because they’re about animal conservation. This work can make a difference because we’re working with endangered species, which have a clear impact on the world,” said Aaron Comerford, a junior in the Honors College.

To that end, they have been hard at work studying a diverse range of animals. Senior Mary Kearney, for example, is investigating social stressors to kiwi birds. “I didn’t expect the amount of work that it is,” she said.

Much of the challenge lies in the in-depth statistical analysis her work requires. “Listen, I took statistics in a three-week winter class… I didn’t know statistics. I’ve learned so much more from Dr. Prado than I ever did taking a class,” Kearney said. “Just reach out to her; she’s available all week, 24/7. You can anytime ask her for help and she will always be helping. She’s been great.”

One of the team’s larger projects has been in response to a reproductive crisis in African elephants. They are studying the African elephant genome in an effort to find genetic mutations that affect prolactin production. “Prolactin is a hormone that’s involved with the elephants’ reproductive cycle,” said Ashley Bermudez, a senior in the Honors College.

“We're using a bioinformatics approach, which is kind of like computational biology. We’re looking particularly into elephants that are hyperprolactinemic (which means that they have high prolactin) because they happen to have an issue with reproducing,” said Jennifer Ignetio, a graduate student. “We’re trying to find what's called SNPs—single nucleotide polymorphisms—between them in an effort to obtain more information as to why they're having these reproductive problems, and if the two are correlated. There hasn't been too much research into this approach, especially with elephants. There’s just not a lot of information on this as a whole other than what Dr. Prado and her research team does.”

Prado has helped her team overcome the challenges of entering such novel research with understudied endangered species. There often isn’t a lot of background information to go on, so this research takes a certain amount of faith.

“She’s already done this type of work herself,” said junior Linda Cesark. “A lot of her research has been uncharted territory, so she really takes us under her wing. It’s not that she holds our hand or anything, but she’ll check our work right away and make sure it’s good. Even though we don’t really know what we’re expecting, she’s always there to help us, check us and lead the way. It’s really interesting to see how the work that I’m doing can be published and help further other experiments and research.”

Said Ingenito, “It takes guts to do what she does, because as a biologist, you want more research to work off of and she doesn’t have that. She’s coming up with all this from scratch.”

Prado encourages anyone interested in pursuing similar work to reach out. “Anyone can do science, and science isn't just for someone with a PhD or someone in some ivory tower, it's for all of us. And we can all participate and make contributions,” she said.

“If you’re interested in any type of animal, there’s probably a project Dr. Prado knows about that she can get you on,” added Kearney.


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