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OSP Scholar Spotlight: Daniella E. Chusyd

Daniella Chusyd smiling and posing with Elephants The OSP Scholar Spotlight highlights up-and-coming investigators with distinguishable research.

Ms. Daniella Chusyd recently presented her research update to the members of the NIA Task Force on Minority Aging and Health Disparities. Ms. Chusyd responded to the following questions about her educational profile and research:

What is your professional/educational background?

“I received my Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Florida, and shortly after I graduated, I moved to Israel. At the time, I wanted to either work for the government or go into science. There was really only one Master’s program taught in English that pertained to my career goals, and it was in government, specializing in counter terrorism and homeland security. Towards the end of my studies, I received a conditional job offer with the U.S. State Department to be a Special Agent. It did not work out, which in hindsight is the best thing that could have happened. Instead, I pursued my PhD and I love the research I am doing and where it may take me.”

How were you drawn into your research with elephants?

“Several months before starting my PhD at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, I was involved in a research study in Tanzania. Elephants in range countries often eat farmers’ crops, and so the interaction between individuals living close to the national parks and wildlife is often negative. The study focused on deterring elephants from eating farmers’ crops using different fencing techniques, while also taking local villagers into a national park to show them other perspectives on wildlife. This experience really stuck with me.

About a year into my PhD, working with traditional animal models, I realized the potential elephants may have in addressing human health issues. Elephants have a similar lifespan to humans, have complex social relationships, and exhibit some health concerns we see with humans. I wondered then, if this was a model, for certain questions, that could provide more information than the traditional animal model.”

What was your greatest challenge in pursuing your research?

“Selling the idea of using elephants to my department. Two of my mentors, Drs. Tim Nagy and David Allison, supported this idea from the beginning, but they were probably the exception. The idea of using elephants was crazy to some. No one at UAB had experience with working with elephants, so there was a concern about who would train me properly and effectively, and using elephants is distinctly outside the norm of what our university and department does. But slowly people came around. My research aligns with the interest of our department and the university, just instead of using humans or rodents, I work with elephants. Securing a couple grants also made things much easier.”

What are your future plans for your research?

“I am towards the end of my PhD, so I am focused on continuing to develop as an independent scientist and expanding my skills. I continue to see the value in elephant research. In addition to helping us better understand both human and elephant health, it creates opportunities to have the conversation about elephants and their current situation in range countries.  It is estimated that 96 elephants are poached for their ivory every day. When I speak about my research, it is one more chance I can convince people that we need to step-up and help elephants— just like elephants, through science, are helping us.”