Nadya holding a male black-footed ferret recovering from anesthesia

Nadya Ali's research promotes the recovery of endangered species

Her work could impact recovery efforts for endangered mammals worldwide

Spotlight written by Jordan Greer

Nadya Ali is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. Her research aims to promote the continued recovery of endangered species. After graduating from Barnard College (2013), she spent much of her time focused on social justice—this passion culminated in her documentary film, “Breaking Silence.” At the University of Chicago, she brings that same drive to her research as she investigates strategies to combat infertility in her model species, the critically endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Although she works on a single species, the results of her research could impact recovery efforts for endangered mammals across the globe.

With the support of her advisor, Dr. Rachel Santymire, Nadya works to develop approaches to overcome the high levels of male black-footed ferret infertility that have emerged within captive populations. She investigates how factors of captivity, such as diet, may lead to ferret infertility through sperm DNA damage. Additionally, Nadya is developing an assay to screen for the levels of DNA damage present in ferret sperm—the results of which could help scientists and managers determine which males would have the best chance of breeding successfully. Then, she is applying molecular techniques to investigate how gene expression differs between fertile vs. infertile individuals. Taken together, Nadya’s research will contribute to captive M. nigripes management efforts, so that more individuals can be released back into the wild.  

Nadya's research is made possible with support from the Hinds Fund, the University of Chicago Diversity and Inclusion Grant, and the Association of Zoo’s and Aquarium’s Saving Species from Extinction (SAFE) Grant. With their support, she has been able to gather data from various captive breeding sites, including the Colorado National Ferret Conservation Center and Louisville Zoological Gardens. These funds also allow her to spend time collecting samples from M. nigrepes in the wild.

However, in Nadya's view, it’s the people she’s met through the University of Chicago that has made the greatest impact: “CEB attracts a diverse group of people with different expertise and backgrounds, and—in a non-traditional way—it’s trained me to be a more critical thinker and scientist.” Once completed with her dissertation work, Nadya plans to use her newfound skills and connections to continue her fight for social good, both for animal and humankind.