Meet our scientists: Gabriela Peniche

Gabriela Peniche worked as a Pathology Technician at ZSL's Institute of Zoology (IoZ). She talks us through her career with the institute, from weighing dormice to bedding down with ants. 

Gabriela Peniche screening smooth snakes in the wild
Gaby screening smooth snakes in the wild.

What’s your job?

I've worked and studied in a number of different roles at the Institute of Zoology (IoZ), most recently in the Disease Risk Analysis and Health Surveillance team as a Pathology Technician. I was involved in reintroductions of native endangered species such as the red kite, common dormouse, eurasian crane, short hair bumblebee, pool frog, fen raft spider, and many more amazing species which should roam around the UK in larger numbers but for one reason or another their numbers are not that high.

What kind of things have you worked on as part of your role at ZSL?

To find out what is affecting wild populations and to see how individuals do after we release them into the wild we go to the field in search of them, but we also do post-mortem examinations find out the reasons of death and see if anything may be affecting the rest of the population.

Part of my job every year was to look after the group of dormice destined for release. Look after their diet, their weight and in general their health ensuring that they are healthy and clean of parasites before they are released into the wild. This would give them a better chance of survival and ensure that free-living populations remain free of parasites acquired in captivity.

Dormouse (c) Gabriela Peniche
Common dormouse ready for release.

I have recently started collaborating with members of the Smart Earth Network team. They are a group of very bright technology minds with their heart set in conservation. They are organising a framework for conservationists, technologists and entrepreneurs to collaborate, fund and develop radio tracking solutions to apply to our conservation projects.

Some of the species I work with are not as cuddly as others, but all still majestic!

Common adder (c) Gabriela Peniche
Common adder.

What made you want to be a scientist?

If I had to choose only one good thing about science I would say: science has given me the chance to be paid for visiting and preserving beautiful places and work for some of the most endangered species in the planet.  

How did you get into your job at ZSL?

In September 2006 I joined the IoZ to do an MSc in Wild Animal Biology in conjunction with the Royal Veterinary College.  

For my final research project I was involved in the reintroduction of one of the most endangered invertebrates in the UK: the red barbed ant. Later on I stayed at the institute to lend a hand looking at the genetics of the red barbed. I had no idea had to even hold a pipette in the lab, but after a few months of extracting ant DNA,  I ended up finding out what population of red barbed ants outside of the UK was more closely related to the British one, and could work as a supplier population to top up the British one.  

What’s the best thing about being a scientist?

There are so many questions to ask, so many places to visit, so many species that would benefit from a helping hand and so many people willing to guide you in the right direction if you ask the right questions and work hard.  

For the last nine years I have got used to being surrounded by some of the brightest and most down to earth, top of the notch scientists in the world. 

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do at work? 

I shared a tent with some ant queen pupae for a week, before they were transported by helicopter to ZSL (I was brought back by train!) The pupae were grown at the zoo, isolated from other ants and exotic diseases and then released into the wild in the UK.

What opportunities has working for the Institute of Zoology given you?

IoZ has given me the platform, knowledge and expertise to continue my conservation career. This time the path takes me up into the Scottish Highlands! I have now moved on to a PhD on the ecology and pathology of Scottish raptors. It was an honour to work at IoZ and I am very grateful for everything I learnt here. I will miss the friendly smiles, chats and jokes of the IoZ corridors!

Postgraduate study with IoZ