Dr. Vivian Paez, winner of the 2013 Sabin Turtle Conservation Prize (Courtesy Dr. Vivian Paez)

Latina Leaders: Dedicating her expertise to animal conservation

After dedicating nearly 30 years to researching and conserving tortoises and freshwater turtles, today, Dr. Vivian Paez is the recipient of the 2013 Sabin Turtle Conservation Prize.

“I am very honored — this is totally unexpected,” says Dr. Paez, 49, from her native Colombia, explaining why she has dedicated her scientific career to this endeavor.

“These turtles only live in northern Colombia, and it worries me because they don’t have any protected area at all,” says Dr. Paez, who currently teaches at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin.  “The land has been highly exploited by ranching and agriculture and hydroelectrics.”

In the last 10 years she’s been doing research in Colombia, Dr. Paez says she has finally learned what is needed to save them, and her $20,000 prize will help.

The accomplished scientist remembers when she was 21 and traveled abroad for the first time with a grant fellowship to study iguanas at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. This is also where she met her husband, an expert in iguana research.

“The places I had to visit to take data were also used for turtles to nest, and basically it was love at first sight,” says Dr. Paez about the first time she laid eyes on her favorite research subject. “I realized they had many conservation issues, so I decided to spend the rest of my life trying to conserve them.”

 At 23, she moved to Athens, Ohio to earn her PhD at Ohio University. As a newly appointed doctor, she moved to the Amazon for three years on the border of Colombia and Brazil. Since she’s been back in Colombia, she says it’s been very busy but very satisfying.

“A lot of my students are now doctors and professors themselves — they are like my sons and daughters academically,” says Dr. Paez, who has one biological daughter who is 12. “She was born in in Medellín, but we try to go to the states as often as we can so she knows her family there. She has two worlds and is a hybrid between two cultures.”

When Dr. Paez is in Medellín teaching, she says she has to wake up very early to put her daughter on the school bus, and then goes to the university to teach and research.

“When we have to go to the field, we are in wetlands, living in tents, living in water and boats. working in swamps and rivers,” she explains. “I do fieldwork one or two months of the year — the rest of the time I’m in the city teaching, but we travel a lot within the country.”

During the next 10 years, the Latina scientist says she wants to devote her time to saving the species in the protected area.  She also says she would like to donate money to undergraduates who study amphibians and reptiles. “They have to do research projects in order to graduate, and many times they don’t have money to go to the field to study the animal they wish. I want to support young conservationists.”

Although she says she still can’t believe she was chosen as a leader in turtle conservation, an occupation which is much more than just a job for her, Dr. Paez says she wants young Latinas to know there is no limit to what you can accomplish.

“It takes a lot of work, and you have to be willing to work hard and spend a lot of time working instead of other entertaining options in life,” she says. “I don’t think there is a disadvantage if you are a woman or Latina. I don’t consider myself a very smart or intelligent person, but I work hard and don’t give up.”

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