From military analysis to conservation

U.S. Marine transitions from safeguarding the country to protecting animals.

Katharina Soto

Katharina Soto spent five years in the Marines as an intelligence analyst. Stationed at various posts around the world, she provided the research and analysis required for her commander to make decisions on the battlefield.

As a sergeant she trained junior Marines to conduct intelligence on enemy location, weapons, tactics and procedures, but admits to feeling intimidated when she became a Towson University college freshman.

“I hadn’t been to school in five years,” she says. “I was starting college at 23” and embarking on an entirely new field — biology

Originally, she pursued pre-vet studies. “I love animals,” she explains. But after spending a summer at Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa, Soto switched to the ecology, evolution and conservation concentration track.

She immediately hit her stride working with adviser Richard Seigel, professor of biology. “Dr. Seigel pushed me to learn different things — not to stay in one box,” she says.

She joined his group of students and researchers who have helped preserve the Northern Map Turtle after the endangered species was discovered around 2008 in Port Deposit, Maryland. Involved in public outreach, Soto educated the public about the turtles and their reticent habits.  

“I had the opportunity to teach people about how conservation efforts make it safer for the endangered turtles,” she notes.

After that internship, Soto became an unstoppable conservation advocate, working at the National Aquarium in Baltimore telling guests “why it's our job to keep the oceans clean and the animals that call it home safe.” She also mentored TU students in biology. Only the coronavirus stopped her work and halted a volunteer effort at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore as well as research on box turtles in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Even a pandemic, however, cannot dampen her enthusiasm for conservation or an advanced degree. In her senior year, Soto worked as a lab assistant for biology professor Chris Salice, studying the ecotoxicology of brown anoles as part of a Department of Defense research project. 

Soto is now in the Ph.D program (Fischer lab) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Her research interests are the conservation, evolutionary ecology, and behavioral adaptations of reptiles and amphibians, with specific attention to understanding the behavioral adaptions of the invasive common Coquí Frog. 

Among her accomplishments so far, she was awarded a UIUC Graduate College Master’s Fellowship ($20,000), a IUC Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (PEEC) Summer Research Grant ($2,000), a UIUC PEEC Summer Research Assistantship ($5,100) and a Graduate Student Research Grant by the Animal Behavior Society ($2,000). Additionally, she received an Honorable Mention from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program.

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