North Riverside resident, RBHS graduate and Brookfield Zoo animal care specialist Racquel Ardisana tracks behavioral data on Przewalski's horses in Mongolia during summer 2019 as part of her Project Dragonfly research. (PROVIDED)

Despite growing up amid the quaintness of Riverside — a suburb nestled only miles from the hustle and bustle of one of the nation’s largest and busiest cities — nothing fascinated teenage Racquel Ardisana more than exotic animals, global environments and nature conservation.

Luckily for Ardisana, Riverside was also only a stone’s throw away from the Brookfield Zoo — a place lauded as a world leader for conservation, research and a collection of more than 2,000 mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and natural spaces.

While a student at Riverside-Brookfield High School, Ardisana spent much of her free time with the zoo’s youth volunteer corps, shadowing zookeepers, assisting with animal habitats and even getting to do a research project with the dolphins.

After graduating from RBHS in 2006, she headed to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where her work at both Brookfield Zoo and later, Shedd Aquarium, inspired her to go into marine biology. 

However, soon after graduating with her degree in integrative biology, Ardisana had a change of heart about wanting to move far from home, her family and her beloved Brookfield Zoo.

“Growing up so close to the Brookfield Zoo is why this all kind of started,” she said. “Since we lived so close, we could pop over there all the time, and we did. I just fell in love with animals and conservation, and that’s why I wanted to make it my career.”

Right after college, Ardisana began working full time at the zoo, where she recently celebrated her 10-year anniversary. She is a senior animal care specialist, exclusively working at the zoo’s Habitat Africa and its giraffes, African painted dogs and Mexican gray wolves.

But, while Ardisana cherished her role at the zoo, she knew she needed to do something more to broaden her knowledge of both the animal kingdom and global community.

Three years ago, she applied for a graduate program through Ohio’s Miami University, where she landed a spot in the university’s Project Dragonfly — a master’s degree program and conservation initiative with the goal of connecting students with conservationists around the world to launch conservation campaigns to encourage positive ecological and social change.

With field courses taking place in 15 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, Ardisana was guaranteed to broaden her influence and learn more about preserving nature and animal habitats.

As it turns out, Ardisana isn’t the only RBHS graduate in the program. Chelsea Vabro, a 2010 graduate, has been involved in the program’s “Earth Expeditions: Connected Conservation” student team which has worked together to help support the ongoing work of India partner, Applied Environmental Research Foundation — a registered non-governmental organization based in Pune, India.

The Applied Environmental Research Foundation works through five programs in two biodiversity hotspots in India, with the aim of addressing the biological diversity loss of regions by building sustainable development models.

Though working back home in Chicago this summer, Vabro has continued to work toward biodiversity conservation at a grassroots level with her student colleagues, collaborating on a pangolin-focused campaign for the India organization.

Outside of her studies, Vabro works as an assistant lead keeper of the primate house at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Each of Ardisana’s three summers involved in Project Dragonfly have involved a trip into the field to connect with various conservation biologists.

During her first summer, Ardisana studied desert ecology and marine biology in Baja California. During summer number two, she jetted off to Mongolia to study the ecology of steppe ecosystems and civic media. 

While there, she worked with Mongolian students to create a podcast to spread the word about conservation and worked alongside the group of Mongolian students to study the behavior of Przewalski’s horses, a species which was extinct in the wild until zoos began breeding them and successfully reintroducing them in the Mongolian wild in the 1990s.

But unfortunately, just as Ardisana was about to embark on her final summer with Project Dragonfly, COVID-19 struck. Not being able to travel to Kenya to study large mammal ecology, Ardisana instead worked alongside her fellow students and professors at Miami University to put together a new plan of action to allow students to continue their conservation efforts and still graduate on time.

The team developed a course called “Earth Expeditions: Connected Conservation,” an alternative to the typical summer program, allowing virtual connection with partner groups and field partners around the world. One of Ardisana’s options was connection in Mongolia, where luckily, she had already done a huge amount of field work in summer 2019.

With the team, Ardisana worked to support ongoing work with Project Dragonfly’s Mongolia partner, IRBIS Mongolian Center, initiating a forest field study of Pallas’s cats. 

In addition, the team created a wildlife learning guide and activity book for children ages 10-14, with the goal of encouraging them to get outside in their own backyard and strengthen their connections with nature and learning about their home and animals of Mongolia.

To graduate in December, Ardisana also had to complete a capstone project, encompassing two-and-a-half years’ worth of papers and research projects from her various works with Project Dragonfly and culminating in the creation of a master portfolio which has allowed her to reflect on her successes in her global outreach communities and how it has influenced her personal educational journey.

“I really wanted to look for good ways to connect people with wildlife and conservation when they’re at the zoo,” she said. “Through the research I’ve done with Project Dragonfly, I know that zoos are good places to connect people with wildlife, especially as we have less natural spaces outside for our kids to do that growing up. 

“I think it’s really important now for people to want to do that, because if people fall in love with nature, they’re more likely to be more interested in conserving it and then we can have a more sustainable future.”

Ardisana, who now lives in North Riverside, hopes to stay at Brookfield Zoo and grow into more of a curatorial role to have a say in the next steps the zoo takes in conservation efforts.

“I want to make sure I get those stories out to people when I’m doing public chats and public programming,” she said.

As for advice for local youth who, like herself, were constantly curious with the animal world?

Get outside and explore nature.

“Don’t lose your sense of wonder and keep asking questions about the world around you and investigating answers,” she said. “Anybody can be a researcher and a conservationist and a scientist, and that’s what Project Dragonfly really taught me. It’s made me question the natural world around me again, and I think that’s how we become good, informed citizens who make strong choices for the environment.”