Bioscience Careers

May 17, 2021

RECAP: Alejandro Grajal, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Woodland Park Zoo

Blog post written by Louisa Helms.

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Alejandro Grajal has a PhD in Zoology and is the CEO of the Woodland Park Zoo. He manages 350 employees, 700 volunteers, and a $45 million dollar budget. He credits his 5 rules for navigating a professional career path for getting him to this dream job at the Woodland Park Zoo: 

1. Remain flexible, adaptable, and curious 

2. Never abandon your scientific interests 

3. Learn how to sell your ideas; fundraising is vital to success 

4. Being a professional hybrid is better than being a single specialist 

5. Work really hard

Alejandro is a prime example of being an intellectual chameleon: he is extremely passionate about evolutionary biology and organismal interactions, but was also broadly interested in how humans contribute to ecological problems. During his PhD, he applied for funding each year allowing him to study marketing even though he had an evolutionary ecology thesis. He joined the New York Wildlife Conservation Society and ran a Latin American program with 80 PhD scientists. Through this work he learned vital management skills which then led him to working for the National Audubon Society, and eventually at the Woodland Park Zoo. He credits his PhD with making him a successful businessman because the PhD taught him how to think at a higher level, to find the answers to your own questions, and to treat everything as a team sport. He always remains humble and learns to understand people’s perspectives and points of view to create a team that functions cohesively. 

While he says that he uses his PhD every day, his actual time thinking about science has shifted to focus more about behavioral research and conservation psychology. He is actively focused on how people react to different instruments of behavioral engagement because a large part of his job is focused on fundraising. The non-profit sector relies on fundraising, which has given him a skillset to marry unique scientific perspectives into a crisp deliverable package that conveys passion which then translates into gifts from donors. As a CEO, his life is extremely fast-paced, nights and weekends are always working, and travelling is a major component of his work. He says that his family time is precious, and without a balance and understanding from your family, it is easy to burn out. 

While not everyone can be a CEO, there is a great job market in the non-profit sector. Genomic sequencing has revolutionized how museums, zoos, and botanic gardens operate. Specifically, zoos want to know how to manage very small populations and keep genetic variations in place. Grant writing is vital to the success of non-profits and fundraising for institutions is a career in itself. If you are passionate about the cause, then you will find a way to stay involved. 

And most importantly: Alejandro has multiple favorite animals, but it is currently the gorilla.