Conservation & Science Staff Bios

Michelle L. Rafacz, Ph.D.

  Adjunct Scientist
Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology


  • Ph.D.- Committee on Evolutionary Biology, University of Chicago
  • M.S. - Biology, Loyola University Chicago
  • B.S. - Biology/Environmental Studies, Knox College

Areas of Expertise

  • Behavioral endocrinology
  • Evolutionary biology of reproduction and parental care
  • Animal behavior, learning and memory
  • Environmental enrichment and animal welfare
  • Behavioral ecology

About Michelle Rafacz:

Michelle first became interested in animal behavior as a child observing birds and squirrels foraging in her backyard. In 1998, when she became an undergraduate student at Knox College, she realized she could make a career of studying animal behavior. Michelle has studied many species in diverse research settings, including a field-research project that examined the foraging ecology and movement patterns of mantled howler monkeys in Costa Rica that involved collaboration with in situ conservation biologists.

Michelle has also studied animal behavior in a laboratory setting, including an investigation of social-information use in wild-caught starlings and research examining the effect of environmental enrichment and prior foraging experience on spatial memory and foraging success of laboratory rats.

Michelle began her doctoral dissertation research at the University of Chicago under the direction of Sue Margulis, Ph.D., during which she studied various aspects of reproduction and parental care in gibbons and siamangs at Lincoln Park Zoo and other Association of Zoos and Aquariums–accredited institutions.

It wasn’t until after she met Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., director of the zoo’s Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology, that Michelle realized the importance of a more holistic approach to understanding behavior. She recognized that the study of hormones in concert with behavior resulted in a more complete understanding of the whole animal—something that is critically important for animal welfare and species conservation.

Michelle is currently investigating the role of biologically meaningful odor cues in social behavior and stress in African wild dogs and the role of male characteristics in female mate-choice and breeding success in the non-wild population of black-footed ferrets.

In her current position as Assistant Professor of Biology at Columbia College Chicago, Michelle teaches courses such as Animal Behavior, Environmental Science, and the Evolution of Sex, while maintaining active research at the zoo.


Rafacz, M. and R. Santymire. 2014. Using odor cues to elicit a behavioral and hormonal response in zoo-housed African wild dogs. Zoo Biology 33:144-149.

Rafacz, M., S. Margulis, and R. Santymire. 2012. Hormonal Correlates of Paternal Care in Three Hylobatid Species. American Journal of Primatology 74(3): 247-260.

Rafacz, M., Margulis, S., and Santymire, R. 2009. Comparing the role of androgens in paternal care between gibbon species. Gibbon Journal 5: 74-80.

Margulis, S.W., Rafacz, M. and Jacobs, B. 2006. The effectiveness of environmental enrichment: Lessons learned and rules of thumb. Proceedings of the 2005 International Conference on Environmental Enrichment, Columbia University, New York.